Last month, babe.net published a pseudonymous account of a date between “Grace” and the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. Their evening together ended after they engaged in sexual activity, despite her repeated verbal and non-verbal signals that she didn’t want to.
Unlike the more legally cut-and-dry stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse perpetrated by other powerful men in Hollywood, the allegations against Ansari—which took place both outside the workplace and outside of the our legal understandings of consent—have provoked a much more uneasy response.
Part of this undoubtedly stems from Ansari’s coveted cultural status as a “woke bae,” who calls himself a feminist, talks openly about social issues like race, and has attempted to incorporate these progressive ideas into his comedy, particularly his popular Netflix show, Master of None.
I went back and watched some of the episodes of Master of None that dealt with sex and dating. I wasn’t looking to feel self-righteous shock in light of the allegations; women are all too familiar with the Venn diagram of supposed male allies and misogynists. Instead, I wanted to take a close look on how Ansari demonstrated his understanding of relationships and feminism through the show—in hopes that it could help contextualize the conversation we’re having about him now as a cultural figure and perhaps the conversation we’re not having about race in situations like this.
When the show debuted in 2015, Master of None was met with praise and gratitude, including from our own site. It felt impressive that Ansari would spotlight issues like sexual harassment while also giving women power behind the scenes. “Ladies and Gentleman,” the seventh episode from the show’s first season, dealt specifically with the everyday sexism and danger women face in the world and was written and directed by women.
It felt almost revolutionary at the time, but watching the episode again, just two years later, the material speaks only to the bare minimum of the everyday terror that women experience: a man following a woman home after being rejected by her at a bar; Ansari’s character, Dev, catching a man masturbating on the subway with his friend Denise; a man ignoring women while only introducing himself to other men. The episode dedicates a couple lines to more understated aspects of misogyny, like when Rachel (Noël Wells), Dev’s girlfriend, explains that there are plenty of examples of sexism that men don’t even notice. But in the end, the episode is still about Dev—about his allyship and his feminist lens. In one plot thread, Dev points out to the director of a home improvement commercial he’s starring in that the ad is sexist. The director decides to flip the gender roles in the ad, which leads to Dev’s part getting cut. He’s not thrilled, but the actresses in the ad later bring him a cake and thank him for his part in getting bigger roles for them.
The second season confronts sexual harassment more directly with its main “villain,” Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale). Jeff, who’s essentially a fictional cross between Anthony Bourdain and, now, Mario Batali, hands Dev his big TV break, which puts him in a very precarious spot when it’s revealed in the season finale that the chef is a serial workplace sexual harasser. The Chef Jeff arc now feels almost prophetic in light of #MeToo, and the fictionalized situation—from the fears victims face in going public to the misogynist skepticism they’re met with when they share their stories—feels realistic, if incomplete. We’ve been so focused on the more black-and-white scenarios that we have allowed a false narrative to emerge, which came to the forefront again after the allegations against Ansari: that behavior which isn’t outright criminal is not our concern.
What we know now—about Ansari, about Hollywood, about men and women in the workplace—does not erase the material benefit of these episodes being produced, the conversations they started, and the boost to the careers of the women who worked on them. But viewed now, post-Weinstein and everything that’s followed, their conversations with sexual harassment and consent, like so many of the conversations we’re having right now, feel frustratingly inadequate. We didn’t expect pop culture icons to show even a rudimentary interest in what women face in the world, so when it did, it felt big enough to satisfy the lower standard we hold for men’s behavior. And once again, we’re dealing with the consequences of lowering these standards for the sake of elementary representation.
Ansari’s rudimentary exercises in feminism also belie a deeper, more damaging attitude toward women that imbues the show’s second season.
The season’s narrative drama centers around a flirtatious friendship between Dev and the gorgeous, unattainable Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). Francesca is essentially an Italian Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whose only real attributes are the alternating headaches and butterflies she brings into Dev’s life. Dev does everything he can to woo Francesca, despite her being engaged to another man: fancy dinner parties with John Legend; special art trips; a helicopter tour of New York City.
From the outset, Dev and Francesca’s relationship could be viewed as a classic “will they or won’t they,” a Ross and Rachel, a Sam and Diane. But because the story is largely told from the perspective of Dev, our male protagonist, and because Francesca’s feelings are ambiguous and largely unspoken, their possible consummation of a season-long emotional affair raises expectations—she must reciprocate his feelings because he does so many nice things for her. It begins to spill into uncomfortable “nice guy” territory, where women are expected to reward emotional or other support from men with sex or companionship, which actively negates the agency of the female characters.
Dev is a fictional character in a fictional show, but he’s still a window into his creator’s attitudes—and since people took the show’s feminist leanings as a sign of Ansari’s own values, we should treat its descent into this territory with equal seriousness. In both Dev’s fictional relationship with Francesca and Ansari’s allegedly very real interactions with Grace, there is an underlying theme: that a woman’s initial reluctance can be chipped away at, that indifference is a wall to be torn down—or, in Grace’s case, that resignation is as good as consent.
Part of the subconscious calculus that makes the revelations about Ansari so jarring is his race. To suggest that Ansari is the victim of a white feminist conspiracy to take down a brown man, as The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan ridiculously proposed, is a kind of tokenization that itself edges into racism. It’s also difficult to see defenses of Ansari and ignore the tinge of Western culture’s long tradition of emasculating of South Asian men. South Asians have been battling a long legacy of racism and exoticism that has defined South Asian masculinity—in the American context—as meek and asexual, and Ansari is not exempt. (In fact, a decent part of his career has been spent combating that stereotype.) Part of the disbelief that Ansari could carry out an act of sexual violence feels rooted in the disbelief that, as a South Asian man, he would have such sexual agency to begin with. What makes the conversation even thornier is the widespread impulse to assume that Grace is white, based on both Ansari’s personal life and Dev’s love interests in Master of None—even though Grace’s race is never specified.
But here we can learn from Master of None as well. As a person of color, Ansari does have insight into how oppression works. With Master of None, he’s expanded that window of insight into a fully-fledged platform, discussing other injustices he’s not subjected to but observes or benefits from, like sexism. While Ansari’s work is entirely his own achievement and some aspects are commendable, it is indicative of a latent pressure marginalized people face to confront social issues in their art—even if addressing these issues are not necessarily the point of their work.
Whether Ansari felt this pressure or was simply using his position of power to earnestly bring his audience’s attention to other forms of bias, Master of None ambitiously aims to tell stories from marginalized communities not often represented in mainstream TV. But unfortunately, the show sacrifices a deeper and more nuanced conversation about issues women face in service of the very surface level woke-ness and authority that granted him the platform in the first place.
Ansari shouldn’t be condemned for not making the perfectly feminist sitcom of our dreams; it is, after all, just one Netflix comedy-drama, created by two men. That Ansari could grapple with this kind of material on the show at all—and in a way that won the approval of many feminist viewers—while at the same time putting Grace in the position he did off-screen exposes how narrow our conversations about sex and assault have been, and how that’s necessarily limited by men’s understanding of consent. Ansari has openly discussed how patriarchy affects sex and dating in his work, but also claimed in response to the allegations that he was genuinely unaware of how uncomfortable Grace had been. It turned out that he hadn’t thought hard enough. But not many people have. There’s still a wide gulf between men’s and women’s understandings of sexual agency that desperately needs to be filled if we’re going to make any progress.
After the allegations against Ansari were published, my own brother reached out to talk about them and sexual assault at large. We’d broached the topic before in light of Harvey Weinstein, but Ansari hit closer to home. We’d been fans of Ansari’s work for over a decade, and as South Asians, it was even more disappointing to discover that someone who has helped put our culture on the map and normalize our mere existence in this country was capable of such behavior. But as frustrating as it is to come to terms with yet another reason more South Asian representation in media is necessary, Ansari has also provided a solid point of entry for many, especially in South Asian American communities, to meaningfully engage with the topics of sex and consent. There is an opportunity right now—but we have to seize it.