With the recent news about Azis Ansari, I have had conflicting thoughts and emotions about “Grace’s” (name changed) account of her experience and Aziz’s response to it. I’ve read commentary on both sides of the debate, and yet more commentary toeing the line between the two sides. I think that is where the discomfort stems. It is not so black and white like so many of the other sexual assault allegations against powerful, famous men that were brought to light in 2017. This story does not quite reach the same nausea-inducing levels of other stories which prompted and promulgated the #metoo movement. It is not a clear example of a sexual predator coercing an innocent victim that we can easily judge as wrong and in need of immediate reparations. Rather, this story fits into an uncomfortable area, and in many ways. After much discussion, reading, and thought, it comes down to the fact that I still feel this…uneasiness about the whole thing. I do not fully stand by Grace, nor do I fully stand by Aziz. I think both can be empathized with, but both also made mistakes. Nonetheless, as a woman, I think this story highlights the experiences of many “regular” women outside of the entertainment limelight, and these experiences are no less disturbing or important because of the lack of obvious violations.
One of the best commentaries I read were simply comments on today’s cupofjo post. As always, the women who read and comment on these types of posts on Joanna’s blog impress me with their intelligence and poise, even when I disagree with them. I found many women who mirrored my own conflicting emotions and could not reconcile their exact response to the story. What does it mean in light of the #metoo movement, not to mention other worldwide movements supporting women’s rights and resistance against sexual violence? I would not say that it diminishes these movements, but rather adds another component that we really do need to consider — that a woman’s consent is not something to be pushed to its limits until she gives in.
I can believe that Aziz did not think he was coercing a woman who freely agreed to go on a date with him, go with him to his apartment, and participate in sexual acts with him. I can also believe that Grace did not feel 100% confident enough to assert her “no” and leave as soon as she felt uncomfortable. Women and men approach sexual consent and activity from very different mindsets and expectations. For both men and women, these approaches can range from totally meaningless acts to emotionally charged ones, and it can vary from person to person, from situation to situation. Sure, in an ever-modernizing society, sexual freedom for women can allow them to participate in sexual encounters without feeling guilty or ashamed, but it may also make them feel the need to prove they are sexually liberated when they really may not be ready. Add to that the fact that the person trying to chip away at your resistance and uncertainty is a self-proclaimed feminist, a funny guy, broadly liked by the public, young, famous, and rich. Perhaps Aziz truly is totally unaware of the influence of these factors in his romantic encounters with women, wherein lies the problem.
Another component of this story that deeply affected me was that I was able to relate to Aziz, as a young Indian-American individual. I did not grow up with many desi role models in American society. It’s only been recently that a few have come along (I love you Mindy!), and it’s easy to get caught up in the glorification of these figures who represent the best of the immigrant-parent-raising-inspiring-children narrative.
Admittedly, it’s much easier to judge people like Harvey Weinstein. Like Kevin Spacey. Like Donald Trump. After all, they are not the first powerful, famous white men who have ever exploited others. Anyone with sense can see that and rightly place them in the villain category where they belong. However, it sparked an unnerving disappointment to see a previously beloved minority lumped into the same villain category. I was already devastated by Bill Cosby because I grew up watching the Cosby Show. Lena Waithe said it perfectly on Fresh Air:
“I know that Cosby’s actions are ones that have really devastated, I think, not just the victims but the people that looked up to him as well. I think we feel betrayed and violated, too. But it doesn’t take away the joy [of] that theme music, that playful and sporadic jazz theme music that you hear. And you know it the second you hear it, with The Cosby Show — you know that something beautiful and black and funny and amazing is going to happen. … You can’t take that away from my childhood.”
Similarly, Aziz’s smart comedy (which I wrote about here), his book Modern Romance, and his ground breaking show Master of None still hold a lot of meaning for me, though that meaning is regrettably tarnished now. I guess the honeymoon phase has to end at some point, right? I just wish it was not for this unfortunate and ironic reason.
Finally, I do think that enthusiastic consent (“yes means yes”) can help clarify grey areas like the one Grace and Aziz are in rather than the previous “no means no” approach. Because far too often, “no” is seen as “maybe” which leaves room for “yes.” A “no” from women has been consistently and systematically ignored throughout history. But now is the time to finally start viewing women as not second-class citizens, objects, and sexual conquests, but as what we are – human beings with the same rights to say yes or no to whatever we choose, and to be finally, properly, respected.