No, Aziz Ansari isn't a mind reader. But he is a Golden Globe winning actor, an Emmy award nominated director, and an Emmy award winning television writer, all for the television show he and Alan Yang created, Master of None. And if you've seen Master of None, you know that Aziz does — or at the very least, should — know better than to behave the way he did in the sexual assault allegations recounted to Babe.
The essay has stirred up a serious — and incredibly divisive — conversation in wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. "Grace," the individual identified only by a first name that's not actually her own, went on a date with the actor only to have him continually violate the boundaries she attempted to set. She described her experience as "sexual assault." Many online, however, are arguing that Grace didn't set her boundaries clearly enough and that their encounter was nothing more than a "bad date."
But those discussions don't just exist online. Australia's Cosmopolitan shared an article from a writer who argued about the Aziz Ansari story with her boyfriend. HLN's Ashleigh Banford said on her show Crime & Justice that Grace was the one setting the #MeToo movement back by calling her experience "assault" instead of just "unpleasant." In discussions with my friends, some said Grace's decision not to clearly say no or remove herself from the actor's apartment left room for an unfortunate misunderstanding and some seriously creepy behavior — but nothing ultimately predatory. But the thing is, Aziz's own work counters every single one of those arguments.
Take for example "Ladies and Gentlemen," the seventh episode of Master of None's first season. In it, the show explores the different experiences that men and women have existing in the same world — and it's got plenty of uncomfortable parallels to the real world scenario we're seeing play out right now. Men not accepting "no," men pursuing women who have given both verbal and physical indications that they're not interested, men trying to negotiate a woman's refusal after the fact, men not listening enough to women sharing their own experiences, and men not believing women's lived experiences.
The episode starts in a bar where Dev, Aziz's character, is getting a drink with his friend Arnold. It's taking forever because the bartender keeps serving hot girls instead of them. Cut to Diana, a woman also at a bar who is approached by a man named Derek who bought them each a shot of tequila. Diana verbally refuses ("Nah, I don't really want a shot."), only for Derek to aggressively say, "Great, so I just paid for these and now I have to throw them out?" and takes both shots himself. And it doesn't stop there. When he suggests that they should hang out sometime, Diana gives a "soft no" — a no that doesn't actually include the word "no" — when she says, "That's so nice… I'm gonna catch up with my friends." It's clear that Derek understands that he's being turned down. And yet, when she leaves the bar later, he follows her. Diana's clear "no" didn't dissuade Derek. Her polite, friendly "soft no" didn't do it either.
When Diana walks home, she's careful, walking down the middle of the street so that she can't be grabbed by someone passing her on the sidewalk and dialing 9-1- on her phone, ready to press the last 1, just in case. But when she finally gets to her street, Derek catches up, calling out to her. She ducks inside her building, but before the door can fully close behind her, Derek catches it and follows her in. She makes it safely into her apartment and locks the door, but even when she thinks she's finally safe, Derek starts knocking. Again, she's clear: "Dude, please leave." But it's not enough. Even as she finishes dialing 911, Derek continues trying to negotiate through the door about why she should give him a chance. "Let a nice guy win for once," he says. "Tell me where I went wrong. Just lay it out for me."
In the real life scenario, Aziz also continued to pursue Grace after she she asked if they could slow things down ("Let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill."), physically stopped their encounter ("He probably moved my hand to his d–k five to seven times… He really kept doing it after I moved it away."), and literally got up and walked away ("It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following… It was really repetitive. It felt like a f–king game."). He asked her several times, "Where do you want me to f–k you?" until she gave in and suggested that they could have sex on their second date. But again, he continued to try and negotiate the boundaries that she set and consent she gave: "He goes, 'Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?'"
"If you're born with a vagina, everybody knows creepy dudes are just part of the deal," Denise says in the show. And for Aziz's character Dev, the rest of the episode is spent continuing to learn this lesson, including an encounter where the director of a commercial Aziz was working on introduces himself to and shakes hands with all the guys at Aziz's table — including two strangers who happened to be sitting nearby — but doesn't acknowledge Rachel, Dev's girlfriend, or Denise. When Rachel complains after the director has left, Dev refuses to consider that the experience was one rooted in sexism. "Fine, deny our perception of the world," Rachel says. "You’re not listening to what I’m trying to say at all."
At another point in the ep, Dev and Denise witness a stranger masturbating on the subway. Instead of letting the incident pass, the two decide to make a citizen's arrest and the police are called (though notably they also considered posting proof online "so he can never get a job again"). While waiting to give their statement, Dev asks the man, "Why would you do this? Why not just jerk off at home like everybody else?" He replies, "Honestly? It’s just what I’m into… What if society told you you couldn’t do the sexual acts that you liked?" "Well, the sexual acts that we like don’t traumatize other people," Dev says.
But in real life, the sexual acts that the actor performed did traumatize Grace. And she tried to communicate at several times that she was not comfortable with the way their interaction was going. "I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you," she explained after excusing herself to the bathroom for five minutes to collect herself. Initially, Aziz appeared to understand that she was communicating that she was currently feeling forced, responding, "Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun," and suggesting that they chill on the couch.
However, even after they sat down — with Grace sitting on the floor instead of next to him, presumably to continue putting some distance between them — he pushed the issue. He gestured for her to give him oral sex, made out with her after she did, and said, "Doesn’t look like you hate me," as if to imply that he must not have forced — or that she was okay with it after all. He even returned to his "Where do you want me to f–k you?" line of questioning, despite her earlier insistence that she didn't want to sleep with him on the first night, until she again verbally communicated her refusal. "I stood up and said no, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this."
But again, that no — this time a clear and concise "no" — seemed open to negotiation for the actor. He suggested they just chill "but this time with our clothes on," but later attempted to undress her again, prompting her to finally end the evening and head home. Those who see the encounter as a "bad date" question why she didn't do so or say no before. But by this point, Grace tried to communicate her discomfort verbally and physically. She told Aziz that she was feeling forced, only for him to assure her he understood and that he didn't want her to feel forced — and then he continued the same behaviors that made her feel that way. Grace communicated that she didn't want to have sex that night. Aziz continued pressuring her to do so. She said no, something she'd been clearly saying the whole evening even if she hadn't used the word "no." Again, he indicated that he understood and was okay with her decision — and then began to undermine it once more.
Grace said no with her both her actions and words and the actor acted like he accepted that before simply trying a new tactic to get a "yes." Arguably, his apparent understanding, respect for her decision, and use of the language of affirmative consent ("It's only fun if we're both having fun" and "How about we just chill, but this time with our clothes on?") could be the reason that the encounter continued for so long. Aziz signaled to Grace each time she refused that he was on the same page and okay with waiting, and she was willing to give him — someone she liked, or at least was interested in dating — another shot. It was only later that she realized the degree to which he systematically made her feel comfortable enough to stay and then violated the boundaries she'd set.
Grace calls it assault. "This was not what I expected. I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one," she said. "I had to say no a lot… It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault." Other women have cited similar encounters that they don't identify as sexual assault, and that is their prerogative when speaking to their lived experiences. But when it comes to Grace's, she's the one who gets to identify it and define it. "When somebody… tells me that I’m wrong without having any way of knowing my personal experience, it’s insulting," Rachel tells Dev in the show.
In a statement about the encounter, Aziz wrote that the sexual encounter was "by all means… completely consensual." "Everything did seem OK to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned," he said. "I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said."
In my conversations with my friends, I tried to consider the actor's point of view. Maybe he really did think that everything was consensual. Maybe he wasn't just using the language of affirmative consent to make Grace feel more comfortable, but genuinely thought that he was doing enough to check in, let things cool off, and try again. But that doesn't mean that he didn't assault Grace. "I'm not saying you're a sexist monster," Rachel explained to Dev when he didn't see the sexism she found inherent in their interaction with the director. "I just think it’s weird that your first instinct is to act like I'm crazy… instead of just believing me."
"I'll try to do a better job of listening, all right?" Dev said.
"Ladies and Gentlemen" came out in 2015. Aziz didn't write the episode — the story was by Andrew Blitz and the teleplay by Sarah Peters and Zoe Jarman — but he did act in it. And, presumably, he's also watched it. "What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say," Aziz said about the episode in a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast. But in this interaction in 2017, he seemed to have forgotten the episode's message.
Aziz is not Dev (in this interaction, the actor was more like a Derek), and, in fact, the writing on his show clearly condemns some of the character's actions. Presumably, as a self-avowed feminist, the star knows the right way to respect and appreciate women's safety and bodily autonomy. At least, that's what is indicated by his show crafting a storyline around how it is wrong to try and negotiate a woman's refusal, not respect her right to say no, pursue her after that fact, and disregard her perspective on her own experiences. And yet the Master of None co-creator did not practice what his show preaches.
Through his own show, Aziz demonstrated that he knew better. But that didn't stop him at any point. Again, maybe he truly thought he was doing enough and he still just has a lot left to learn. Unlike the man masturbating on the subway car, I don't know that this "Internet shaming," to use Dev's words, should make it so "he can never get a job again." But I also don't think that we as viewers, to use Derek's words, should feel obligated to "give a nice guy a shot." The Master of None star is similarly not obligated to release any further statement apologizing to his fans or recommitting himself to learning about freely-given consent.
But, as a self-proclaimed feminist and Time's Up supporter, he has a unique opportunity to address and begin further conversations about consent, the miscommunications that can come with trying to attain it, and how to clear them up at a grand scale. There's even space to do this in his work, assuming that this time he's ready and able to hold himself to the same standards that his narratives ask of his character. But personally, until I know that he's truly reflected on his own actions, where he failed to get a "yes" instead of avoiding or ignoring a "no," and how he can avoid making those same mistakes in the future, I don't know that I'll tune in again to any of his work.
To be frank, his track record isn't encouraging, especially surrounding his refusal to speak on the sexual misconduct revelations about Louis C.K.. The comedian was once his co-star on Parks and Recreation and allegedly his occasional mentor, as well — and that real-life story is mirrored in another one of his Master of None episodes, season two's "Buona Notte." Again, he's under no obligation to the public to take on the responsibility of addressing those issues. But considering how he positions himself as an advocate, it seems like a major misstep to specifically avoid doing so.
In a side plot of "Ladies and Gentlemen," Dev listens to his female costars on a commercial complain about the sexism they experience in their lives. The same evening, he realizes and discusses the commercial's own sexist narrative with the director. When he arrives on set the next morning, he discovers that the commercial has been rewritten to right that wrong — and that the role he played was no longer included. The character is frustrated to learn that striving for equality might mean he loses out on some opportunities he was previously offered at women’s expense. But his female costars are so grateful for the gesture that they buy him a cake. "It’s really nice that you tried to see it from our perspective," they tell him.
I hope Aziz tries to see this encounter, and the ensuing discussion and backlash, from Grace's perspective. But if he expects a cake and a thank you for it every time, well, that only happens in fiction.