Few people would probably imagine the horrifying accusations of sexual assault that have gone public in the past few months, collectively referred to as the #MeToo movement, as a dinner party conversation.
But maybe “Saturday Night Live” was making a point Saturday in its sketch about a literal dinner party: that much of the public conversation about celebrities accused in #MeToo proceeded largely in head-nodding consensus, like agreeable table talk to pass the time while the waiter brings coffee.
At least it did so until one particular celebrity came up.
Almost no one defended movie mogul Harvey Weinstein after his accusers came forward last year. Then came Kevin Spacey’s #MeToo moment. Get rid of him, too, the commentariat said.
Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with young women, lost his Senate election in Alabama. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) agreed to step down after he was accused of groping women. The public conversation moved on to the next allegation.
And then, this month, a woman told a story about a date with actor Aziz Ansari, accusing him of pressuring her into sex acts despite her protests, and — did someone just throw a plate?
The SNL sketch begins with a table of couples, amiably discussing dogs and roasted carrots, until cast member Heidi Gardner asks whether anyone read the New York Times op-ed about Ansari.
Which op-ed? The one that rebuked him: “What your dad called the thrill of the chase is now what some people are calling assault”? Or the one that defended him: “Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of not being a mind reader”?
Opinion has almost perfectly split over how to treat the Ansari accusations, as Molly Roberts wrote in The Washington Post. On SNL, no one at the table knew what to say either. The restaurant suddenly darkened. Cast member Beck Bennett hid his face inside his turtleneck, and a horror movie score swelled on the soundtrack.
“I … think,” Kate McKinnon stuttered. “I think some women … or rather some men … have a proclivity … help me.”
Kenan Thompson tried to form a thought: “While I applaud the movement …”
“Watch it,” Gardner warned him.
“It’s just that I wonder if maybe we’re setting it back?” Thompson told a circle of horrified faces.
Someone in the Times actually wrote much the same thing: that the website Babe’s decision to publish an anonymous woman’s account that Ansari had failed to pick up on her nonverbal cues of discomfort — even as she gave him oral sex at one point — was “the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.”
But for every essay condemning the woman or the website, there was another like this one in the Dallas Morning News, which called Ansari’s actions that night not rape but “rapey” — a sort of culturally sanctioned form of sexual aggression that many women expect from men, but should not have to tolerate.
“It seems like if she wanted to leave …” Bennett told the other diners.
“Oh no!” said Will Ferrell.
“… She could have just left,” Bennett said, and across the table a speechless Thompson stabbed his hand with a knife, and Gardner simply willed herself to disappear for the rest of the sketch.
When Thompson pulled the knife from his hand and attempted to discuss “the way this intersects with the issue of race,” the scene cuts to stock footage of a solar eclipse and a nuclear bomb. Ansari is of Indian ancestry, and a similarly explosive reaction greeted an Atlantic essay by Caitlin Flanagan, in which she wrote: “I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men.”
While Flanagan saw racial aggression in #MeToo, yet another opinion piece in the Times posited a generational divide between how she and younger writers view the movement.
It speaks to how severely Ansari’s case has disrupted the public consensus that “SNL” aired its sketch about him a full two weeks after he was accused in the Babe article — after Spacey and so many others fell out of the public conversation within a few news cycles.
By the end of the sketch, the dinner party passed a point of no return. Everyone was bloodied or traumatized, and there could be no more agreeable chats about dogs.
“We are in a post-Babe.net universe now,” McKinnon said.
An earlier version of this story said Ansari is Muslim. In fact, he has said his parents are Muslim, but that he is not religious. The story had been revised to note only his Indian ancestry in the paragraph that discusses race.