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The controversy around’s Aziz Ansari story, explained

The story deepened a crucial divide in the #MeToo reckoning.

Aziz Ansari attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala on Monday, May 1, 2017. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Out of all the stories of sexual harassment, abuse, misconduct, and violence that have been brought to light in the past few months, perhaps none has proved as controversial as the allegations brought against comedian Aziz Ansari. On January 13, the website published a lengthy account from an anonymous 23-year-old woman — referred to as “Grace” — about a date night with Ansari circa September 2017 that she said went horribly wrong. She not only calls it “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had,” but emphasizes that she has come to understand her experience with Ansari as sexual assault.

The report is markedly different from any of the others that have come out since the New York Times broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged abuse in October. It is not about workplace harassment; nor does it interview multiple victims to portray a pattern of abuse. It is about a single woman who was excited to go out to dinner with a comedian she liked, before quickly becoming uncomfortable with the tenor of his aggressive advances once they went back to his apartment.

Grace told Babe that Ansari repeatedly ignored her growing discomfort and the concern she voiced and tried to pressure her into sex. At one point, Grace told Babe that she voiced that she didn’t “want to feel forced.” Grace said that Ansari seemed to understand, until he suggested they “chill on the couch,” where he “sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him.” Grace says she felt pressured to go along with it, not knowing how to extricate herself from the situation, and eventually left his apartment in tears.

Ansari released a statement on January 14 in which he said they “engag[ed] in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual,” but that when he “heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”

As of January 16, the Babe piece had more than 2.5 million views. But the divided reaction to it was almost immediate. It’s been held up as painfully relatable and lambasted as unforgivably irresponsible. And then there are those, like me, who land somewhere in between, believing that there is value in telling Grace’s story even as we question the way Babe decided to tell it.

The conversation about the Ansari story has become a flashpoint of conflicting, interwoven opinions, painting a complex portrait of the power and limitations of the #MeToo movement. Here’s why this particular account has gained so much notice and controversy — and why the reactions to the report are more telling than the report itself.

Ansari’s recent comedic persona of Good Feminist Ally makes Grace’s accusation sting harder

Babe published its report less than a week after Ansari won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy for his work on Netflix’s Master of None, purposely and pointedly. Reporter Katie Way writes that the moment in which Ansari accepted the award while wearing a Time’s Up pin inspired Grace to have her story go public. Seeing that was “absolutely cringeworthy,” Grace told Babe. “I think that started a new fire, and it kind of made it more real.”

Grace’s anger at Ansari sporting a display of solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and abuse tied back into her account of her night with him, in which she said she was shocked to find that his private persona didn’t match up with his public one. “I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book,” she told Babe, “and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one.”

In recent years, Ansari’s comedy has explicitly tackled thorny issues of sexism, dating, and power dynamics in relationships, often with canny dissections of terrible, entitled men. In 2014, Ansari gave his then-girlfriend credit for opening his eyes to feminism, before giving David Letterman’s audience some light shit when he asked them to clap if they identified as feminists and not everyone did. In 2015, he collaborated with NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg to write Modern Romance, an examination of current-day dating norms and the fraught nuances therein. On Master of None, Ansari and his writers routinely touch upon sexist power imbalances, memorably devoting a second season arc to a gregarious chef who turns out to be a serial sexual harasser.

Ansari, in other words, found a way to examine one of the oldest comedic gold mines in the book — dating — from the fresh perspective of a guy who prizes basic decency. His 2016 Madison Square Garden special, for example, includes a lengthy segment on “creepy dudes,” who Ansari says he “realized recently ... are everywhere. And so much more prevalent than I realized!”

After detailing some of the ways in which men can be total creeps — from catcalling to exposing themselves to following women around — Ansari asks all the women to raise their hands if they’ve ever experienced something like that. Faced with a sea of hands, Ansari bursts, “That’s way too many people; that should not be happening!”

I remember seeing Ansari practicing this months before, at a surprise set in a tiny Los Angeles bar. Part of me was frustrated at hearing truths that I and most any woman have known intimately our whole lives. But a bigger part was in awe that I was watching a male comedian say them, especially when so many others have used standup stages to play into countless sexist stereotypes. That set wasn’t just refreshing — it was a relief.

It’s this kind of overtly feminist material that Grace says led her to implicitly trust Ansari when they first went out, a trust that then came crashing down when her experience with him was at odds with the man she had come to know through his comedy. Pointing out that specific hypocrisy comprises the last third of Babe’s article, as Way lists the ways Ansari’s work props up the values that Grace says he does not live out in his private life.

Catching supposedly “feminist” men in the act of treating women badly is a disappointing but not entirely shocking prospect. When it was announced that men would be joining women in wearing all black as a protest at the Golden Globes, the news was mostly met with dismissive confusion. When many men showed up wearing Time’s Up pins, some women sat back and waited for one of them to get called out as being exactly the kind of creep the Time’s Up initiative is trying to expunge — which, as of this writing, has already borne out with allegations levied against Ansari and James Franco, who won the film category’s Best Actor in a Comedy.

It’s as hard to call out this kind of hypocrisy as it is crucial for understanding why it happens in the first place. When Community creator Dan Harmon was called out by a former employee for sexually harassing her, for example, he eventually released an in-depth apology that dismantled his own excuses for his behavior — one of which was, “I’m a feminist.” As he later admitted, his insistence that he respected women hid the opposite truth; his performative feminism acted as a smokescreen, a way to insulate himself from criticism by pointing to his progressive bona fides.

So, no, it’s not always such a shock when a man who professes to be a feminist ally proves himself to be anything but in his actions. But there is a special pain in discovering it. It throws their motivations into question, recontextualizing their decency as something far more sinister.

If Grace’s description of Ansari’s constant attempts to push her boundaries is accurate, it would indeed be an indictment of his self-assigned role as a public ally for women. It’s unsurprising that when Babe found out about her experience, it would want to highlight this disparity when publishing it.

It’s a shame, then, that it failed its subject in its haste to do so.

The way Babe reported the allegations against Ansari left the story open to too many interpretations — many of them made in bad faith

When the story broke on, one of the most immediate reactions was, “... Okay, but what is!” (The site itself has angled to be in on this joke, responding with “a list of places with more ~respectable~ names who’ve picked up our piece since.”)

Even though Mashable’s feature on the site refers to as “little known,” it has, in fact, managed to carve out a corner for itself in this great wide internet of ours, with its low Twitter count (just over 4,000 followers) counterbalanced by its wide Facebook reach (more than 1 million followers). It began about a year and a half ago as an experimental offshoot of the Tab, a news site founded in 2009 and geared toward college students. As of last September, Tab Media’s lead investor was Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is consciously pithy and profane, billing itself as being “for girls who don’t give a fuck.” Per Mashable, Babe’s oldest editorial staffer is 25.

In the context of the dozens of reports that have poured out of Hollywood and beyond in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, Babe’s account of Ansari’s alleged misconduct is a startling outlier. It includes many details that a more judicious editor would have struck out of the final draft, leaning on confessional writing sensibilities that tag Grace’s recollections of the night with Way’s own opinions (“She settled on ‘a tank-top dress and jeans.’ She showed me a picture, it was a good outfit”). Eventually, the report veers into a surface-level dismantling of Ansari’s comedic persona in conjunction with Grace’s account.

Joshi Herrmann, editor-in-chief of Tab Media, says the editorial team has no regrets about publishing the story. In fact, Babe launched its first email newsletter off the back of its Ansari piece, promising behind-the-scenes details if you “sign up now.”

There are also some aspects of how they put the story together in the first place that are, to be frank, alarming.

Netflix Hosts The Golden Globes After Party At The Waldorf Astoria
Ansari at the Globes wearing his Time’s Up pin.
Photo by Netflix via Getty Images

According to Herrmann, Babe sought out and talked to Grace within the same week it fact-checked and published her story. (So, no, contrary to critics like HLN’s Ashleigh Banfield who are blasting Grace’s supposed decision to go to the press with this story, that’s not what happened — Babe approached Grace.) Is it possible to do your due diligence on a story in that short amount of time given the space and resources? Sure. Does it leave you and your subject vulnerable to probing criticism about whether you did your due diligence? Absolutely.

Then, according to editor Amanda Ross, they gave Ansari less than six hours on the Saturday of a holiday weekend in which to respond, versus the journalistic standard of at least 24 hours. Ross also maintained that they interviewed Grace “again and again” within the tight time frame of that single week, but did not divulge whether they tried to find any other stories from other women to help bolster Grace’s experience as part of a larger pattern of behavior, as nearly every other sexual harassment report has.

The resulting picture is that of a site that found an enticing account and rushed to publish based on a single story in order to indict a celebrity known for being A Male Ally. As Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote in a searing but carefully considered indictment of the way Babe handled this story, “it left the subject open to further attacks, the kind that are entirely, exhaustingly predictable.”

Alt-right troll Mike Cernovich has used his large platform to dismiss Grace’s account and call Ansari “beta.” In a furious piece for the Washington Post, Sonny Bunch contended that the piece was “a gift to anyone who wants to derail #MeToo,” saying 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.”

Others, like Banfield, have more forcefully decried Grace and Babe as making something out of nothing, a bad date in which Grace failed to speak up and physically leave when she felt uncomfortable. (Not for nothing, that charge of “why didn’t she just leave” was a frequent one even when Louis C.K. admitted to cornering women in order to masturbate in front of them; apparently, intimidation and contextual power dynamics don’t mean anything if a woman has working legs that could help her leave a room.)

When HLN invited Way on to speak about the piece, she vehemently rejected the offer; her startlingly uncensored email in which Way dismisses Banfield as “someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has heard of” has only exacerbated the existing criticism of how Way handled the report in the first place.

But the two arguments against the Babe piece that have gotten the most attention by a mile came from Bari Weiss and Caitlin Flanagan, of the New York Times and The Atlantic, respectively.

Op-ed writer Weiss added another incendiary column to her existing pile by sneering at Grace’s story as an “insidious attempt ... to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex.” Flanagan scorched earth by arguing that Babe and Grace “destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it” — despite no real indication that this will dent Ansari’s career — by publishing “3,000 words of revenge porn.”

Both Weiss and Flanagan’s pieces assume bad faith on Grace and Babe’s parts to extrapolate about the inherent hypocrisies of this #MeToo reckoning. They concentrate on Grace’s hesitance to speak up in the moment when she felt pressured by Ansari, with Weiss lambasting her retelling of “unpleasant moments” as comparable to assault, and Flanagan dismissing her as someone whose goal was to “maybe even become the famous man’s girlfriend.”

Both are furious that Grace’s story is at all being told in the same context as other sexual harassment and abuse stories in which boundaries were clearly, inviolably crossed. (Only Flanagan, however, took a very confusing hard left turn into decrying the Babe report as a “hit squad of privileged young white women [opening] fire on brown-skinned men.”)

Maybe the most telling thing about Weiss’s and Flanagan’s pieces, though, is that both arguments conflate several issues at once in the name of the authors proclaiming themselves the Real Feminists. They are deeply concerned that with this latest allegation, the #MeToo reckoning — which they acknowledge is important and overdue — may have finally gone too far.

And they’re not alone.

The rumblings that #MeToo has become Too Much have officially found a distinct (and growing) voice

While there are many critics of both the Babe piece and Grace calling her story one of sexual assault, Weiss and Flanagan specifically tapped into a vein that has been ready to burst for weeks. As more and more abuse has come to light, and more and more hard lines have been taken against those alleged to have perpetrated it, there has been a parallel fear growing that this reckoning — a word I don’t use lightly — has gone too far.

This was the charge levied against the “Shitty Media Men” list, a private Google doc that circulated for less than a day last fall. In trying to create a more formal warning system out of an existing whisper network for female journalists to avoid predatory men, the list instead became an emblem of all that could go wrong with #MeToo for critics wary of the rapidly growing movement.

When it appeared in early January as though Katie Roiphe was about to reveal the name of the woman who had initially created the document for a Harper’s piece, a mini panic cycle unfolded, from people rising in defense of the creator (who subsequently outed herself and her reasoning in a beautifully thoughtful essay for the New York magazine vertical the Cut) and from those who maintained that her actions had thrown the movement into irrevocably irresponsible territory (like Andrew Sullivan, in a righteously concerned but very scattered essay, also for New York magazine).

What this conflict, and so many others that have arisen since the Weinstein allegations first inspired revelatory shockwaves, comes down to is the idea of a slippery slope. With few exceptions, allegations and their ensuing fallouts have unfolded outside the legal system, left to get litigated in the so-called “court of public opinion.” Ahead of the Golden Globes protest, Daphne Merkin published a New York Times op-ed that dismissed the continuing excising of accused men as a “reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage” that, she “suspected,” many people were fed up with.

There’s a reason this reckoning is happening outside our legal system. As it currently stands, said legal system is ill-equipped to deal with sexual assault, and countless social norms built up over the years have made it incredibly hard for victims to push back against a system constructed to protect those who abuse their power.

In fact, it’s something of a miracle that sexual harassment and abuse has remained a priority, especially at a time when news lives and dies by the hour. Everything else seems to be moving so lightning-fast that the concentrated outpouring of stories and subsequent determination to keep them in the spotlight is a strong indication that the unleashing of this furious pain, which has been bottled up for so long, is way overdue.

But the “witch hunt” label has proven impossible to shake, and criticism of how the #MeToo outpouring has been unfolding is becoming more visible and stronger every day — and the Ansari piece is perhaps the biggest test so far.

Whether or not Babe realized it, what the article describes does not fit in neatly with the other examples that have arisen, which have largely focused on abuse of power in the workplace and serial sexual harassment and assault. Instead, it deals with a specific instance of sexual intimidation that exists in the contentious sexual gray area between enthusiastic consent and resigned acceptance.

As Grace herself put it, she herself was “debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault” before she decided to tell her story to Babe. In doing so, she describes a situation that many people — both men and women — may recognize from their own lives. It paints a picture of lines blurring and solidifying and blurring again, a situation so banal that calling it sexual assault would mean that sexual assault is deeply, inescapably omnipresent.

What the report about Ansari reveals is something much more common — and way more difficult to address — than most of the sexual harassment and abuse stories that have come out

When I first read the Babe story, it became clear I was reading something along the lines of “Cat Person,” the recent New Yorker short story that went massively viral for breaking down the myriad commonplace ways in which consent, well, breaks down.

The most extraordinary thing about Grace’s story is that it is, as my colleague Anna North wrote, perfectly ordinary:

What she describes — a man repeatedly pushing sex without noticing (or without caring about) what she wants — is something many, many women have experienced in encounters with men. And while few men have committed the litany of misdeeds of which Weinstein has been accused, countless men have likely behaved as Grace says Ansari did — focusing on their own desires without recognizing what their partner wants.

More than anything, Grace’s account details how power dynamics in intimate relationships are far trickier to navigate than many of us are often aware, and how we’re often unequipped to recognize and interrogate them when it counts — a conversation as tricky to navigate as it is overdue. Even the New York Times’s Weiss acknowledges that she’s had plenty of similarly awful experiences, even as she rejects the idea that any of those could have constituted assault like Grace says it does. And many more women have since come forward to affirm that they, too, have had sex that existed in a gray area between pleasure and pain, sex that they didn’t experience so much as withstand.

As more and more people try to tackle the continuing onslaught of painful stories coming to the surface, it is worth questioning the journalistic practices that went into the reporting of the Babe piece. But so, too, is it crucial to question the charge that Grace’s experience is simply too common to count as unacceptable. What else is this reckoning for, if not to break down the norms that let sexual coercion flourish in the first place? How much can truly change if we don’t question previously unspoken fears borne of our most intimate moments? If we’re not willing to excavate horrors long buried by a traditional refusal to acknowledge them, our attempts to redefine the toxic status quo will inevitably fade back into the shadows.

Updated to include Way’s email to Banfield and Tab Media’s lead investor.