Yesterday morning, I woke up to the headline from The Atlantic, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” I already knew the article probably refuted the babe exposé from Sunday morning, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” in which a 23-year-old NYC-based photographer, identified as “Grace,” details the misery of a sexual encounter with the famed comedian.
After much consideration, and outrage that the Time’s-Up-pin-wearing Ansari scored a trophy at the Golden Globes, Grace publicly came forward with accusations that Ansari sexually assaulted her during a first date. In “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” also published yesterday, contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan claimed babe published “3,000 words of revenge porn,” coming to the conclusion that, young women are, “angry and temporarily powerful and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
I poured over both pieces, and I see both sides. What happened to Grace was wrong, but Aziz Ansari showed signs of knowing what’s right: At one point he commented, “It’s only fun if both of us are having fun,” but continued coming onto her. Then, when Grace confronted Ansari over text message the following day, he apologized, claiming he “misread” the situation. Flanagan chalked the interaction up to “bad sex with a celebrity,” and questioned why Grace would stay after Ansari repeatedly violated her verbal, and non-verbal, signals.
In this moment of #MeToo, it’s not for me to decide who’s right in that debate. Bottom-line, Grace felt uncomfortable because of the actions and entitlement of a man. I know that sentiment resonates with millions of women, and Time’s Up on male entitlement. But that, and other articles like The Atlantic’s “No, #MeToo Isn’t McCarthyism,” and Nylon’s, “Greta Gerwig Dodges a Question on Working With Woody Allen,” have me wondering: Can we really call this moment a conversation?
Because really, we are not having a conversation. We’ve entered a pattern where, every few days, a woman (primarily) comes forward with accusations about a man, the media publishes said accusations, the man receives public reprimand, and we continue. Now, with the rise of Time’s Up we find an increasingly visible resource supporting tangible, systemic change surrounding sexual harassment and and assault in a number of fields. But still, the majority of the discourse focuses on Hollywood.
In November, Greta Gerwig, the director of the critically acclaimed film “Lady Bird,” told NPR’s Terry Gross that she needed time to formulate her response to questions about her past work with Woody Allen. She described her complete terror about speaking her mind, essentially because of the internet’s hammer of judgement, which swings and slams almost instantly. Gerwig said:
And the thing that I feel is that right now, as much as men are being called to task for it, women are in a position of damned if you do, damned if you don't. And it - and that fear is the thing - that gripping of like, oh, God, did I just say something that will be wrong?
So, she took her time. Then, at the Golden Globes press conference following “Lady Bird”’s big win, Gerwig was, again, asked about Woody Allen, and skirted the question, choosing to refocus the attention on her job as a director, sharing women’s stories and perspectives. The backlash was swift, just as she’d feared it might be if she answered directly. Nylon published a piece the next day that said, “Wearing black means nothing if you’re not willing to denounce those in power—no matter how much they might mean to you.”
Then The New York Times shared a conversation in which Gerwig gave her thoughtful response to the Woody Allen conversation, stating clearly that she regrets working with him, and won’t again. Her comments came less than two months after she told Terry Gross that she wanted time to carefully consider her response.
With Gerwig as an example, it seems as though the point of the “conversation” right now surrounds publicly blasting people accused of sexual harassment, assault, and even female allies that don’t respond quick enough or to our exact liking. While it’s OK, and important, to call out bad behavior, abuses of power, and to demand an attentive audience, the discourse can and should extend further.
When someone, like Gerwig, says they stand in solidarity with all victims, but wants to take time to formulate a proper response to a question as serious as the accusations against Woody Allen, that shouldn’t automatically negate their support.
While we continue listening to victims coming forward with accusations against men in power in Hollywood, we need to expand that willing audience to the LGBTQ+ community, and women of color in low-wage jobs, something the Time’s Up movement attempted at the Golden Globes. We need to listen to people with intellectual disabilities, another population disproportionately affected by sexual violence.
And instead of holding public debate over whether or not Aziz Ansari’s actions constitute sexual assault or a bad date, we need to talk about how to teach someone like Ansari – who obviously knew and defied some of the rules of consent – to unlearn objectification of and entitlement toward the female body.
Right now, we are living in a teachable moment, and that requires a voice for every one, and the opportunity to learn (or unlearn). This exists not only as a moment of reckoning, but a moment for restructuring. Aziz Ansari stands as one example of a man who acted oppressively even when, superficially, he appeared to know what was right. Moving forward, we must not only name the wrongdoing, but the root of the societal disease we are trying to eradicate. In her 1984 book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” bell hooks wrote:
...we should be constantly naming these acts as expressions of perverted power relations, general lack of control of one’s actions, emotional powerlessness, extreme irrationality, and in many cases, outright insanity. Passive male absorption of sexist ideology enables men to falsely interpret this disturbed behavior positively. As long as men are brainwashed to equate violent domination and abuse of women with privilege, they will have no understanding of the damage done to themselves or to others, and no motivation to change.
Patriarchy harms women and LGBTQ+ folks in its societal maintenance. Patriarchy also shapes the way that men view and behave in the world, and they, too, are harmed by its societal maintenance. It’s the system that tells us that boys can’t and shouldn’t cry, and women shouldn’t have muscular bodies. It’s the system that says boys should want to play sports, and girls should want to play dolls. It’s the system that says you can only be called “he” or “she.” It’s the system that gave us “boys will be boys” as an excuse for dominant, violent behavior, and “you throw like a girl,” an insult.
Truthfully, it’s a deeply ingrained system of brainwashing, one we’re all experiencing, all the time. And while we sell “smash the patriarchy” enamel pins, and joke about blaming the patriarchy, do we really know what it means? Better than I ever could, bell hooks points to the exact reason why it’s critical to talk about patriarchy now, in the heat of this moment:
Until we can collectively acknowledge the damage patriarchy causes and the suffering it creates, we cannot address male pain. We cannot demand for men the right to be whole, to be givers and sustainers of life. Obviously some patriarchal men are reliable and even benevolent caretakers and providers, but still they are imprisoned by a system that undermines their mental health. Patriarchy promotes insanity. It is at the root of the psychological ills troubling men in our nation.
Thanks to #MeToo, sexual dominance and violence were diagnosed as the epidemic we must eradicate. But in order to do so, we must educate one another on the harm caused to us all by the enforcement of rigid gender roles and expectations. That’s the road from temporary fear to lasting change.