Aziz Ansari created history at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony on January 7 by becoming the first Asian American to take home the Best Actor in a TV comedy award for his role in Master of None. But a possibly career-derailing controversy was waiting in the wings, one with the potential to dominate all conversations around him.
On January 13, the story of an alleged unpleasant sexual encounter with Ansari was published on the news and pop culture website babe. In the piece titled “I Went on a Date with Aziz Ansari. It Turned into the Worst Night of My Life”, a 22-year-old woman with the pseudonym Grace narrated in excruciating detail what transpired on the night on September 2017.
The actor purportedly made repeated attempts to have sex with her, even though, in her opinion, she made her discomfort evident. “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” she told babe. “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault....I was not listened to and ignored. It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.”
The woman messaged Ansari the morning after their date telling him that he had “ignored clear non-verbal cues” and “kept going with advances.” Ansari apologised, saying he had “clearly misread things in the moment”.
Asnari reiterated this in his response to the allegations made in the babe article. “It was true that everything did seem OK to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” he said.
The article has coincided with the ongoing global dialogue on sexual harassment and institutionalised discrimination against women, which was sparked by the exposes on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in October. Since then, several actors and directors has similarly fallen from grace and have been dropped from projects, including Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor and Louis CK. The babe story was been clubbed with that narrative, threatening a similar fallout for Ansari.
But the days since the article’s publication have seen an intense media debate on whether the account of an unpleasant date should share space with a global struggle to fight sexual harassment. Even proponents of the #MeToo movement and reputed publications taking divergent positions on the issue.
In a scathing attack of Grace’s account on The Atlantic, Catlin Flanagan described the article as “revenge porn”.
“Was Grace frozen, terrified, stuck? No. She tells us that she wanted something from Ansari and that she was trying to figure out how to get it. She wanted affection, kindness, attention. Perhaps she hoped to maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend. He wasn’t interested. What she felt afterward – rejected yet another time, by yet another man – was regret. And what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn.”
“If you are wondering what about this evening constituted the “worst night” of Grace’s life, or why it is being framed as a #MeToo story by a feminist website, you probably feel as confused as Mr. Ansari did the next day. “It was fun meeting you last night,” he texted.
“Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me,” she responded. “You ignored clear nonverbal cues; you kept going with advances. You had to have noticed I was uncomfortable.” He replied with an apology.
Read Grace’s text message again.
Put in other words: I am angry that you weren’t able to read my mind.”
An article in The Washington Post by Sonny Bunch contended that the episode was “a gift to anyone who wants to derail #MeToo”.
“The #MeToo movement’s story has been a relatively straightforward one that garners support from both sides of the aisle and all decent people, because it is a tale of how powerful people humiliate and subjugate those who want nothing more than a chance to chase their dreams.
The babe story is not about this. It is about a date that went badly, one that did not live up to the expectations of the woman involved.”
Many others have argued that Ansari’s behaviour was problematic and symptomatic of a culture that normalises such sexual encounters. Smaller abuses of power must be recognised too, commentators stressed.
Writing for The Guardian, Emily Reynolds said, “Ansari’s behaviour was normal – and therein lies its true horror.”
“This isn’t unrelated to the (completely unfounded) argument that the breadth of #MeToo has become problematic, and that to include everyday incidents related to sex and dating, rather sticking to more severe abuses, is to conflate the two.
This assertion implies that women don’t know the difference between rape and coercion – which they do. Nobody is arguing that what Ansari is alleged to have done is equivalent to the more serious crimes Harvey Weinstein has been accused of, or even to the more obvious abuses of power perpetrated by men such as Louis CK. What we are saying, however, is that all of these things exist on a spectrum of abusive behaviour that negatively and persistently impinges upon women’s lives.”
Whether it was just a bad date or something more sinister, the episode has necessitated a rethink of the MeToo movement.
Questions over the movement’s scope and means have been raised right from the start, but their expression has often been met with criticism. Prominent women such as French actress Catherine Denevue and author Margaret Atwood faced backlash for saying that the movement had turned into a witch hunt.
Some of their arguments – about the pitfalls of conflating sexual harassment with generally unpleasant behaviour and of the risk of using social media and other internet-based platforms to anonymously make (sometimes unsubstantiated) allegations – have gained more heft now after the babe article. For instance, Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, wrote:
“My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.”
For all its pitfalls, the MeToo movement has managed to prompt a global discussion on entrenched patriarchy that could pave the way for a more widespread and inclusive campaign. A wrong move can derail the struggle as a whole. That would be the biggest misfortune.