Over the weekend, a story broke at the online publication babe detailing a sexual encounter between Golden Globe-winning “Master of None” star Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman who went by “Grace” for the purposes of the report. The title? “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.”
In it she detailed how they met (at an Emmy after-party), how they flirted for the next few days (over texts), how they got together (she came over for drinks at his apartment, then went for dinner and drinks at a fancy restaurant down the street, then came back to his house for more drinks), and how it ended in tears (Ansari moved in aggressively and awkwardly, they had oral sex, she went along with it all until he pushed for intercourse, she rebuffed him, they made out a bit more, she became uncomfortable and asked to leave, he called her an Uber and she left).
The story quickly went viral and social media did what social media does: explode into outrage. Grace’s tale slid into the unfolding narrative of #MeToo and #TimesUp; indeed, the whole thing came about because Ansari, a noted male feminist, wore a #TimesUp button on the Golden Globes red carpet last week. The calls swiftly and mercilessly came: for Ansari to lose his show, for him to be shunned, for his career to end. He was one of the good ones, it’s always the good ones, this is why we can’t have nice things, #YesAllMen, etc.
The only issue with all this is that this story about Ansari is nothing like the ugly tales of sexual abuse that have wafted out of Hollywood over the past six months or so. Not really. From Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assaults and use of blacklists to Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior toward young men to Louis C.K.’s masturbating in front of people without asking, these were all stories that were both criminal in nature and involved an abuse of power over underlings. The #MeToo movement’s story has been a relatively straightforward one that garners support from both sides of the aisle and all decent people, because it is a tale of how powerful people humiliate and subjugate those who want nothing more than a chance to chase their dreams.
The babe story is not about this. It is about a date that went badly, one that did not live up to the expectations of the woman involved. Consider, for instance, the inclusion of this paragraph in the story: “After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine. ‘It was white,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.’ Then Ansari walked her to Grand Banks, an Oyster bar on board a historic wooden schooner on the Hudson River just a few blocks away.” [Emphasis mine.]
The aside about the white/red wine is something that any writer or editor who truly understood the stakes of this story would have taken out of the piece. It makes the subject appear silly, if not bitter or resentful. I honestly thought for a moment that I might be reading a parody after that line: There’s no grander point about consent in this anecdote — if she had asked for white and he had laughed at her and said no and forced her to drink red, well, okay, maybe that would fit a piece like the one we are reading. This isn’t that. It’s simply out of place in a piece that should have immense gravity.
The essay was not parody, of course. It’s altogether too real. And, honestly, it’s altogether believable: I don’t doubt that it played out roughly like she remembers. Ansari himself seems to have accepted Grace’s explanation about how the evening made her feel: in a statement, he said he apologized to her after she told him that their encounter had made her uncomfortable.
Clearly, that conversation didn’t settle things between the pair. And in the absence of a scenario that seems likely to lend itself to the sort of renewed police investigations that have followed reports of Weinstein’s conduct, the babe piece reads like an attempt to punish Ansari by other means. As Caitlin Flanagan put it in a blistering piece titled “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” “what [Grace] and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari.”
I would suggest there’s a reason this story appeared in babe, rather than the New York Times or BuzzFeed or the Los Angeles Times or, yes, The Washington Post. One of the reasons is that, however Grace now thinks of the encounter, what happened isn’t sexual assault or anything close to it by most legal or common-sense standards. And bad dates — including terrible ones that leave one person feeling humiliated — aren’t actually newsworthy, even when they happen to famous people.
But another, larger reason has to do with the fact that this not only harms the #MeToo narrative writ large, it totally derails any future stories about Ansari that might come out. Every piece about him and potential misconduct, unless it’s truly egregious, will be viewed through the lens of Grace’s story: of one unhappy encounter detailed at great and grotesque length by a disappointed date.
The irony of all this is that, while Ansari’s story went viral, another, more important one got lost in the news cycle. Actress Eliza Dushku, writing on her Facebook page, accused a then-36-year-old stunt coordinator of molesting her at the age of 12. It’s a horrifying story, every parent’s worst nightmare — and an actual crime, an actual abuse of power and trust. These are the sorts of tales people interested in clearing Hollywood of abuse should be telling. This is the best way to promulgate the story line.
But, hey, who has time for all that when we’re leering and gagging at the thought of Aziz Ansari maladroitly pursuing a grown woman who regretted her decisions?