Madison shouldn't welcome back men like Aziz Ansari so easily
The comic's recent run of surprise shows should prompt more conversations about consent.
A few weeks ago, I checked my email and got instantly psyched. The Comedy Club on State announced that Aziz Ansari was playing a few shows the next night, August 19. The cute, clever man who gave us Tom Haverford from Parks And Rec, created and starred in Master Of None, and wrote Modern Romance (which I didn't read because I had it on good advice that it wasn't worth it)!
Then I remembered the gross news from awhile back that he coerced a woman into some sexual contact that she says she was not 100 percent into. Which was Alanis Morissette ironic, because Ansari actively promotes himself pretty hard as a feminist.
I internally shuddered and deleted the email.
Ansari went on to perform several sold-out shows at the Comedy Club on State and the Orpheum in the following days, and a couple more in Milwaukee. He's a national act whom I'd typically be grateful to have in Madison. Yet it's eye-rollingly suspicious that Ansari's visit wasn't publicized until the day before it was scheduled. Most gigs are booked months ahead of time. The clever pop-up strategy, likely from his PR camp, minimized publicity and backlash.
It's not uncommon for audiences and the entertainment industry to ignore famous men's aggressive behavior. A lot of people still watch, work on and act in Woody Allen movies. And karaoke "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly. And didn't pay attention to Bill Cosby's accusers until Hannibal Buress called him out and the video went viral. People watch reruns of That '70s Show after Danny Masteron was accused of serial rape, including by Chrissie Carnell Bixler, wife of Cedric Bixler Zavala of the Mars Volta. Louis C.K. just did a set at Manhattan's famed Comedy Cellar less than a year after news broke that he, throughout his career, forced female comics to watch him masturbate.
As much as I loved Louis CK's modern dramedy—particularly when he opened with a stellar abortion joke at Overture Hall in 2016—I can't bring myself to be party to anything he's part of indefinitely. Time and attention are our most valuable tools as consumers. So I boycott these men's unacceptable behavior by ignoring what they're selling and bringing up their transgressions when I hear them mentioned as entertainers.
Madison is not immune to problematic masculine behavior, and at times local show-goers and venues have responded admirably.
Last November, news surfaced that Ethan Kath, cofounder of Crystal Castles, who were scheduled to play at the Majestic within the week, was accused by former bandmate Alice Glass of mental, physical and sexual abuse. The venue axed the show once the information became public and instead held a benefit for the Dane County Rape Crisis Center.
A few months ago, a trustworthy source told me that a member of a local band that I really used to dig tried to sexually assault a woman. A few weeks after I heard the news, I pulled out their record. I thought twice about listening to it. This person and I have mutual friends and acquaintances whom I haven't talked to in ages. Do I reach out to them and make sure they know? Do I bring it up in conversation with people in the same circles? I generally avoid talking shit about people, but if it's going to save someone from a potentially traumatic event, I need to get all over it. It's not talking shit if there's toxic shit to talk.
Sadly, consent is a relatively new concept in human relationships. For most of history, the public has given talented or just famous men a pass on abusing women, or elected them to high office. Professional sports players get caught doing it regularly and are only slapped on the wrist. People care more about Michael Vick's dog fighting and Colin Kaepernick and company's national-anthem kneeling than they do about male aggression.
So what's our responsibility as local audiences along the route of such men's rehabilitation in the entertainment world? To talk about it more.
This is an era of heightened sensitivity and flat out post-traumatic stress for women. People are actually listening to us! And believing us! Our stories of discrimination and abuse are finally being told and heard. From the outside, it's a victorious era—disgusting men and toxic masculinity are getting their comeuppance. But it's challenging as all hell for the same reason that women don't come out with their stories of abuse—it's fucking traumatic and no one wants to go through that the first time, let alone again to possibly be slandered.
Confession: I saw R. Kelly at Pitchfork 2013. And fucking loved it. The man is ridiculously talented. He is also accused of abusing women in all sorts of ways. Now I cringe when I hear a car roll by with "Ignition (Remix)" blaring or, gods forbid, being sung for karaoke. Don't they know? I think to myself. Do they not care? Sure, I have the song stuck in my head right now, but I'm trying not to enjoy it. It sucks that I can't support him anymore. But I have too much respect for women and real—rather than pop and capitalist—feminism.
Which brings us to the fact that men are victims of toxic masculinity too. It doesn't excuse their heinous behavior. It's been culturally enforced that men are entitled to abuse people vulnerable people. The more we talk about how unacceptable and damaging it is, the more everyone will have exposure to consequences and healthier norms.
In a refreshingly adult twist to the Aziz Ansari story, his accuser texted him the day after their encounter and said she wasn't comfortable with what happened and detailed why. He texted back an apology and said he was none the wiser. Either Ansari has so deeply internalized misogyny that he didn't know right from wrong or he thought he could get away with it.
Either way, he is getting away with it—including here in Madison. He's selling out shows and not being sanctioned for his inappropriate behavior.
People have to learn. If the legal system isn't going to punish them, they need to be shunned so they can go and think about what they've done. I banished Aziz Ansari to the entertainment wilderness—it hurts me more than it hurts him because I'm dying to know what happens after last season's Master Of None cliffhanger. But it's my duty. I also unfriended local-band guy on Facebook. I asked a Madison optometrist to remove a photo of Woody Allen from their wall. They were already on top of it. The next time I was in, bespectacled local-boy-makes-good Butch Vig was in his place.
These uncomfortable conversations have to be had, again and again and again and again, until the norm of toxic male celebrity is an aberration. We have to talk about the shitty things aggressive men do so that people of all orientations, genders and ages can understand that their body and what they do with it is theirs alone to decide. We can do this locally, by discussing with our friends of all orientations, ages and genders that their word deserves respect. And if the culprits own up to their unacceptable behavior, we have the responsibility to help them—and ourselves—heal through restorative, therapeutic methods. That's how we make men like Aziz act on their purported feminist ideals.