Right Now is Aziz Ansari's reckoning with himself.
Like everyone else, the burning question on my mind going into Aziz Ansari's new Netflix special, Right Now, was whether or not he would address the Babe.net article.
He did––barely a minute into his set, in fact. Right off the bat, Aziz Ansari is more grounded, less hyper, so clearly transformed from the Aziz Ansari of yesteryear. The entirety of his monologue on the topic can be read here, but this was the most important part:
"There's times I've felt scared. There's times I've felt humiliated. There's times I've felt embarrassed. And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward...I always think about a conversation I had with one of my friends where he was like, 'You know what, man? That whole thing made me think about every date I've ever been on.' And I thought, Wow. Well, that's pretty incredible. It's made not just me but other people be more thoughtful, and that's a good thing."
On his last point, Ansari was right. In many ways, the Babe.net article felt like a watershed moment in a movement already chock full of watershed moments. Up until that point, the #MeToo movement (at least in my limited perception as a straight, white dude) had been about speaking truth to power, exposing the many abuses that women faced at the hands of affluent men who felt they could get away with anything. Yes, the movement led many men to introspection, but for a lot of us, especially the "woke" ones, there was also a certain degree of detachment.
The perpetrators of the most prominent #MeToo cases were men like Harvey Weinstein: true predators who intentionally wielded their substantial power and social clout to target and rape women. Even someone like Louis C.K., who wasn't outright raping or physically assaulting women, displayed consistent patterns of using his status to target and sexually harass women around him.
None of that applied to me. I already respected women in the first place. I had been in a committed relationship for nearly seven years, and I was 100% positive that I had never used my status (I'm another writer in Brooklyn; what status do I even have?) to pressure anyone into doing anything sexually that they didn't want to do. Of course I'd strive to empower the women around me. Of course I'd call out sexual abuse if I saw it in the workplace. Of course I supported the #MeToo movement wholeheartedly. But #MeToo wasn't about me.
Then the Babe.net article about Aziz Ansari came out. The piece followed "Grace," a girl who went on a date with the comedian after a chance encounter. Grace described how they went back to Ansari's place after dinner, he made it clear that he wanted to have sex, and she spurned his advances multiple times. They did engage in sexual contact (not sex, but he kept attempting), during which Grace signaled that she felt uncomfortable.
This excerpt from the article stood out to me:
"Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points," she said. "I stopped moving my lips and turned cold."
Whether Ansari didn't notice Grace's reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. "I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn't interested. I don't think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored."
Ultimately, Grace texted Ansari after the date, telling him that the encounter made her uncomfortable. Ansari apologized to her directly and later clarified in a public statement, "It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said."
Journalistic issues with Babe.net aside, the whole situation sat poorly with me. Unlike all the other publicized #MeToo stories—wherein I could safely say that the perpetrator was, indeed, a remorseless, sexist predator who should never work again ("How is Max Landis even the same species as me?")—Ansari's case felt murkier.
I immediately recognized his behavior as uncouth. He was selfish and gross. If a friend came to me and told me that was how her date went down, I'd say something like, "That guy sounds like a massive a**hole, hope you never see him again." But I probably wouldn't say, "He sexually assaulted you, put him on blast."
Part of my hesitation came down to Grace's description that most of her cues were nonverbal. As a person on the high-end of the autism spectrum, nonverbal cues are a pain point for me in general––I have a very hard time reading and interpreting them, and I always ask people close to me to verbalize explicitly what they want from me, sexually or otherwise.
My point in bringing this up is that while nonverbal cues are practically imperceptible to me, they aren't necessarily natural to everyone else, either. Through that reasoning, it was easy for me to imagine a scenario wherein Ansari genuinely read the sexual encounter as fully consensual and Grace genuinely tried to stop it through nonverbal cues. In that situation, Ansari would be in the wrong, but it would still be hard for me to consider him a sexual predator, as opposed to it just being a really bad date.
But the situation at hand was even more complicated. Grace did verbally tell Ansari that she didn't want to have sex, and he still persisted in trying to move their encounter in that direction. I had the distinct thought that if it had been me in Ansari's shoes, I definitely would have stopped at that point, even if I hadn't picked up any of the nonverbal cues.
At the same time, I didn't understand why Grace wouldn't just leave his apartment––even in her recounting of the experience, she never seemed to feel unsafe. She was also in an entirely different industry, so there wasn't the same subtextual pressure that might have existed if she had been a budding stand-up comedian. Obviously, no one has the right to judge whether or not another person should feel unsafe in a given situation, but I wanted to fully empathize with the story, and I felt that my lack of understanding was preventing me from connecting. I couldn't wrap my mind around what kept her there, but I wanted to.
So I asked my girlfriend what her thoughts on the situation were, and she told me that she fully understood what Grace had felt. And I read articles on the topic written by women, most of whom fully understood what Grace had felt. Moreover, almost every other woman to whom I brought the subject up had a similar take––encounters like the one between Ansari and Grace are ridiculously common, and nobody really knows if it's "sexual assault" or not. But, at the very least, it's not a good thing.
Aziz Ansari is not a rapist. He did not sexually assault Grace in the way that we’ve traditionally understood sexua… https://t.co/H5dOCJXOZW— Evette Dionne 🏁 (@Evette Dionne 🏁)1516071479.0
So maybe it's not useful to get bogged down in technicalities. Shouldn't we be holding our sexual encounters to a higher standard than "not technically sexual assault?" If so many women are leaving sexual encounters with men feeling like they were, at the very least, deeply uncomfortable, that means we need to do a whole lot better. Doesn't it?
Grace's story brought to light a deep rift in the way men and women are socially conditioned to communicate, especially in sexual scenarios. Men are taught to be aggressive. Women are taught to be demure and non-confrontational. This means that in uncomfortable sexual situations, a lot of women will respond physically through subtle physical cues to avoid making a scene, instead of shouting "NO" or outright leaving––and a lot of men aren't conditioned to pick up on those cues.
Again, this means we need to do better. Our sexual encounters should not be defined by whether or not the other person literally ran away.
And sure, it would be great if every woman felt comfortable enough to outright say "NO" when they didn't want things to move further, but women are also put in very precarious situations should men respond with violence––and the fact that most men would never react like that doesn't change the fact that some men do, and women don't know which until it's too late.
In the end, it doesn't matter if Aziz Ansari did or didn't technically sexually assault Grace. What matters is that she left the date crying because she felt violated and didn't feel comfortable enough to express that in the moment.
What's important is that men who feel uncomfortable with the story––especially the "woke" ones––take the opportunity to confront their own dating experiences, come to terms with how their own behavior might have made someone else feel that way, and hopefully use the reflection to grow into a better person.
Incidentally, this seems like exactly what Aziz Ansari did. The frenetic, hyperactive Aziz Ansari who played Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreations is no more. While he still goofs on his cousin Harris after nearly a decade, his main point is deconstructing how jokes evolve, mature, and rarely age well with time. Aside from that, Ansari performs a sober set exploring the mortality of parents and the subtle racism that pervades modern, liberal white culture. Finally, Ansari concludes:
"That old Aziz who said, 'Oh, treat yo' self,' whatever, he's dead. But I'm glad, 'cause that guy was always looking forward to whatever was next: 'Oh, am I gonna do another tour? Am I gonna do another season of the show?' I don't think that way anymore. 'Cause I've realized it's all ephemeral. All that stuff, it can just go away like this. [Snaps fingers.] And all we really have is the moment we're in and the people we're with."
It's not the world's most hilarious stand-up special, but it isn't supposed to be. Right Now is Aziz Ansari's reckoning with himself.
Perhaps, if we truly want to be the "good guys" we claim to be, we should all aim to do the same.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
We need sites that honor the wholeness of the female experience—and of the femme experience, the female-identifying experience, the trans-man and genderqueer's experience, and even the experience of the straight white man who loves makeup and cries in his bedroom to Billie Eilish.
Image via The Cut
Those who don't know the site by name might recognize its most famous article: "I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life." That viral story sparked a complex conversation about the parameters of #MeToo and what constitutes assault. It detailed the experiences of a woman named Grace who, when on a date with Ansari, felt threatened and demeaned by his coercive actions; and it led to massive backlash against Ansari's career, especially in light of the fact that he often proclaimed himself a staunch feminist.
Ironically, the fact that Ansari branded himself a critically-minded feminist but displayed less-than-feminist behavior in his intimate life is eerily reminiscent of the inner workings of the babe.net office. According to The Cut's Allison P. Davis, office life at babe often continued into bars and parties at night, and the line between professional and romantic life often evaporated as liquor flowed.
As it turned out, a website that branded itself a place "for women who don't give a fuck" was not exempt from actively harming its female employees. Among the morally disconcerting happenings at the office: There were relationships between 27-year-old Joshi Herrmann, founding editor of The Tab (the umbrella media company that owned babe.net), and multiple younger staffers. One staffer said that she was asked to write a personal story about a "walk of shame," even though she had never actually experienced one; another, a black employee, said she was asked to participate in a video series in which she felt like a caricature.
Inevitably, things boiled over. It was about more than the strange office dynamics: babe.net's employees soon grew "mad about the whole power imbalance inherent to working for a website that translated their most intimate experiences and identities and beliefs into clicks." Employees delivered a letter full of complaints, which were ultimately written off as "baseless." Eventually, babe.net closed after failing to secure the funding it required to remain afloat.
Are Women's Sites Still Relevant?
If babe.net's now-private Instagram is a zombie, as Davis writes, then its website is a kind of graveyard. In the ever-changing digital world, the Internet is full of these: repositories of old stories that once desperately fought for engagement of any kind. If you go on babe.net today, you can see the skeletons of posts like, "Why is this egg prettier than me and you," "We spoke with the woman Tek$shi 6ix9ine slept with when she was underage," and—eerily—"Aziz Ansari talks sexual assault allegations for the first time." It's an eclectic array of pieces about makeup, the Kardashians, and hyper-modern feminist critiques, all written in the cynical, dada-esque, and sometimes oddly formal language of the social media age.
Though not directly caused by its workplace culture, babe.net's downfall reveals a lot about the modern media landscape. It reveals that the architects of purportedly feminist content are often swayed by pressures beyond their control, pressures which usually stem from profit made from the stereotypes they set out to combat. "babe.net was created during an era when to be a woman saying just about anything online was now, theoretically, classified as feminist," writes Davis. Its downfall reveals that this kind of "women's media" is a fundamentally flawed brand, especially in a world where the confines of gender are rapidly dissolving and where gender cannot be disconnected from other fields like race and class.
A Women's Site for the Male Gaze
This is not to argue that women's sites are obsolete. In today's world, women-only spaces are necessary and important; and websites like Jezebel, Bitch Media, and The Cut itself frequently release the kind of high-quality, nuanced content that gives voice to a wide variety of people and move away from gendered stereotypes. However, poorly thought-out sites like babe.net frequently pander to gendered stereotypes while working under the guise of feminism, fixating on a brash and narrow vision of female sexuality and manufacturing a niche that compromised the women it claimed to elevate.
From the sound of things, babe.net was manufacturing itself to be a very specific kind of women's site—one mostly focused on women and sex, not women as people—and its office embodied that lifestyle of nihilistic quasi-liberation. According to Chloe, a babe.net writer who eventually quit, "The portrayal of being a woman or woman-identified person on babe was very much through the lens of what Joshi, and by extension the female editors that he had hired, wanted it to be. All of our content just felt very male gaze-y to me," she added. "It was like a woman who was obsessed with having sex with men and performing sex for men."
Her comments reveal that one problem with babe.net was that it mass-marketed women's experiences, distilling their sexual lives into stories aimed at clicks and provocation. This kind of marketing will always skew towards money—and in a world where straight men have most of the capital, inevitably, content will swing back towards the male gaze.
Image by Amy Lombard via The Cut
The Internet's Blind, Binary Rage
On the other hand, it's impossible to say that babe.net was all bad. When identity politics are involved, making binary judgments about whether something is good or bad usually ends up draining issues of their nuance and complexity. So it is with the kind of sexually liberated feminism that powers women's media sites like babe.net and with feminism on the whole. Certainly, babe was not a feminist victory, but feminism shouldn't be a competition in the first place, and writing off babe.net's content as shallow and sexist would be devaluing its writers' and readers' interests, something third-wave feminism has worked hard to undo.
Third-wave feminism has also worked to undo the gender binary. Modern science is more and more certain that gender roles are performative, constructed by society and not innate. So, in a theoretical, ideal world where gender does not confine anyone to anything, women's sites would no longer be relevant.
But in the real world, a persistently gendered one where gender-neutral bathrooms are seen as existential threats, we do need women's sites. We need sites that honor the wholeness of the female experience—and of the femme experience, the female-identifying experience, the trans-man and genderqueer's experience, and even the experience of the straight white man who loves makeup and cries in his bedroom to Billie Eilish.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't, collectively, be really mad at straight white men. It does mean that instead of exclusively focusing on what they've done wrong, there should be a conversation about how they might change and about what consent might look like. There should be conversation about how we might collectively create space for femininity and gender-queerness by changing the structure of our institutions and highly gendered society at large.
It also doesn't mean we can't have sites about makeup and female sexuality. What it does mean is that these issues need to be treated with more nuance, empathy, and care, especially when they veer into territories like sexual assault, and companies that tell these stories should ideally be women-led from the top down and not designed to provoke outrage or amass clicks.
Ultimately, the concept that sexually liberated feminism will somehow circumvent sexism and commodification ignores the fact that we live in a gendered world, and it encourages the kind of workplace culture that brought down babe.net. To move past this, there needs to be a movement away from gender binaries, but this needs to be coupled with structural change that addresses sexism and sexual assault, both in the workplace and out of it.
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