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How Not to Return to the Spotlight

Back on tour, Aziz Ansari avoids the hard conversations, helping no one — least of all, himself

Emily J. Smith
Oct 24, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images

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Aziz Ansari is the latest in a string of men re-entering the spotlight after accusations of sexual misconduct forced them to take a breather. And unlike his compatriots, it seems he’s treading lightly. The title of his new tour, “Working Out New Material,” is a hedge — albeit a snarky one, in and of itself. The one thing Ansari does share with the other men poking their way back onto the public stage is that he shows no sign of actual reckoning.

As many will be quick to point out, Ansari’s charges were far less extreme than most. The website Babe.net reported that he repeatedly pressured his then 23-year-old date to have sex. Ansari claimed he was unaware that she was uncomfortable until she told him so the next day, at which point he apologized. What Ansari did was not illegal; if it were, at least half the men I’ve met on Tinder would be in trouble. A man urging a woman to have sex with him is actually pretty common. And that’s why so many took notice.

The Ansari date felt eerily relatable to many women. For me, it was the compliments. If I told a guy “no,” he would lay them on until I felt ridiculous getting in the way of what, to my young ears, sounded like lifelong love. Almost always, I’d never hear from the man again. When I learned to put up a better fight, men employed guilt and anger instead. A man who I considered a good friend made me feel so awful for going back to his apartment and not pleasuring him — how dumb to believe that he might just enjoy my company — that eventually, I did. There are too many of these stories to list, and I don’t have to. Nearly every woman has them.

We tend to focus #MeToo conversations around consent. But what happens when consent is built on a tower of false assumptions? What happens when consent is bullied or coerced? What happens when consent is more a forfeiture than a real desire? That conversation is only getting started.

Sexual norms need to change, and not just by telling women to more forcibly combat unwanted advances.

Some think it’s wrong to ride the coattails of #MeToo with these grey areas, that it dilutes the larger movement. And it’s true that situations in which women could hypothetically escape are not interchangeable with those involving physical force, which are not interchangeable with those that threaten your income in addition to your mind and body. The repercussions of each should be appropriate to the offense. But that doesn’t mean the ripple effects of the movement, these satellite battles, should go ignored.

These grey-area-debates are as messy as they are necessary, and they don’t fall neatly along gender lines. Many women — some feminists whom I deeply respect — think that if we extend #MeToo too far into the grey areas, we are leaning into victimhood, essentially undermining ourselves as women by ignoring our own agency. Their stance appeals to me. Now in my late thirties, I’d be the first to shut down a man like Ansari, and I understand feeling insulted by the implication that I couldn’t.

But the difference between me and the women who write off the Ansari incident as nothing more than a “bad date” is that my current mindset, in which I understand my own needs and am capable of prioritizing them above men’s — in which I could firmly reject Ansari — took me nearly four decades to develop.

While some enviable souls have either the good fortune or Hulk-ean strength to escape the influence of cultural norms, the reality is that many women are still taught to be caretakers of the male ego. We learn at an early age to value ourselves based on our ability to be agreeable, to please others, to silence our anger. To deny that this is still reinforced to young women daily is a privilege of ignorance and convenience. It’s unfair for us to criticize young women for not putting up a fight when, until recently, most culture has rewarded us for doing the opposite.

It’s indeed an unfortunate side effect that the personal lives of figures like Ansari need to be laid bare in order to finally have these conversations. But sexual norms need to change, and not just by telling women to more forcibly combat unwanted advances. I don’t expect or even want men like Ansari to lose their jobs. But it would be nice if they at least reconsidered how they interact with and treat women.

Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Like fellow comedian Louis CK, Ansari has completely avoided talk of his experience in his latest act. Instead, he’s taken to the stage, guns blazing against “woke-ness” — which, pre-scandal, he was a leading participant in — a clear bitterness staining his stance. Instead of attempting to add to this necessary, complicated, and ever-changing conversation, he has chosen to completely ignore it. And that’s unfortunate. Not only for us — because, having built his career dissecting the nuances of “modern love,” he probably would have added a truly valuable perspective — but for him, too, because it’s not going away.

I feel bad for what Ansari endured. He’s just as much a product of our culture as anyone else. The rules are changing underneath him — and all men — in this moment. If I were a man taught to push and take, who am I to say I wouldn’t? In a recent New York Times Op-Ed Michelle Goldberg writes of men, “I feel bad for them. Do they feel bad for women?”

Someone needs to blow the lid on masculinity: not just make it a punchline, but actually interrogate their own relationship to it.

I didn’t want to write Ansari off. But at a time when the conversation around gender and relationships is arguably messier and more urgent than ever, Ansari’s comeback is not only disappointing in its lack of reflection, it’s bad comedy. It feels out of touch, irrelevant, and lacking the thoughtful dissections that drew fans to him in the first place.

A popular question is: How do men thoughtfully return to the public sphere after these scandals? I hoped Ansari would have been eager to take on the challenge of answering it, maybe even redeem his title as an ally — if he still wanted it. But if anything is clear from this post-accusation world, it’s that empathy doesn’t seem to come easy for these guys. Unlike most (not all) women, who apologize so often that we have professional support groups to stop us, their response is not to feel sorry for what their accusers might have been feeling; there’s not an ounce of real self-reflection to be found. Instead, they are furious at being policed. For the first time, we are not care-taking their egos. And I have never seen them so mad.

There was a real opportunity for Ansari to address masculinity head-on. If he offered even a sliver of empathy, an acknowledgment that the “creepy dudes” he once referred to in his bits, are everywhere — so much so that he didn’t even realize he was one of them — maybe it would have struck a chord.

Someone needs to blow the lid on masculinity: not just make it a punchline, but actually interrogate their own relationship to it. If just one man opens up, takes a little accountability, offers the tiniest hint of empathy, it could go a long way. Instead, they cling to the same aggression and anger that got them in trouble in the first place — and that bit is getting old.

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