right now
As Ansari reenters the spotlight, he seems content to let the scandal stay in the shadows. (Illustration by Amelia Fins, Montclair State University)

‘Right Now’ and the Ambivalence of the Aziz Ansari Allegation

It’s hard to choose a side when the comedian himself won’t take a stand.

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right now

It’s hard to choose a side when the comedian himself won’t take a stand.

Aziz Ansari opens his new comedy special, “Right Now,” with a pointed joke about an accusation of sexual assault. If you were not aware of the comedian’s tumultuous history, rest assured, Ansari wastes no time in reintroducing the scandal to his audience. On January 13, 2018, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, a women’s website called Babe.net published a sexual assault allegation against the comedian and ignited a new discussion among onlookers.

The article tells the story of a woman under the pseudonym “Grace,” who went on a date with Ansari. After exchanging numbers at the 2017 Emmy Awards after-party, the two had dinner and drinks in Manhattan before returning to Ansari’s apartment building, where the trouble began. According to Grace, Ansari repeatedly initiated sexual acts and ignored her “verbal and non-verbal cues” to “indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was.” The night ended with Grace tearfully calling an Uber and crying during her ride home.

In “Right Now,” Ansari apologizes for the event, declaring he feels “terrible that this person felt this way” and acknowledges, “It’s made not just me, but other people more thoughtful.” His 2018 response reveals that, in his mind, the sexual encounters were “by all indications … completely consensual.”

Many interpret his apology as a clear admission of guilt, but commenters remain divided about the incident’s true nature. How reliable is the primary account of events? Does this story belong in the ever-expanding collection of #MeToo narratives? Or can skeptics rightfully disregard the claim?

Critics continue to dismiss the allegation, and they back up their skepticism with practical arguments. The initial article resembles a tabloid piece, not a reliable piece of journalism; odd details fill the account and stick out like a sore thumb. The author provides an unnecessary description of Grace’s outfit and inserts her own opinion, saying, “She showed me a picture, it was a good outfit.” The author also includes an awkward amount of vivid sexual illustrations.

Commenters also highlight differences between common #MeToo stories and the Ansari allegation: typically, the movement’s stories involve workplace harassment, but Grace’s began with a date. In the most compelling instances, multiple women attest to a powerful man’s inappropriate behavior, but the Ansari accusation is, by all accounts, an isolated incident. Ronan Farrow, the journalist who lent a voice to Harvey Weinstein’s numerous sexual assault victims, once pointed out, “that blog about Aziz Ansari … it was clearly a single source narrative about a date gone wrong and there was a debate about how far gone wrong it was but I don’t think anyone saw that and said, ‘oh he’s Harvey Weinstein.’”

The “date gone wrong” theory is common among skeptics, most of whom object that it was a consensual sexual encounter that simply soured somewhere along the way. The conjecture does not stop there. Many critics accuse Grace of desiring a “mind-reader” and bring up her hesitancy to leave as proof of mutual responsibility. After all, Ansari did not physically force Grace to remain inside the apartment. With this in mind, devoted fans continue to follow the comedian’s career and likely tuned into “Right Now” upon its release.

But those who believe Grace’s story have a counterargument for every criticism; for example, the article’s unprofessionalism does not necessarily delegitimize Grace’s testimony. On Jezebel, a feminist blog, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd raises a compelling point. She writes, “At its core, Babe’s piece about Grace is important, but the inexperience evident in the execution of the piece did a disservice to the topic—and it’s a shame, because its execution obscures an extremely valuable, timely conversation at a time when it seems finally possible to have it in a public forum.” Grace, in Shepherd’s mind, is also a victim of crude, amateur reporting.

Additionally, plenty of commenters celebrate the disparity between this account and common #MeToo narratives; after all, why should the movement continue to focus exclusively on workplace harassment? There’s no rulebook to govern the conversation, and an expansion of the discussion could highlight other areas of much-needed reform. Anna North, a senior reporter at Vox, believes the testimony is distinctly valuable.

In an article published shortly after the allegation, North wrote, “Unlike many reports that have emerged in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Grace’s story is not one of workplace harassment. But 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 … It is the sheer commonness of Grace’s experience that makes it so important to talk about.” Viewers who can relate to Grace’s tale might opt to skip Ansari’s newest performance.

Throughout the course of “Right Now,” Ansari hops between two contradictory personas. His old standby, the hip progressive full of snappy social insights, surfaces more than once. Yet, as the young comedian himself says, “That old Aziz who said, ‘Oh, treat yo’self’? He’s dead.” A disillusioned man takes his place, one sick of superficial “wokeness” and political brawls. These dual personalities are fitting, and reflect his ambivalence in the public eye. His audience is divided, and reconciliation is nowhere in sight.

The questions surrounding the allegation are complex and resist easy conclusions. For these reasons, Ansari seems to jump from side to side, never landing on a definitive position. He frequently dubs the controversy “that whole thing,” and hones in on his own emotions; apparently, “that whole thing” made him feel scared, embarrassed and humiliated.

Off-putting language aside, Ansari does evoke sympathy from time to time. At his lowest point, he describes seeing “the world where I don’t ever get to do this again,” and fittingly states that, when the story broke, it “almost felt like I died.” With the release of “Right Now,” Ansari reenters the world of entertainment; however, the controversial allegation takes center stage, as commenters begin to duke it out once more.

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