The Aziz Ansari you see in public is different from the Aziz Ansari you might meet in private.
You might think he wrongly treated a woman we now know as “Grace,” 23-year-old photographer who told babe.net that Ansari took advantage of her on a first date. Or you might think he’s in the clear, guilty only of a failure to read Grace’s mind.
But both sides might agree: Just because Ansari plays Dev, a self-described male feminist, on his award-winning Netflix show “Master of None,” doesn’t mean he’ll act like a “woke bae” in real life. Just because Ansari has convened focus groups with men and women about what it’s like to date in the Tinder era — and has written a book called “Modern Romance” — doesn’t mean he’ll be respectful or empathic in his own dating life. And just because Ansari sported a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes in support of combating sexual harassment and assault doesn’t mean he’ll be an attentive sexual partner hyper-focused on consent.
It’s a disconnect that, in fact, all women face: Just because a man acts one way in public, doesn’t mean he’ll act that way in private. That chasm is part of what makes many of the #MeToo stories so frightening.
In her telling, Grace made clear, verbally and non-verbally, that she was uncomfortable with how quickly things escalated on their date and how persistent Ansari was in resuming sexual activity even once she said she wanted to slow down.
Ansari has responded to Grace’s account, saying that their night together “by all indications was completely consensual” but that he took her differing view to heart. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” Ansari said.
I’m not going to make pronouncements about how she should have spoken up more forcefully or he should have stopped the encounter sooner — especially since it’s an anonymous account (Grace is not her real name). Instead, let’s address a piece of Grace’s comments that are applicable to everyone — to Grace, Ansari and those reading and retweeting at home.
In her account, Grace notes that Ansari’s public persona, as the wokest of woke baes, made her expect someone more respectful than the man she encountered. “I didn’t leave because I think I was stunned and shocked,” she tells babe of why it took her awhile to exit the situation. “This was not what I expected. I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one.”
Grace might have been expecting Ansari the comedian, the man who calls on daters to be nicer to one another. Or maybe she was expecting Ansari the creator of “Master of None,” in which his character Dev prides himself on performing citizen’s arrests on public masturbators, and defends and believes victims of workplace harassment rather than siding with the more powerful men being accused of impropriety. Maybe Ansari often resembles those characters, but her encounter with him doesn’t read that way.
Everyone, whether they’re famous or not, acts differently in public than they might in private. That’s the terrifying and beautiful thing about romantic relationships: When you’re with someone, you get the private version of a person, the messy, wonderful and vulnerable parts that the rest of the world never gets to see.
In an established partnership, those dual identities might be well-established, the boundaries clearly drawn. But when you’re just getting to know someone, you have no idea what a person will be like when you’re alone. You don’t know whether the man who calls himself a feminist on television or on his Tinder profile, who rails against mansplainers and manterrupters during dinner, will listen when you say “let’s take it slow” back at his place. Will he be conscientious about confirming that consent is affirmative and enthusiastic? He might. Or he might push past a woman’s protestations because coercion has worked for him before, because that’s how our culture teaches men to seduce — that you push and push until you wear her down.
A Tinder profile full of pictures at the Women’s March could mean someone is politically active, or that they’re trying to absolve their guilt for years of not voting. Tons of travel pics could mean this person is a fabulous jet-setter, or a homebody trying to pay off credit card debt incurred nabbing those shots. A bio that says “proud feminist” could mean they sincerely believe in equality of the sexes, or just that they know they’re “supposed” to identify as a feminist by now. They’ve memorized the talking points about the gender pay gap, about how the government overregulates women’s bodies, about how sexual assault and harassment are extremely prevalent. But knowing your lines isn’t the same as living them.
Part of being a “woke bae,” as Ansari is now realizing, is recognizing that you can never be fully woke. There’s a male-female disconnect in every heterosexual relationship, no matter how “woke” you are, no matter how many sisters you have, no matter whom you voted for, no matter who comes first in the bedroom. There will always be limitations. A man will never fully understand the sexism, racism or sexual misconduct a woman experiences, even if he’s experienced his own versions of being marginalized, minimized or taken advantage of.
Even though Ansari presents like a man who gets what it’s like to be single, that doesn’t mean he understands what it’s like to be a single woman, especially a younger one on a date with an older, famous man.
In fact, much of “Master of None” is about Ansari’s character, Dev, realizing that a woman’s walk through the world is different from and more dangerous than a man’s. Grace’s account does not necessarily mean that Ansari is no longer the woke bae we thought he was, or that he’s no longer qualified to be a dating expert. Rather he’s starting to see that all the feminism he’s proclaimed in black and white is actually quite murky and gray.
For all of the things that “Master of None” and his book get right about what it’s like to be single today, they do not explore how consent can seem clear for one partner and absent for another. Now that Ansari has personal experience with that conundrum, he will have to wrestle with it. His fans will be waiting to see how the character handles it on screen. Because plenty of us are trying to figure it out in our own lives, too.