By NATHAN CARPENTER
Two hours after reading this article about the experience of a woman named as Grace (a pseudonym) who has accused actor Aziz Ansari of sexual assault, I still felt sick.
To me, Grace’s story is a powerful reminder that the men who know how to say the right things — who talk a good game when it comes to gendered power dynamics, to sexual assault, to rape culture — are still very capable of committing the same horrible acts they so eloquently speak out against.
The story about Grace’s experience on a date with Ansari notes in particular that, when Ansari won at last week’s Golden Globes awards, he wore a pin that read “Time’s Up.” The message was in support of the #MeToo movement that has taken Hollywood and social media by storm following the flood of accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein.
Before Grace’s story hit the internet, Ansari’s pin of solidarity was regarded as an important, if not entirely sufficient, gesture. Many of the other men at the ceremony were criticized for not voicing, even by way of a symbol, their support of women in the entertainment industry and their rejection of that same industry’s culture of sexual assault.
Ansari’s pin wasn’t the first example of his outspokenness regarding feminism and the fight for gender equality, particularly in the entertainment industry, including Hollywood. He has, as the article about Grace notes, championed these issues at different times — particularly notable given the world he operates in. While he does not articulate his thoughts in the same way that I and many others might, his past statements had made clear that he was grappling with his masculinity and gender privilege.
However, as Grace’s story reveals, Ansari’s rhetoric did not extend in any meaningful way to his encounter with Grace and did not resolve his toxic male entitlement in an interaction that he decided was going to be sexual. Several times during their interaction, Ansari ignored cues from Grace and made unwelcome advances. When Grace confronted Ansari over the text the day following their interaction, Ansari responded, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.” What was such a vivid, invalidating experience for Grace meant much less to Ansari, as his reaction to her text succinctly reveals.
I rarely have such a visceral reaction to articles that I read, even those that are as disturbing and personal as the account of Grace’s evening with Ansari. The strength of my reaction initially surprised me, largely because I am not a survivor of sexual assault — I have no experiences in my past that explicitly remind me of Grace’s.
However, if I have learned one thing over years of engaging with narratives — personal, academic, and everything in between — that deal with identity-based power dynamics, it is that deep discomfort with any new concept or story presented in those narratives usually signals a need for critical self-examination.
Many of the steps I have taken to explore my whiteness, for example, have been accompanied by a profound sense of unease — sometimes even shame — because the experience of discovering a destructive force living inside of you can be terrifying. It is hard, at first, to acknowledge that part of your identity functions maliciously without interpreting that understanding as an attack against your character.
However, over time, those feelings of discomfort and shame have receded and been replaced by a desire for accountability — a desire that has only been produced by intentional engagement with, rather than rejection of, narratives and experiences that make me uncomfortable. This has not made me a perfect person — and it never will — but it has made me better.
So, when I read the full story of the allegations against Ansari, I knew that my experience of that narrative would be dangerously incomplete without reflecting on the parts of Ansari’s public persona that I recognize in myself. Ansari was — before this story broke — a man who other people would sometimes point to as an example of someone who was ostensibly doing good by his privileged platform. I did not idolize him by any means, but his voice was one that I heard occasionally and appreciated — Grace’s story pushed me to consider the significance of this common ground.
I think my urge to cry after reading Grace’s story — beyond my sorrow for her experience and my anger at Ansari for so blatantly disregarding her words and actions — has a lot to do with how someone who has taken so many public stances which I largely agree with on what it means to be a compassionate, respectful man still felt so disgustingly entitled to a woman’s body, despite his speeches and inspiring moral platitudes. And yet, I know I should not have been so surprised.
I hope that this piece pushes the men in my life who identify as feminists — and those who should but don’t — to critically examine how their belief in equity interacts not just with their words and expressed opinions, but with their actions and impacts on other people, especially women and non-binary folks. As Ansari reminds us, our words and our actions often fall alarmingly out of sync with one another.
I know plenty of men who speak about gendered power dynamics with convincing nuance and yet still unwittingly inflict discomfort and harm on people in their life as a result of those same dynamics. I know I am among them.
One of the lessons the #MeToo movement has reinforced is that gendered harm is frequently more subtle and less publicly visible than the kind of blatant harassment and assault that people like Ansari, Weinstein, and others have recently been accused of. I, and likely every man I know, is guilty of this kind of harm, often through no intent of our own. It’s a painful reality, but a reality that is important to understand and address.
It’s difficult to engage with the idea that you have committed harm — every person is cast as the protagonist in the narrative of their own life, and that role does not allow much space for wrongdoing. However, this kind of reflection is vital in ensuring that we do not reproduce cultures of abuse and violence over time.
If narratives like Grace’s make you feel uncomfortable, read them as a call to accept that discomfort and use it as a tool for growth, instead of disregarding it. These stories are an account of the way things often are, not the way that things must necessarily continue to be — but only if we commit to being better and doing better at every opportunity. As Ansari shows us, it is easy to speak that commitment without living it — a dangerous, destructive, and unprincipled approach that must be rejected.