Aziz Ansari row shows men wishing to be feminist allies must take off blinkers of privilege
Far from an era of Victorian prudery, the discourse over the Aziz Ansari incident could usher in a radical redefinition of love and sexuality, something that is more in tune with gender power politics | #FirstCulture
The day the Aziz Ansari controversy hit social media like a storm, a dear friend – let’s call him K – and I, had a long conversation about love and sex. K seemed worried. As reactions, opinion pieces, both in support of the Babe article and not so much in support of it, filled the internet, K was further perturbed.
When I asked him what got him so riled up, he told me, without a hint of sarcasm behind his fatalism, that the ‘end was near.’ That after the rise of the Me Too movement, the very idea of love would take the proverbial beating. That from henceforth, men would be scared to ask a woman out, to make that first move, that all the progress unleashed in the waning years of the twentieth century with the rise of a culture of sex-positivity, would be torn asunder. That from here on, romance would die and puritanism would have won. When I quizzed him as to why he envisioned such a drastic change in our human sexual culture, he said: “Because men will be scared to initiate anything with a woman, with the fear that any such move could be seen as a potential form of harassment. I mean, dating will become boring and I sure as hell do not see myself sipping wine with a woman, wanting to get her home, and yet avoiding her eyes. What’s the fun in that!”
My friend K is an educated man. He studied from one of the top social science research institutes in the country, he can quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov without any effort, knows and loves Simone de Beauvoir, and calls himself a feminist. Because I have known him for some years, I remember how angry he was during the 16 December anti-rape protests that rocked Delhi and I also remember him wishing capital punishment upon the rapists of that heinous crime. In the last general election, he voted for NOTA. And yet I came away from that aforementioned conversation, feeling weird, for want of a better word.
I expected him to at least be angry with the Ansari incident, to maybe say something in support of Grace, to at least be irritated and say that Ansari acted like a jerk and that he shouldn’t have done what he did. On the contrary, for K, the Ansari incident was nothing but a case of bad sex blown out of proportion by an anonymous woman jealous of a celebrity’s rise. By the time the evening ended, a curious question, however, was left hanging in the dying wintry air of his room, unanswered: if the Ansari controversy was nothing but an attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill, why did it strike a chord with scores of women worldwide? Surely, not everyone in the world would be jealous of Ansari’s rise? Besides, he’s not a media mogul like Weinstein to generate the kind of reaction the story did.
I got back home, puzzled and searching for answers. I tried to do what I normally do with my characters, as a writer: to put myself in K’s shoes. What perhaps bothered him the most, and by extension what should bother me as an upper caste Indian male, when I hear about something like the Ansari incident, is this pre-eminent predicament: what happens my right to have sex? How do I initiate a sexual encounter with a woman? And if I am scared, if I am unable to initiate, am I a man even? That last question is, to my mind, what lies at the heart of all the male reactions not just to the Aziz Ansari incident, but also the New Yorker story, Cat Person, which went viral a month ago. Although the two are vastly different in terms of content, yet, on a very closer look, they are also the same, in terms of a particular theme.
And that theme is the issue of male privilege.
Aziz Ansari led Grace to his home, without attempting to ask if he was within his right to do so. He initiated sex, and even though Grace did not explicitly say no, what she did was voice her disapproval through her body language. The actual sex itself was bad not only because Grace was uncomfortable and disapproving, but also because Ansari, much like that male character from Cat Person, refused to see the woman as an individual and more as a cut out from a porn film. On a normal day, Ansari, much like my friend, would call himself a feminist, because he may genuinely believe he is one. Because feminism, in this neoliberal marketplace we call the world, has been reduced to that overused, and yet, vacuous phrase – ‘women empowerment.’
But can we men call ourselves feminists, without even understanding the very nature of privilege?
Privilege isn’t just about the historical disparity that has been constructed between male and female. It is a far more living thing. The reason I use the word ‘living’ here is because it’s so pervasive, so mundane, that we take it for granted. The right to initiate an act of sexual encounter, exclusively on my terms, is privilege. I might have de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex memorised, down to the last word, regard Meryl Streep as a feminine deity, talk about crushing the patriarchy, and yet I won’t be a feminist, and hence, I will never understand consent. To me, as an upper caste Indian male, even the act of calling myself a feminist is an act of privilege. Much like it was, when I removed my sacred thread and threw it away, thereby denouncing my Brahminness, in solidarity with the Dalits. It is a privilege, simply because I can.
My being a feminist or not doesn't make a difference to my privilege, much like my denouncing my Brahminness or upholding it won’t in actuality change my social status. I will never go through what a woman, or a Dalit, or a queer individual would go through in the actual mundane flow of life. I can, hence, only empathise... I can only build an alliance.
In the wake of the Me Too movement, if there is anything that we can learn, it is that such an alliance can no longer, and should never, happen on my terms, with my privilege all intact. It needs to happen on the woman’s terms. A New York Times op-ed argued that if there is any charge against Aziz Ansari, it is that he can’t read a woman’s mind, which means that consent has to be explicitly vocal. Such an argument does a great disservice to both men and women by reducing ‘voice’ to just the vocal chords. Voice is a far more complicated and nuanced term. And consent – an essential element of voice – needs to be understood and learned with all its complexity.
To come back to my friend K’s fears of ushering in a new era of Victorian puritanism, I see the contrary occurring: A radical redefinition of love and sexuality, something that is more in tune with gender power politics, and is hence, far more inclusive of individual borders, and spaces and voices. And as for me, as a man, I can only pay heed to the complexity of consent when I have removed my blinkers of privilege. I don’t need to read a woman’s mind, I need to listen, and see, far far more clearly.
Arnav Das Sharma is a writer and journalist. His debut novel, Darklands, is slated to be published by Penguin Random House in 2018. He lives in Delhi.
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