Master of nothing: the downfall of comic actor Aziz Ansari

“Next time,” she told him, wanting to wait before having sex. “Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?”

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In his 2015 book about millennial love, Modern Romance: An Investigation, Aziz Ansari writes about what he calls “the modern bozo” phenomenon. These are men who are “hopefully decent human beings in person” but who turn sexually aggressive or embarrassingly cringeworthy when texting women.

Ansari, 34, who was born in South Carolina, made his name playing the underachieving dreamer Tom Haverford in NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation (2009-15). As an actor and comedian, Ansari is known for his humour and emotional intelligence when recounting the chaos of modern-day dating.

Many of his stand-up routines and his own series, Master of None, which he has written and starred in since 2015, explore gender politics and sexism in the Tinder era. One Master of None plot line finds his character, Dev (a budding actor), compromised by his TV co-star’s outing as a sexual harasser; another charts Dev’s feminist awakening after his girlfriend and female friends recall their bad experiences with men.

“What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say,” Ansari told the Daily Beast in 2015. “Go to your group of female friends and ask them about times they’ve experienced sexism at their job, and you’ll get blown away by the things they tell you.”

Ansari chronicles such impressions in Modern Romance. “In a face-to-face conversation, people can read each other’s body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice,” he writes. “If you say something wrong, you have cues to sense it and you have a moment to recover or rephrase before it makes a lasting impact.”

It’s a grim irony, then, that Ansari now faces allegations of sexual misconduct after his own reported inability to pick up on such cues.

A 23-year-old photographer, given the pseudonym “Grace”, has recounted a date with Ansari last year in painful detail, describing it as “the worst night of my life” to babe.net – a “real, raw and savage” women’s website.

After a restaurant meal, the pair returned to Ansari’s apartment, where Grace claims Ansari repeatedly tried to pressure her into various sex acts, pushing his fingers into her throat to lubricate them and persistently pulling her hand towards his penis. Grace says she used “verbal and non-verbal cues” to indicate her discomfort.

“Next time,” she told him, asking to wait until a second date before having sex.

“Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?” was Ansari’s alleged response.

Grace eventually left in a cab and wept as she travelled home. It was “by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had”.

Ansari has confirmed the pair went on this date and “engaged in sexual activity” – but he felt it was “completely consensual”. He has also admitted to receiving the message Grace sent him the next day, expressing her distress, and to apologising in response.

It was a photo of Ansari at the Golden Globe Awards on 7 January, dressed in black and wearing a “Time’s Up” pin (the symbol of the Hollywood movement against sexual harassment) that prompted Grace to tell her story. “It was actually painful to watch him win and accept an award,” she told babe.

At the awards night, Ansari became the first man of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe for television acting: he was named best comedy actor for his performance in Master of None. His ethnic minority background informs the series, which covers diversity in New York, the expectations of his immigrant parents (played by his actual parents), and racism in casting. In one episode, Dev refused to put on a hammy Indian accent during an audition, mirroring Ansari’s real-life experience.

Yet the Golden Globe award may now mark the end of Ansari’s success. His fate echoes the downfall of his former mentor and fellow liberal comedian Louis CK, who admitted last November to acts of sexual misconduct against several women. CK, who had a guest spot on Parks and Recreation, also incorporated storylines about sexual harassment and male abuse of power into his screenwriting and stand-up. Ansari, who shares a manager with CK, was criticised for his conspicuous silence on the comedian’s actions.

Commenters responded to Grace’s story by dismissing her experience as an uncomfortable sexual encounter, rather than abuse, and accusing her of encouraging Ansari. A piece in the Atlantic condemned a “hit squad of privileged young white women” for opening “fire on brown-skinned men”. It argued that Ansari “has been – in a professional sense – assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account”.

Ansari, however, has conceded that he took Grace’s “words to heart” when she complained of his behaviour. Once again, a powerful man has been forced to confront how he made a woman feel – “modern bozo” or not. 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history