Aziz Ansari and his series Master of None inadvertently reveal a gap between public ideals and private behavior
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Comedian Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None, with its foul language and sexual content, is by no means the best comedy streaming on Netflix right now. But Ansari’s recent newsworthiness, and what his actions mean for the “Time’s Up” anti-harassment movement, make the show worth talking about—if not worth watching.
Ansari, 34, gained notoriety as Tom Haverford on NBC’s popular Parks and Recreation. In Ansari’s 2015 book, Modern Romance, he wrote about being a second-generation Indian-American and mused on the pros and cons of his parents’ arranged marriage versus today’s phone-focused dating rituals. For that book, he also worked with a sociologist to conduct hundreds of online and in-person interviews on courtship and dating.
That same year, Netflix released the first season of Master of None. The writing is a creative, fictional outgrowth of Ansari’s nonfiction book research and his own life. The first season showcased the many dating foibles of his character, an aspiring actor named Dev, in New York City. Amusing at times, the show depicts one man’s restless and indecisive search for love, often through casual sex and (later) through intense heartache for one woman in particular. Master of None did fairly well with fans and critics, earning a second season and winning Ansari, in January, a Golden Globe for best actor.
Then, just a few days after the Golden Globes ceremony, it seemed Ansari’s career would be the latest casualty of #TimesUp. An unidentified woman went to a little-known news outlet with a story about an encounter with Ansari. She met him at a party, went on a date with him, and went to his apartment. There, she said, she felt pressured multiple times by Ansari to have sex and to perform sexual acts she didn’t want to do. (Ansari says the activity “by all indications was completely consensual.”)
What’s different about this incident—unlike those involving Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, and John Conyers, among many others—is that it lacks an extreme imbalance of power. In these cases, men in positions of power reportedly abused or harassed women working as their less-powerful colleagues or employees, or women who sought jobs from them.
With Ansari’s anonymous accuser, the anti-harassment movement has stepped into murkier territory. A woman who met Ansari under “normal” circumstances chose to spend more time in private with him. She clearly had different expectations than he did, but Ansari, although a celebrity, wasn’t her employer. He was just a date.
Other celebrities have timidly offered Ansari a quasi-defense. Famously vulgar comedian Amy Schumer called his actions “not cool” on a podcast, but also said, “I think it’s about expressing and showing women that that behavior’s not OK and not only can you leave, but you need to leave.” Master of None actress Lena Waithe said, “We have to create codes of conduct. … How do you know what appropriate behavior is if no one’s ever communicated to you what appropriate behavior is?” SNL aired a sketch about a bunch of friends tiptoeing around one question: Why didn’t Ansari’s date just leave?
All of this makes Master of None interesting in this cultural moment: Aziz Ansari should have known exactly what appropriate dating behavior is. He actually wrote a book about it, a book that bemoans dating trends like “ghosting.” He pokes fun at “creepy dudes” in his stand-up routines. A major storyline from Master of None reveals Dev’s colleague, a public figure, to be a harasser, and then highlights Dev’s bumbling media response. (Ansari has said he had Roger Ailes in mind when he wrote it.) And yet the dating etiquette guru of his generation stands accused of hurting someone because he pushed her too far.
For Christians, the standard for appropriate behavior is the pursuit of purity—a foreign concept for most of Hollywood. “Time’s Up,” together with #MeToo, could introduce opportunities for national conversation about raising dating standards, which could in turn have a positive ripple effect on marriage and families, the pro-life movement, and public health in general.
That sounds like a storyline worth following.
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