I rather liked Aziz Ansari. As a South Asian person growing up in North America, there weren’t many representations of brown people in the media that I could identify with.
Ansari changed that with his show Master of None. It was endearing how his own Muslim parents played his character’s parents on the show.
He featured their story of migration, and his own experiences of being a brown person in a racist film industry.
His show also touched upon issues of sexual harassment and the daily, insidious forms of sexism that women experience. It was funny, progressive, political, and filled a much-needed gap in television.
My friends and I would discuss the show and feel inspired to write our own, perhaps one that represented brown women better.
But, when I read of Grace’s account of her experience with Aziz Ansari and how the date left her feeling assaulted and traumatised, I felt a sense of disappointment that has become increasingly familiar.
When allegations of sexual assault came to light about the charming, socially progressive, self-proclaimed feminist Canadian radio personality, Jian Ghomeshi, whom I used to follow with great admiration as a teenager, I felt sick to my stomach.
He was a brown person with a different-sounding name and a relatable immigrant experience, who got to meet and have in-depth, illuminating conversations with celebrities from around the world.
To me he represented opportunity and space for people of colour within the arts in Canada. But then I found out that when he wasn’t on the radio being socially progressive, he was being accused of assaulting women.
Such disappointing revelations continued to follow. One of my creative writing professors in university was fired after allegations of harassment and bullying surfaced.
Like Ghomeshi, like Ansari, he was charming, funny, successful and well connected in the industry, and was expressive about his progressive values. There was great furore within Canadian literary circles about the right course of action.
When the university broke the news of his suspension and then subsequent termination, some of us were shocked and disturbed; others repeated hushed warnings they had received from fellow women about his problematic behaviour.
I remember telling one of my women friends: “I’ve learned not to trust charming, eloquent men. I think I prefer quiet feminists.”
Then there was Tariq Ramadan. In a climate of increasing Islamophobia, his was another personality I had valued.
His voice felt important, necessary, but the allegations against him suggested a reality that was very different from his public persona.
I was left wondering if my immediate reaction to men, including men of colour, who like to publicly declare their progressive values, should be that of skepticism.
This isn’t to say that Ramadan and Ghomeshi and Ansari all allegedly behaved at the same level of violence.
The point is their careers and personal lives benefited from the progressive values they publically aligned themselves with and espoused in their work whilst they seem to have failed to practice them in their private lives.
I can only imagine the outrage and injustice Grace may have felt as she watched Ansari standing on the Golden Globes stage in the all-black dress code to show support for the #MeToo movement, wearing a Time’s Up pin, winning an award for a show that has received critical acclaim for the way it engages with issues of sexual harassment and sexism.
She saw that it didn’t seem to matter how Ansari behaved behind closed doors.
On stage and on his show, he said the right things, he believed in the right things, he showed up wearing the right things, he had the right politics, and he was being celebrated for all of this.
The hypocrisy of it all was what fuelled her to share her experience of Ansari. To show to the world, and perhaps to him, that Ansari’s politics didn’t match his actions.
Ansari’s own Netflix series flirts with the idea of public perception. It may or may not be self-aware, but Master of None depicts the ease with which men can identify with feminism and socially profit from such identification without having to put in hard work or having to engage in serious self-reflection.
In the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen”, Dev Shah, played by Ansari, discovers the different forms of sexism that women experience.
In one scene, Dev and his best friend Arnold listen to their female friends, Rachel and Denise, share their daily experiences of sexism: being followed home, getting unwelcome sexual advances, etc.
Arnold asks: “Listen, tell us something. What can two gentlemen like us do to help?"
Rachel, Dev’s girlfriend replies: "I don't know. Don't do that stuff?" This is perhaps the most apt moment in that entire episode.
However, instead of Dev and Arnold examining how to ensure that they do not do that sexist stuff, the episode depicts Dev heroically saving the day.
Dev and Denise do a citizen’s arrest of a man masturbating on the subway.
Despite the fact that both Denise and Dev made the arrest, the episode follows Dev and the attention and appreciation he gets from the women around him for this incident.
He shares the story with some women at the bar, going into descriptive detail about how he got the man arrested.
The women are impressed. One says: “Damn.”
The other says: “Good for you, man, wow.”
Denise is not present in the scene and does not get to tell the story.
After sharing the story, the women at the bar begin opening up to him, telling him about their experiences of sexism, and as one women explains how she was asked to smile more by a stranger, Dev jumps in speaking passionately to the women encircled around him:
“Why should you smile more? Why? Because women get paid 23 cents less on the dollar. Because the government’s trying to regulate your body? You smile more? Uhn, uhn, him smile less!”
He moves to another group of women and repeats his story of the citizen’s arrest. One of them laughs and exclaims approvingly: "That's awesome! Let's all do shots."
Then there’s a lot of cheering and fist pumping and loud music and women dancing around Dev.
The scene ends not with the women’s stories, but with a celebration of Dev’s feminist rhetoric.
The progressive words he shares, which are inspired by the distressing stories the women have shared with him, are shown as socially benefiting him in that scene, which may have been the point of the scene.
Similarly, in the second season’s finale, it is revealed that Dev’s friend and celebrity co-star, Chef Jeff has been accused of sexual harassment.
The episode is not about the women who accuse Chef Jeff. The harassment serves as a plot point: it’s a blow for Dev’s career plans.
Dev becomes worried about his association with a harasser. He doesn’t do anything until the allegations go public.
When they do, Chef Jeff and Dev are on live television, and Dev immediately becomes concerned with the optics of the situation, and distances himself from Chef Jeff to protect his image, insisting that if Chef Jeff did anything inappropriate, he doesn’t condone that behaviour.
Once again, Dev isn’t able to delve deeper into the issue, and the episode doesn’t go far enough to question what Dev could have done or should have done.
It doesn’t do much to push the conversation further or ask uncomfortable questions of Dev or the audience.
Ansari’s own response to Grace’s allegations feel like an act of virtue signalling.
He maintained that his sexual interactions with Grace were to him by all indications consensual, and then he used his statement to further publically align himself with the right values and reaffirm his public image.
Rather than questioning or admitting that perhaps he failed to understand what consent looks like, he ended his statement with: “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
The unfortunate reality is how common and easy performative feminism is, and how many of us celebrate such feminism, particularly when it’s men who are performing it.
Louis C.K., too, has been celebrated for his progressive politics, and had he attended the Golden Globes event, we can probably assume he too would have been dressed in black, possibly even wearing the Time’s Up pin.
Perhaps if Harvey Weinstein hadn’t already been outed and had attended such an event, he too may have abided by the dress code, supported the Time’s Up movement, said the rights things before the cameras, and expressed his support for women’s empowerment.
James Franco, too, appeared on that stage and collected a Golden Globe wearing the Time’s Up pin. Allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced shortly after. One of his accusers and a former student of his, Sarah Tither-Kaplan, described seeing him on stage with the pin, as “a slap in my face.”
In hushed whispers
Even within community activism, I observed men who would deliberately sideline women, speak over them, take up too much space, threaten them, take credit for their work, objectify them, and then the next day show up on some panel to preach about the virtues of gender equality and social justice while quoting feminist literature or posting selfies of themselves at a march.
The common theme was that not all of our so-called feminist brothers were allies.
Over meals and after hours in conversations, women in the community would talk. “Protect your ideas,” a woman activist warned me.
Another woman scholar warned me about the sexist and racist behaviour of a professor I was planning on working with.
Hints would be dropped about certain figures with subtle warnings. Disturbing stories would be shared of harrowing experiences of men.
There were different kinds and levels of exploitation and misbehaviour. From sexual harassment to stealing ideas.
There were no easy answers on what to do in each scenario, how to react or resolve the issue, but these were painful and frustrating conversations and questions women were engaging in, and have had to engage in for generations.
Through the years, I learned that women and femmes recognised these types of male feminists. We know them, we warn each other of them, and we try to stay away.
Even so, we watch, often from the sidelines, from within our whisper networks, how the careers of such men flourish and thrive based on the image they have created of themselves through feminism.
They exploit women’s trauma and women’s emotional labour for their public image and to advance their careers. Watching some of these men, indeed, feels like a slap in the face.
By aligning themselves with the rights politics of the time, they can write books and produce art on social justice, and then get praise and recognition for such work, accumulating social and financial capital. Being feminist in public further entrenches and solidifies their power and prestige.
Their show gets renewed for another season. They make it on to listicles such as “9 Male Celebrities Who Are Feminists and Proud” and “28 Famous Men who Prove You Don’t Need To Be A Woman To Be A Feminist” (Louis C.K. and Ansari are on these lists).
Whereas, women, who put in the emotional labour to produce movements by sharing their traumas and pointing their fingers at the problem, make themselves vulnerable to attacks.
For women, the cost of self-empowerment or being feminists in public can be high. It is not only emotionally and physically laborious, it can be life-threatening.
There’s the well-known example of Qandeel Baloch, who was killed for her life choices and for practicing her ideals.
Countless women put up with harassment to make a place for themselves within their industry – be it academia or the film industry.
Be it America or Pakistan, vocal women, who speak out about sexism, will receive death threats, rape threats, and sometimes these threats materialise.
If not met with direct violence, women who stand up for themselves or share their stories, will be mercilessly torn apart in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.
What was she wearing? Why did she stay? Why didn’t she call the police? How do we know she’s telling the truth? Is she trying to destroy his career? Was it intentional?
Which is why many women remain silent, or use a pseudonym, as Grace did.
Which is why, instead of a class action there is a crowdsourced spreadsheet titled Sexual Harassment in the Academy with thousands of anonymous testimonies of assault, abuse, bullying, intimidation and harassment at universities.
Which is why most women don’t report their assaults to the police. Which is why most women don’t take their rapists to court.
We need to talk
As feminism becomes mainstream and acceptable — a cultural shift that brings me hope — it’s important to continue to engage with feminist ideals thoughtfully, critically and in depth.
In an era of hashtags and online petitions how do we ensure critical and meaningful engagement?
How do we ensure these important conversations aren’t just taking place in public for others to see, but are also conversations we’re having with ourselves?
Or maybe we need to ask what are the failures of our progressive politics? Do our politics not demand enough?
Do they not educate enough? What causes the gap between the idea and the embodiment of the idea?
In what ways is social media helpful and in what ways does it make it too easy to perform? What is the alternative? How do we demand more? How do we educate better?
The goal of feminist movements such as the #MeToo movement is not to get men to wear pins or show up to feminist marches or get them to publicly identify as feminists. That’s too easy.
One of its central goals should be to ensure that men, as Rachel in Master of None puts it, “don’t do that stuff.”
The goal is embodied feminism, not performative feminism. It is a laborious and difficult process that requires self-reflection and contemplation on one’s personal actions, away from the limelight and hashtags.