Aziz Ansari, Feminists and Me
I haven’t said much in recent weeks about the #TimesUp movement, partly because I felt like I had already said my piece in my earlier post about #MeToo, and partly because I wholeheartedly supported #TimesUp and had nothing more to say than that. Then the story about Aziz Ansari broke, and I became very, very conflicted. However, I still didn’t say anything because I hadn’t yet decided what I wanted to say. But after reading articles, talking with friends, and listening to podcasts, I finally have something to say. I might be late to the game, but the game’s not over, so better late than never.
First and foremost, I think the Babe.net story about Aziz Ansari raises much more difficult questions than any other scenario in the #MeToo movement (I also think it was poorly written, but that's a different story). I’m not trying to minimize the severity of sexual harassment or sexual assault, because I think anyone who engages in either should be jailed for a very long time. But the story of Aziz Ansari is about more than sexual harassment or sexual assault – it’s about the gray area in between – how we define relationships and the line between uncomfortable human interaction and personal violation.
Here are the 3 main questions I am now asking as a result of the Aziz Ansari story:
1. What do we want the role of men and women to be when it comes to relationships? Who is allowed to make romantic advances and what happens if they get it wrong?
The Babe.net story isn’t tough if you believe Aziz ignored Grace’s refusal and pushed her into a sexual encounter against her will. Then it’s just assault and the only issue is about guys hearing “no” the first time and that being the end of the story, which admittedly is a problem today and worthy of a separate discussion.
However, if you believe Aziz’s version of it – that he just misread the signs – this story highlights questions that strike to the core of dating. Dating is a messy business, and if we’re going to engage in it, we have to be willing to allow for mistakes to be made. If we punish every mistaken advancement, we risk painting men into a corner such that women have to shoulder the entire burden of dating, as if dating wasn’t hard enough for us already. Is that what we want? Is that the price we have to pay for no more stories like Grace’s? Or is it more nuanced than that?
This leads me to my second question, which is…
2. Which romantic advances are appropriate, and at what stage of a relationship?
It may not be a very popular opinion, but I wonder if the promiscuous nature of society today isn’t partially to blame for the very existence of Grace’s story. Not to say that sexual assault is a new invention that showed up at the same time as the sexual revolution, but perhaps if we didn’t believe in one-night stands or the existence of a hookup culture, we wouldn’t be putting ourselves in a position where people we don’t yet trust are capable of taking advantage of us in our most vulnerable state. Food for thought.
Notwithstanding a return to the courtship rules of yesteryear, I do have a problem making Grace responsible for Aziz’s actions upon her. Grace – like every human everywhere – is not responsible for what others do to her. But if Aziz really didn’t know she was saying no – and that’s possible – then how much blame can we place on him?
This leads into my third question, which is…
3. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are making great strides in beginning to hold men accountable for their sexual actions, but are we also talking about holding women accountable too?
From what I understand about Aziz Ansari as a person, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would date-rape his date, especially if she held her ground and said no. So what about Grace’s accountability to stop and walk away? I know it’s not always that easy. It’s really hard to say no to someone when you want them to like you. It takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and a willingness to walk away if the reaction goes south. Plus there’s a power imbalance given Aziz’s celebrity status and age difference. But is that a good enough reason to absolve Grace of any responsibility in the matter? Shouldn’t we do more to give girls like Grace the confidence they need to walk away, rather than letting them give it away just because it’s hard to say no? Men are absolutely responsible for respecting the wishes of their date – the first time – but it seems like we only fail girls like Grace if we don’t also expect them to learn how to stand up for themselves.
Interestingly, it is this third point that has caused the most contention in the aftermath of the Babe.net story and has led to a rather heated debate about the modern feminist movement and the issue of women not standing up for other women. I have always considered myself somewhat of a feminist, but I struggle with the hypocrisy of women pushing back on women who are pushing back.
Me vs. the Feminists
In my experience, the social movements of today tend to be pretty binary – you’re either completely with us or completely against us. In some instances – i.e., civil rights or the abolition of slavery – this binary viewpoint was probably the only way to look at it. But that is not the case when it comes to the feminist movement.
Last year, on my very first blog post, I wrote about how I chose to attend the presidential inauguration instead of the Women’s March. A year later, in spite of my fear that Trump is going to tweet us to war, I stand by that decision. My problem with the feminist movement of today is that it can very easily shift from being a discussion about equal opportunity to being a #$@%!-fest of generationally entitled whiners and man-haters. Let me give you an example.
I am part of a social media group for women of my faith who are pursuing careers and higher education. It’s a great group with a great mission of mentorship and support, but more often than not it becomes a forum for complaining that everybody doesn’t see life the way you do. For example, the other day I got online only to discover a rather lengthy discussion about how the older generation refuses to acknowledge when a woman chooses to keep her own name. The comment threads were excoriating the simple-minded folks who sent checks as wedding gifts that were made out to the husband, or sent to “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]”, rather than being made out to both as individuals.
My reaction to this was – get over yourselves. I think it’s totally fine if women choose to keep their own names after they get married. It’s something I’m considering now that I have a career. So go ahead and introduce yourself however you want, make your name whatever you want, print your business cards and address your letters however you want, but for goodness’ sake, don’t belittle the nice lady who sent you money for your wedding just because she hasn’t adopted your enlightened view of the world. Not only is it extremely ungrateful, but frankly it seems like a waste to see potentially influential generational leaders bemoan the Ice Age mentality of their forefathers when there are much bigger fish out there to fry.
Additionally, I think it’s rather short-sighted of us, as women, to look at the generations above us and bemoan the fact that they don’t see the world the same way we do. Our foremothers weren’t stupid. They saw a lot in their lifetime, and they paved the way for us to get where we are today. Just because we do things a little differently than they did doesn’t mean they still don’t deserve our respect, as well as our patience when they haven’t bought in to every little cultural change. Some things are worth fighting for, but some things are worth just letting go.
Many of you may chafe at this opinion, and that’s fine. You may say I can’t be a feminist if I’m criticizing the behavior of my fellow feminists. To that, I say you’re wrong. We should absolutely be challenging the movement, just as the movement is challenging the status quo. It’s how we keep the movement honest and on track.
To bring this back to Grace and Aziz, I think, in general, it’s perfectly fine that other women have been questioning Grace’s behavior. It’s good for women to hold each other accountable. It makes us better and stronger, but it doesn’t mean we don’t support each other. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be told I can’t do something because I’m a girl, but that’s a far cry from being anti-feminist because I see some holes in Grace’s story. Feminism, in my mind, is about women having the power to choose how they want to live their lives. It’s about sincere tolerance – not the one-sided hypocrisy we love to call tolerance. It’s about respecting the choice to stay home and be a full-time mom just as much as the choice to not have kids or to chase the chair in the boardroom. And for goodness’ sake, it’s about cutting others some slack for honest and innocent behavior.
After all of this, where do we go from here? Clearly we still have a lot to do in the world of sexual equality, and I think the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are on the right track. I feel bad that Grace had to experience this situation at all, whether or not you want to call it assault, and I want to work harder to help other women have the confidence to walk away, and to help men understand how to read the signs. As for the feminist movement, what I would like to see is a group of women who are friends, who accept differing viewpoints, and who can support the nurturing side of a woman just as much as the ambitious side. I want a group who positively looks forward to the future rather than pointing the finger at the past, or even the present. And I want a group who walks side by side with men, not in front, and not behind. That’s a feminist movement I could join.