About a month ago, an article appeared on the website Babe.net, a self-styled publication for "girls who don't give a fuck," detailing a sexually aggressive and deeply disturbing encounter a woman under the pseudonym "Grace" had with Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari. As fellow columnist Zahra Nasser noted soon after in her piece, “Rape Culture and the #MeToo Movement,” Ansari's name became the latest addition to a growing list of men in the entertainment industry accused of sexual misconduct. And like Nasser says, the article and its latent accusations were especially difficult to process and contextualize, given Ansari's reputation as an advocate for female empowerment and male allyship. He was, to me, a role model for what it means to be a decent, self-aware, and "woke" man in the modern age.
It's difficult to reconcile this fumbling, grossly oblivious Aziz with the Aziz I thought I knew—as much as one can know another through scripted television and staged stand-up. I've watched all of his Netflix comedy specials. Master of None is one of the best TV shows I've seen in the last couple of years. In fact, one of my all-time favorite scenes is a wordless three-minute-long shot near the end of the second season of Master of None that centers on Ansari's character Dev, sitting in the backseat of a cab after a date, his face showing so much more than a voice-over ever could. Ansari has built a career partly off his ability to see the rough edges, the sly subtleties of modern romance, and it is so deeply ironic that he is now accused of failing to do exactly that.
As Nasser astutely noted in her column, while both Grace and her story have all been criticized in countless ways from countless perspectives, neither the tabloid-esque quality of the writing nor the potentially ambiguous nature of the allegations should detract from the important discussions that the article has generated and continues to generate. Given all the complexities of consensual sex, experiences like Grace's undoubtedly deserve a seat at the table.
More than anything, I feel that stories like Grace's point toward the importance of enthusiastic consent. But I also believe these stories shed light on the fundamental paradox of a world in which we cannot reconcile the social boundaries and gender roles instilled in us with our voiced support of gender equality and feminism. Throughout our lives, women are taught, either directly or through social cues, to be subservient, to be accommodating, to be nice. And men, at least in my view, are constantly being urged or urging others to not only be strong, powerful, and assertive but also never to show vulnerability or affinity for anything feminine. As fellow columnist Dylan Stafford wrote in his piece entitled “Manhood Without Misogyny,” manhood is so often defined not only by aggression but by a latent objectification and belittling of women. And that sort of dynamic feeds into the kind of power imbalances at the root of sexual violence and the victimization of women.
But for many of us, especially those who have grown up in the more liberal, progressive pockets of the States, our conscious idea of who we should be oftentimes contradicts the things that we’ve been taught and that have inevitably informed who we have become. It was frustrating for me, as well as many other commentators in the immediate aftermath of the Ansari article, that Grace never seemed to think she had agency in the situation. Despite her visible discomfort and Ansari's evident apathy, she never assertively refused him until things really started to get out of hand. She never decided to just get up and leave, not until things escalate much further. Even when she did call the Uber home, Ansari joked that she should use the pseudonym "Essence," and she actually does, under obligation to nothing but Ansari's offhand whims. But it is clear that Grace is well aware of how to think, speak, and reflect on consent— or the lack thereof. She uses the phrase "I don't want to feel forced" when responding to Ansari's sexual advances, she actively attempts to think about why she felt so violated, and she is able to let Ansari know how she felt about the night. Of course, it is also worth noting that, because Ansari is a man of considerable fame, Grace was even more vulnerable: she had to deal not only with the power imbalance between men and women, but also with the privilege that comes from fame itself.
In a piece by Megan Garber than ran in The Atlantic a few days after the Babe article, Garber writes that "much of the immediate backlash against the Ansari story, then, frames Grace as a kind of walking paradox, simultaneously empowered and weak." In a similar vein, Ansari can also be characterized as simultaneously "woke" and subservient to the expectations of toxic masculinity. Indeed, Ansari is at least guilty of performative allyship, if not more, given his public profession of his feminism in order to accumulate some kind of twisted social capital while he continues to benefit from and even contribute to the underlying injustices. But these paradoxes are not limited to these two people in this one tell-all exposé and allyship as a performance is certainly not limited to Aziz Ansari. These are things that many, if not all of us, carry with us everyday.
We live in extraordinarily important, albeit sometimes confusing times. And finding a solution, a way to iron out these contradictions in the fabric of who we are, will require a major cultural shift. It will require us to rethink how we teach men to be men and women to be women and how we impose the gender binary even on people that fall outside of it. It will require us to teach women that their pleasure matters as much as men’s and to teach men that women's pleasure matters too.
Above all, it begins with individual braveries. It begins with the courage to look within ourselves and think critically about what we believe and how we profess it and act on it. For men especially, it begins with the humility to accept criticism and reject the toxic parts of masculinity, the parts that glorify our sexual exploits at the expense of women's well-being. It begins with the fearlessness to call out not only others but also ourselves when it is clear that our allyship is based not on authentic belief but on personal gain. And it begins with our ability to listen and empathize.
Because ultimately, it’s on us.
Lucas Du is a first-year in the College.