How the Aziz Ansari Story Reveals the Toxicity of Internalized Gender Roles

Aziz Ansari (Photo Credit: Ruvan Wijesooriya )

By Guest Contributor:  Tiffany Tso

I’ve been chewing on Babe’s Aziz Ansari story for the last couple of days. The story, detailing a 23-year-old photographer’s sexual encounter with the comedian, has caused a splinter in the #MeToo movement, which I expected. Ansari is generally regarded as a male ally to the feminist movement. So just as people came to the immediate defense of George Takei, I knew there would be an army of Aziz defenders. However, I didn’t realize female journalists would join in on the chorus of victim-shaming and, essentially, defend “Grace” and Ansari’s interaction as “normal.”

The interaction that took place between the two felt familiar: a sexual cat and mouse game between a horny male and his female date. The overly aggressive persistence of a guy trying to get laid, regardless of what his partner wants. Grace gave him non-verbal (and even verbal) cues that she didn’t want to fool around, but Ansari ignored them. Since none of us were in the room, we’ll never know if he noticed these cues and willfully ignored them, or if he felt like he was getting a green light to try and try again.

Much of the ensuing conversation around Babe’s article has been predictable. “Why didn’t she leave?” “Why would she perform oral sex if she didn’t want to?” “He’s not a mind-reader.” A lot of this Twitter commentary came from seemingly male-identifying people. Much to my surprise, there was a cacophony of self-proclaimed #MeToo supporters who echoed these sentiments.

Fairly reductive opinion pieces from big time publishers followed. Bari Weiss called it “bad sex,” shamed the woman for not walking away, and named the article “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement.” Caitlin Flanagan called the story “3,000 words of revenge porn” and shamed “modern girls” for being “weak” against sexual assault or coercion. What both Weiss and Flanagan failed to mention with their hot takes was the key issue of consent — enthusiastic consent, that is, and not just a browbeaten “yes.” Lindy West provided many counterpoints to Flanagan’s claim that old guard feminists are somehow better-equipped to fight against sexual assault. “Modern girls” aren’t weak, and they do have anti-rape literature and language (as should Aziz Ansari). In fact, modern feminists have been expanding on our definitions of consent, rape culture and the reclamation of female power.

It is modern feminists who are reading and responding to Grace’s story with support, rather than blame. They believe that sexual assault and abuse expand further than what is written in law. And even if Ansari shouldn’t be prosecuted in criminal court, his behavior was still morally wrong and deserved to be called out.

The most disturbing aftermath to this exposé is the number of people ready to go to bat for the experience itself, calling it “normal.” Yes, these kinds of sexual encounters are incredibly normal in our society, but do we have to keep on normalizing it?

I would put myself in the “modern feminists” camp. I relate with Grace. I, like most women, have had similar experiences, ranging from obnoxious to potentially dangerous. Though now nearing 30, I suffer much less bullshit and may have handled the situation differently. Yet, I can imagine my younger self succumbing as Grace did.

Last night, I found myself in a text message debate with a friend who has a decade on me. She’s worked in the film industry, so she has seen and endured rampant sexual harassment and abuse of power, and she generally aligns herself with the victims. But with this Aziz story, we hit a bit of a road bump. My friend referenced Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic, saying it encapsulated how she felt about the story.

“Aziz is a pig. He’s not a rapist. He didn’t [sexually] assault her, she’s not bruised. Maybe just her ego,” she wrote. “She should’ve left. Yes he disrespected her, but she kept on letting it continue.”

I understood her point. Based on Grace’s story, Aziz isn’t a rapist. The interaction doesn’t read like the textbook assault cases from the rest of Hollywood and media’s sexual assault reckoning. Based on Grace’s account, he violated her at the very least. At the worst, he ignored non-verbal and verbal cues and assaulted her — not all sexual assault ends in bruises. Either way, what he did wasn’t right.

That he might have purposefully or unintentionally missed Grace’s cues and forged ahead leads me to believe that Ansari doesn’t have a firm understanding of enthusiastic consent. That ignorance puts him in the position to toe the line of sexual assault, or worse. The most damning part of the Babe story is when Grace alleges that she told Ansari she didn’t “want to feel forced.” You don’t need telepathy to understand that as a stop sign. At that point, a person in Ansari’s position should wait until their date initiates before engaging in any more sexual activity.

My friend made a great point when she admitted to being in similar situations and how she handled them. “I could’ve left each time. None of the guys I was with would’ve harmed me. I could’ve simply left, but I didn’t because I let it go too far like the [‘Cat Person’] article … I was taught not to make a fuss, which means others’ comfort and well-being come first.”

This all-too-common psyche explains why Grace didn’t leave, why she didn’t punch him or “use a four-letter word.” It’s the reason why “Cat Person” resonated with so many women. Society has taught women to value politeness over their bodily autonomy, which leads to a lot of “bad sex.” Women have internalized this lesson: submitting oneself to a regrettable sexual encounter is somehow a better alternative to damaging the male ego.

Ansari is also a victim of internalized gender roles. Toxic masculinity decrees that men must chase sex — or what else will they brag about in the figurative locker room? The barrage of Ansari protectors, who want to assure the world that Grace’s experience wasn’t worthy of complaint, are actively preserving these toxic gender roles. The assumption that a woman who goes to a man’s house should be subjected to sexual coercion is also a symptom of this toxicity. Anyone who calls themselves a “feminist” should be working harder to break out of these damaging societal bonds. Upholding these scenarios as the standard causes harm to younger generations who are learning what “normal” sexual behavior looks like from us.

The constant collision between performative (and abusive) toxic male behavior and the learned non-confrontation of female behavior leads to situations like the one amplified in the Babe story happening over and over again. Until the end of time.

While we can certainly ask more from Babe’s reporting — I took issue with some of the sloppy journalism — the story started some important conversations around the murkiness of abuse and consent.

I don’t actually think my film industry friend and I are really that far apart in our thoughts on this topic. But I think I am more willing to reject the norms our patriarchal society has forced on us and ask the same of everyone else. The last message I sent her before falling asleep was: “Let’s just throw this society away and get a new one.”

(Writer’s note: If you’d like to educate yourself on consent, this is a good place to start.)

Tiffany Tso

Tiffany Diane Tso is a journalist and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. She has written for Banana Magazine, Mic and Ladygunn on topics surrounding art, culture and identity.

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