Aziz Ansari has been a nagging question mark since Babe.net published *that* story last January.
In the year that followed, Ansari became a talking point for the Me Too movement and the deeply entrenched issues of consent and power within our modern dating culture. At the time, he released a statement saying that he had privately responded to the woman when she first raised these issues after their date. He ended the statement with: “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
But when Ansari embarked on a North American tour only months later, his act did not back up those words.
I attended a Toronto performance last November, hoping that seeing Ansari perform would help me sort out my stance. But after watching him dance around the issue for the entire set, I left still feeling conflicted. At each stop on Ansari’s tour, similar reports emerged about how the comedian’s material criticized “wokeness” and cancel culture, without ever directly addressing the allegations against him. It was disappointing, but—to be fully honest—it wasn’t surprising.
This is the type of “comeback” we keep seeing, particularly from male comedians. In 2017, five women publicly accused Louis C.K. of sexual harassment, including some who said the comedian had masturbated in front of them. In response, C.K. confirmed that the stories were true and promised to “step back and take a long time to listen”—only to return to the stage in 2018 with material that mocked the allegations. T. J. Miller, who was accused of sexually assaulting and punching a woman, left the hit show Silicon Valley but then, following in the footsteps of C.K., started doing surprise performances at comedy clubs. While the allegations against C.K. and Miller constitute sexual assault and harassment, and the accusations against Ansari are more of a grey area, there is a thread that connects them. They seemed to take their “comeback” literally—stepping out of the spotlight for a bit and then coming back. No changes necessary.
This was particularly frustrating with Ansari, a man who built his career off of thoughtful cultural commentary, particularly around the nuances of modern dating. His series Master of None tackled the issue of sexual misconduct allegations in Season 2 and he legit wrote the book on “Modern Romance,” so if he couldn’t take a moment, think about the accusations and thoughtfully respond, who the eff could?
That’s why walking away from Ansari’s show in November felt so defeating. According to Vox, since April 2017, more than 260 celebrities, politicians and CEOs have been accused of sexual misconduct. We’ve seen this story play out over and over again to the point that when allegations surface against a prominent figure, it no longer feels surprising. And yet, what we don’t see is an honest and contrite response, or evidence that the accused made any strides to be better. We don’t see change. Until now.
According to Vulture, during a “pop up” show in New York, Ansari started off his set with the same ol’ material, but then pivoted into the discussion that I’ve been waiting for, but truly thought might never happen. He told the 200 people in attendance (out of more than 18,000 that applied for tickets) that he didn’t address the Babe.net story until now because he needed time to process it. “There were times I felt really upset and humiliated and embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible this person felt this way,” Ansari said, according to Vulture. “But you know, after a year, how I feel about it is, I hope it was a step forward. It made me think about a lot, and I hope I’ve become a better person.”
Reading these sentiments meant more to me than I was expecting. Particularly when Ansari noted that one of his male friends said that the Babe.net controversy made him rethink his entire dating history. Rather than casting that aside, Vulture reported that Ansari said, “If that has made not just me but other guys think about this, and just be more thoughtful and aware and willing to go that extra mile, and make sure someone else is comfortable in that moment, that’s a good thing.”
What makes Ansari’s words stand apart from the statements we’ve seen in the past is his candor, seemingly genuine remorse and self-reflection. He managed to address what happened without belittling or discrediting the anonymous 23-year-old who first accused him, and look at the bigger picture of what these accusations said about the sexist norms we have come to accept.
I wish that this message had been delivered the first time Ansari returned to the public stage. But in a time when we’re being conditioned to expect stubbornness and gaslighting from those accused of sexual misconduct, Ansari’s comments offered something decidedly different. It’s a low bar, but for me, Ansari cleared it.
In an article about Louis C.K.’s attempt to return to the stage, New York Times journalist Amanda Hess noted that it wasn’t fair to call what he was doing a comeback.”A comeback implies a hero’s journey—an adventure, a transformation, a triumphant return,” she wrote, adding that the description does not apply to C.K. And while I wouldn’t call Ansari’s recent show a “triumphant return,” it does show evidence of a transformation—and that is enough to restore my hope that things can get better.
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