Aziz Ansari addresses the sexual misconduct allegation against him at the very beginning of his new Netflix special.
“I’m sure there’s some of you that are curious how I feel about that whole situation,” the comedian says in his special Right Now, released this week. “I felt so many things in the last year or so: There’s times I felt scared, there’s times I felt humiliated, there’s times I felt embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.”
It was an acknowledgment that his actions had caused pain to Grace, the woman who told the publication Babe.net last January that Ansari had pressured her for sex while on a date at his apartment, leaving her distraught and crying when the encounter was over. And this is more than many high-profile men accused as part of the #MeToo movement have offered. Ansari’s willingness to talk about how he grappled with the allegation, without defensiveness or anger, has value, especially since the comic is influential among young men today.
But missing from the special — and from every single one of Ansari’s public statements about the matter — was a direct apology to Grace. Indeed, Grace was largely absent from Ansari’s discussion of the allegation. In the special, largely similar to live shows the comedian has been performing around the country this year, Ansari focused mostly on how the episode affected him.
I’ve seen Ansari perform live, watched the Netflix special, and read an enormous amount of coverage of the fallout from the Babe story and Ansari’s career since. At this point, the person I really want to hear from on the Ansari allegation is Grace, though I understand if she never wants to speak publicly on the matter again. Nearly two years after the #MeToo movement entered its current phase, the conversation around sexual misconduct in this country continues to focus on powerful men and their comeuppance and chances at redemption. Meanwhile, the people who have come forward to report misconduct — the people this movement was supposed to be for — too often fall by the wayside.
Ansari bookends Right Now with discussions of Grace’s allegation
Babe.net published its story on Grace’s allegation, written by reporter Katie Way, in January 2018. In the story, Grace (not her real name) says that she went on a date with Ansari in September 2017 that ended at his apartment. There, she says, he repeatedly pressured her for sex, ignoring many signals that she was uncomfortable. At one point, Grace says, she told Ansari, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you.” But minutes later, she said, “he sat back and pointed to his penis and motioned for me to go down on him.”
Grace said the night ended with her crying in an Uber on the way home. The story quickly became a flashpoint in the #MeToo movement, with some (including me) arguing that it was a necessary addition to the conversation about gender and power and others saying it cheapened the movement by diverting focus from workplace harassment.
Ansari initially responded with a statement saying he had been “surprised and concerned” to learn that Grace was “uncomfortable” on their date. But he began talking about his take on the episode at greater length in shows this year, including one I saw in Chicago in March.
Ansari’s material on the allegation in Right Now is almost identical to his discussion of the incident in March show. In both cases, the comic talked about feeling “terrible that this person felt this way,” then mentioned that he and others had learned from the incident. He talked about a friend who told him the allegation had made him rethink “every date I’ve ever been on.”
“If this made not just me but other people be more thoughtful, then that’s a good thing,” Ansari said in Right Now. The wording was slightly different in Chicago, but the sentiment, and the anecdote about the friend, was the same.
There is one big difference between the way Ansari handles the allegation in the special, filmed at live shows in New York, and the way he dealt with it in Chicago. Onstage in March, he addressed the allegation only at the very end of his set. In Right Now, however, he got to it immediately, then returned to it again at the end of show, expressing his gratitude that audiences are still coming out to see him.
“When I see you guys here, it hits me in a different way” than before the allegation, he said. “It means the world to me, because I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again, and it almost felt like I died.”
Ansari doesn’t say it would have been unfair if he lost his career, and he doesn’t express anger — he just talks about his fear of losing everything, and how grateful he is that he’s still able to perform. It’s a refreshing message in a time when some men accused of sexual misconduct have acted like they’re owed a return to their high-profile careers after only minimal gestures of contrition.
And by bookending Right Now with discussions of Grace’s allegation, Ansari allows the special to be defined, in a real way, by his reaction to the incident — it’s going to be impossible in years to come for viewers to watch it without remembering the fact that the comedian was accused of sexual misconduct.
As I wrote in March, by talking openly about the allegation against him, Ansari is encouraging his many male fans to stay in the larger conversation about #MeToo and sexual misconduct. That’s valuable.
At the same time, Right Now does not dispel a concern I had about Ansari’s material in March: He’s exclusively talking about how the allegation affected him.
Ansari’s discussion of the allegation ignores how Grace feels
From the very beginning, Ansari talks about how he felt after Grace’s story went public: He was scared, he was humiliated, he was embarrassed, he “felt terrible that this person felt this way.”
Absent is any real discussion of Grace and how she felt, other than the vague “this way.” Ansari has never publicly apologized to Grace. He appears to have apologized to her privately — Grace shared with Babe a text message she said was from Ansari, which says, “Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I’m truly sorry.” He may not believe a public apology is helpful, or warranted. Whatever the case, the way he has approached the incident onstage in the past year nearly erases her entirely — it’s something that happened to him.
In fact, Grace and her interests have taken a back seat throughout the public conversation around her allegation. The original Babe article did her a disservice, as Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote at Jezebel at the time, by focusing on things like her clothing and wine choices, and by including vague and confusing language, with little context, about how Grace named the encounter. (“It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” Grace says, but her thought process isn’t fully explained.) Babe left Grace open to exactly the kind of attacks she received from people who felt she was somehow cheapening the #MeToo movement. This was especially concerning since, as Shepherd notes, Babe approached Grace to tell her story, not the other way around.
After her story went viral, most conversation around it centered on what it meant for Ansari, or for #MeToo as a whole. Some people protested his shows, but a larger, more high-profile group, including many in media, began using the allegation against the comedian as an example of the movement going too far. While some ignored Grace in their criticisms, others demonized her.
HLN host Ashleigh Banfield, for instance, read on air an “open letter” to Grace, in which she said “I’m sorry you had a bad date” but that “what you have done is appalling” because it “chiseled away” at the #MeToo movement. With everyone talking about how Grace’s story would affect Ansari’s career or the larger movement, few if any were asking what an appropriate remedy for Grace might look like, or what actions by Ansari, if any, would best address her feelings.
It was hard to focus on Grace’s feelings in part because she chose not to come forward under her real name. But given the vitriol to which she was subjected in the media and by the public (I continued to get emails from readers denigrating her for months after the Babe story ran), it’s difficult to argue with that decision.
At this point, there would likely be little upside for Grace in speaking publicly any more than she’s already done. But her experience is the one I’m most curious about, more than a year after the Babe article was published. Does she wish the story had been handled differently? What did she want from Ansari before and after its publication? What does she think of the way he addressed it on tour? Does she think of her experience any differently now than she did before it became a national topic of conversation? What does she think of where the #MeToo movement stands now?
We know what Aziz Ansari thinks about being accused of sexual misconduct. He’s talked about it again and again onstage in the past few months, and while it’s certainly possible he’ll address it again in future, he seems to have said what he’s capable of saying on the subject for now. His contribution has been flawed but valuable, and he’s moved the conversation forward as much as he can on his own.
But we haven’t heard Grace’s side of the story since January 2018. At this point, hers is the only truly necessary voice in the conversation about her allegation, and it’s the one we’re least likely to hear.
It’s been almost two years since Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times published their exposé of producer Harvey Weinstein, kicking off the current phase of the #MeToo movement. In that time, many powerful men accused of sexual misconduct, including Weinstein, have (at least temporarily) lost their positions of power. Others, like President Donald Trump, have seen no real consequences at all.
But ever since it was first founded by Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, the movement was supposed to be about supporting survivors. Then and now, it has been driven by people — most but not all of them women — speaking up about some of the worst moments in their lives, often risking further trauma by doing so. The movement is quite literally made up of these people’s voices. Yet too often, public conversation around it has focused on the men accused — what has happened to them, what should happen, how long should we wait before we forgive them.
Meanwhile, all too few people are asking what the people who spoke up want, and what a movement would look like that really served them. Those are the questions that will really push our culture forward when it comes to sexual misconduct and abuses of power. Anything else, at this point, is just running in circles.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that, according to Grace, Ansari sent her a text message after their date apologizing to her privately.