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Looking Back At The Case of Aziz Ansari

by Tess Rosenberg

This past July, I opened my Netflix and was, as I often am, bombarded by a movie trailer starting without clicking on it or even summoning it remotely. As I watched snippets of Aziz Ansari’s new comedy special, I thought about how easy it was for me to forget about any scandal or allegations associated with him while he showed off his new sets to a large, loving crowd. Out of the habit formed from my love of stand-up comedy, I swear the thought crossed my mind, “Oh perfect, something to watch tonight” and Grace* — the subject of the viral story which alleges Ansari coerced her into sexual acts —  seemed to feel like some dream even I had forgotten about. 

I didn’t watch the new special that night, but a few days later I read about a quote of Ansari’s: “When I see you guys here, it hits me in a different way… it means the world to me, because I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again, and it almost felt like I died.” The word which I kept tripping over was “died.” Ansari, whose new set was being advertised atop blockbusters and hit shows on my screen page, walked out to a clapping crowd under the spotlight. He sat above a huge room of his paying fans to tell them that he had felt his inability to follow his chosen career path was comparable to death. 

While Ansari’s comedy special generally praises the #MeToo movement, he isn’t the only one to compare his own reckoning to a death, and perpetuating this logic —  that holding comedy and entertainment to a standard higher than Ansari could meet, would kill him — is dangerous. His, and others’, language pushes a narrative that’s antithetical to the #MeToo movement: first, because it centers around the perpetrator and brings their pain (and the sympathy of the public) to the forefront of the conversation. And second, because it creates a teleology which ends with the returned success and fame of the man, conveniently leaving out any mention of the survivor’s recovery path which isn’t as simple as learning and moving on to a huge movie deal with Netflix. Combined, this narrative depicts the #MeToo movement as too harsh, and any perpetrators as overly prosecuted.

To review, the famous “nice guy” stand-up comedian and actor Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct in an article from The story depicted a traumatizing night from the perspective of his date, given the pseudonym Grace. The article which reported the allegation describes Grace continually pulling away from Ansari, verbally telling him she wanted to stop their sexual encounters, and Ansari nonconsensually sticking his fingers down Grace’s throat and forcibly kissing her. She discusses the ways in which she continually asked Ansari to stop by moving away, disengaging, and clearly telling him to ‘chill’ and that she didn’t want to have sex with him. It also describes her crying her entire way home, feeling that Ansari had violated her. It ends with her recalling how watching Ansari win a Golden Globe felt, saying, “It was actually painful to watch him win and accept an award… and absolutely cringeworthy that he was wearing the Time’s Up pin. I think that started a new fire, and it kind of made it more real.” 

Buzz about the article flooded in. While these allegations came to light amidst the reckoning of the #MeToo movement, Ansari’s case from the start was divisive. On the one hand, people were mad and disgusted. People called out Ansari’s past history of calling himself a feminist, even basing his career on it. This camp generally saw what the comedian did as sexual assault and were quick to say it was wrong. It even inspired other women that had been similarly impacted by negative sexual experiences to speak out. That experience, including the shame and fear embedded into the power dynamics of it, to me, encapsulates what is so revolutionary about the #MeToo movement but also how it comes far too late for women who have been in a similar situation. The idea that Ansari’s ability to coerce a woman into sexual acts is unnacceptable, therefore so is his celebrity and feminist status, shows a cultural shift to the violation of women to please men. I was in my first year of college when the story came out, and after just turning 19, the story already echoed a common theme of pain within sexual experiences my female peers and I had experienced. The response to the Ansari story seemed to reflect the rejection of that behavior as a norm, having people finally step in and say that this isn’t normal. 

On the other hand, at a time when I felt validated, others felt confused and even angry. Ansari’s case is hard for a lot of people. Some didn’t feel Ansari deserved to be so heavily criticized. One New York Times piece said all that Ansari was guilty of was not being able to read Grace’s mind, summarizing Grace’s experience as “bad sex.” An Atlantic article called the #MeToo movement a “squad of privileged young white women” that “destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”  Ansari’s case was used as the perfect example of how the #MeToo movement had gone too far and how any man was at risk. And then there were more personal calls for Ansari’s defense. The co-star and writer of Ansari’s show Master of None, Lena Waithe, came to his defense in the coming weeks and so has actress and friend of Ansari, Mindy Kaling

It’s hard to truly gauge where public opinion fell on Ansari. He wasn’t cancelled, but he did face a lot of intense criticism. SNL perfectly displayed the societal exhaustion we have over trying to understand how to talk about it, especially when it falls into a category of people doing such horrible actions that were objectively and consistently wrong. And on top of all of that, Ansari’s career is no small feat. Nobody wants to end the career of a hilarious comedian and a self-proclaimed feminist when it’s framed as just that. Furthermore, everyone has felt at some point or another they’re meant for this one specific career, so much so they boldly state they would rather die than do anything else. Whether it be the disgusting ballerina costume a child refuses to take off for days on end or the 22-year-old who moved to New York, believing they were destined to be a freelance writer: we, as a society, love the idea of a tireless and passionate dream, and more than that, we love fame and success and wealth. So, yes, maybe his #MeToo moment felt like death to Ansari. And yes, it may feel, in the moment, like death to be great at something, to love that something, and then to be told nobody wants you to do it.

It’s possible for me to empathize with that, but it’s not nearly as important as it is for me to empathize with Grace—chiefly because Ansari’s career possibly ending is not the main part of the story, or at least it shouldn’t be. My desire for her to be able to go into her date’s apartment and feel in control of her own body and experience is deeper than the effects of her story on Ansari’s career. My want for women of all ages to be able to experience sex and be vulnerable safely and comfortably, and not be blamed if someone hurts them or makes them feel comfortable, is deeper than my want for all famous men to stay famous. Basic safety and emotional stability are deserved well before a life as a rich and famous comedian. The demand that men receive and retain well-paid positions and cultural support towers over the fight for women to be seen as whole humans and to remain safe. Essentially, Ansari should not be understood without Grace, and she still she remains left out of the picture. What does it mean that this story ended up being about Ansari, and his almost-fall from the sky? To me, the common narrative which Ansari peddled means we should care more about Ansari as a celebrity more so than we care about Grace as a whole person.

Moreover, the narrative treats the whole incident as much cleaner and more pleasant than the reality. To Ansari, the story is about how he made a mistake (that, at age 34, having written a book on relationships, he somehow didn’t know to push women on their sexual boundaries), got his dream taken away, and made it back a new man. The problem with that story is it forgets Grace, glosses over what Ansari did, and leaves this predestined space for his arrival back, when that space was not promised. It mirrors the idea that while women may have experienced pain, it needs to be forgiven and moved past for men to return to their scheduled lives. But as should be asked with every case pushing for that, why should Ansari deserve to return? What Ansari suggests in return to that valid option, of everyone losing interest in a comedian which reflects so much of the pain and fear experienced by women in an epidemic of sexual, is that because if he doesn’t, he ceases to live. 

Think about how often this story is told and actually contemplated. Resigned Senator Al Franken was recently interviewed and joked about his fate being like a primate dying alone in the jungle after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. He currently still resides in D.C. and Minnesota with his wife. Then, Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh said during his confirmation hearings that the sexual assault allegations surrounding him destroyed both his family and “good name.” He was later nominated to the Supreme Court and continues to coach his daughter’s basketball team (Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman that he assaulted, has moved multiple times and continues to receive death threats). Rapist Brock Turner’s family and lawyers had pleaded with the court to not ruin his life as a college swimmer and as a Stanford graduate. He got no jail time. Nobody seems to have told these men that they are not entitled to any of those positions, and frankly, that their absence in those positions might allow for people more deserving of them to rise. Is it not fair to ask that the people writing our laws, sitting on the highest court in this country, getting a spot in a college with a 5% acceptance rate, meet high standards? That we would trust ourselves and loved ones to be in an office or intimate setting with them without being forced to do anything or act a certain way? And while the differences between their actions should be emphasized as well as their deserved punishments, Ansari’s being vastly different from Turner’s, the commonality between these cases is that while we continue to talk about the pain these main endured, their victims’ experiences become a footnote.

The components of this narrative reinforce sympathy and attention for men accused of sexual misconduct and their aspirations, which distracts from a much simpler care and validation that should be given to the victim. Psychologist Kate Manne dubbed himpathy as “the disproportionate sympathy powerful men reap over their less powerful female victims.” We can see this in the accepted narrative surrounding the story: Ansari’s near-career end is death, and Grace’s pain is forgotten. On top of that, the people who relate to Grace feel shamed or dramatic for rallying against Ansari. This informs the future in two ways. The first is that it encourages victims to regret speaking out no matter what the situation, because everyone has a life and therefore the victim is painted as responsible for ruining it. The second is that it tells men they’re entitled to success more than women are entitled to safety, so if they were to be publicly scolded or fired, it feels unfair and even homicidal. 

Additionally, the trend of men falsely proclaiming the end of their lives becomes even more apparently privilege when looking at the implications of the #MeToo movement for women. Want to talk about lives ending? For men, that means their career is over. For women, it’s emotional and psychological (and sometimes physical) trauma manifested in their personal and professional lives. 94% of women who are raped experience symptoms of PTSD, and 30% contemplate suicide. Victims of sexual assault are 10 times more likely to use major drugs. RAINN reports that “67% of survivors who were victimized by a stranger experience professional or emotional issues, including moderate to severe distress, or increased problems at work or school,” which climbs to almost 80% when it’s someone they know. It was estimated in 2000 that victims of sexual assault will lose over 200k in their lifetime. For a woman without proper mental health resources or a support system, this all worsens. 

But do numbers accurately describe the issue? These women are experiencing traumatizing sexual violence and it makes you wonder how to accurately measure the impact of sexual violence in our society. Women struggle to ever be touched again, even by someone they love, or even talk to their friends and family about what’s going on. They quit their jobs, or are forced to continue working with someone that made them feel unsafe or worse. Sometimes, they kill themselves. 

This giant, societal mistreatment looms over women from a young age and yet, the takeaway seems to always focus on what men have to lose, their death. And it’s not just that men are having something taken away, but that women are the ones responsible for it. The case of Ansari is no different. During the peak of the conversation around Ansari, there was so much content directed at shaming anyone who sought accountability, not just from Ansari but from men like Ansari. It was often patronizing and riddled with shaming tactics. How dare we threaten the career of a man? For what, a traumatizing experience for a woman? It was powerful and in reviewing the highlights for this article, I am thoroughly reminded of how it later informed my experience with sexual assault a few months after had posted the artciel.

When the story had just broke, I remember walking into a college dorm room filled with some friends. They were going over every detail of the article, Grace’s story, and arguing in defense of Ansari. At the time, having not read anything about the story yet, I listened and laughed about their intensity in picking apart what I had assumed was just another passing dorm room debate. In the moment, it didn’t seem to matter to me that there was some playful mockery happening around Ansari’s situation. Now, I think about that conversation a split second every time I try contemplating whether or not to confront my rapist. I often wonder what parts of my story would discount my trauma, or what people would tell me to do differently next time (my personal favorite being Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan’s suggestion young women don’t know how to call a cab.) Better yet, this narrative informs me that instead of thinking about my story, holes and all, I should really be thinking about how my perpetrator would react. 

The story we tell about this matters. Ansari caught the whole country’s attention and his case still serves as a divisive issue to groups of friends, family members, and the media, even now, a year and a highly-publicized comedy special later. What Ansari’s comments make clear is that it’s his story, and he gets to be the one who tells it. The neat bow he ties around it reflects the control men continue to hold even in the age of the #MeToo. If the accused man has ‘paid his dues’ and enough time has passed, we forgive him, forget the woman who spoke out against him, and consume his content, especially in part because we feel guilty for nearly ending his life! We always seem to pity him, and sometimes our stomachs ache as if to question: have we gone too far? But young girls, afraid, constantly insecure and facing such horrid statistics and the fates of the ones before them, rarely ever get that same consideration. Moreso than that, if we are the victims of sexual assault, our stories are picked apart. We’re told to grow up. Even the thought of us, now with such open pain, comes to pale in comparison to the man who has moved out of the spotlight, even if only for a moment. 

Top photo via Netflix

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