NEW DELHI —On Sunday May 26 2019, Aziz Ansari performed in Delhi as part of his ongoing ‘Road To Nowhere’ tour and concluded his Indian leg with a standing ovation from a visibly moved audience.
What was the feeling that prompted the audience to rise to its feet?, I wondered. Is this what redemption looks like for a man accused of sexual misconduct?
Aziz Ansari’s arc to redemption was always going to be more instructive than Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK’s – it’s much closer to home for most of us than the organised, repeated sexual assault that the other two men stand accused of. And the difficulty of categorising his transgressions only proliferated with India’s own more recent MeToo movement.
Add to that the inherent sympathy we carry for the Indian-American who made it mainstream in the US and there’s a lot riding on anything (and everything) Ansari does.
As we’ve watched both celebrities and friends get called out for mistreating women, the initial catharsis of acknowledging women’s pain has given way to an uncomfortable question – without a universal template in place, just what could a public reckoning for private misconduct look like? Especially for men we know, like and want to forgive.
Do men accused in the MeToo movement get to declare themselves redeemed after some personal, unrevealed reflection? Who is responsible for declaring them ‘okay’ again? Their friends? The women they harmed? Their audiences?
To be honest, the new routine doesn’t seem redemptive at all until the very end, when a sombre acknowledgement of last year’s events colours the show in a different light. And that too, not entirely.
Ansari’s new show prods us to confront the self-righteous motivations behind our social media activism, but ultimately appeals to these same impulses to rehabilitate Ansari himself. This leaves some of us guiltier about our complicity and others slightly more absolved because, as Ansari puts it, “We’re all shitty people”.
Ansari’s new routine is all about poking holes in the performativity (and perhaps, futility) of performing wokeness.
He reminds us of the catchiness of R Kelly’s songs, points out that we all (including him) ignored all the disparate reports about Kelly abusing women until they came to us packaged in a highly engaging documentary. He repeats the routine with Michael Jackson.
Ansari asks for a show of hands – “How many of you are done with R. Kelly?” (Plenty)
“How many of you are done with Michael Jackson?” (Fewer)
Then he narrows down on an audience member who seems okay with Jackson.
“Would you be done with Jackson if it was 1000 kids and not 2?” Yeah, the poor audience member seems to nod, clearly backed into a corner he can’t wriggle out of.
Then Ansari switches over to a hypothetical where Osama Bin Laden may have been a celebrated jazz musician before 9/11. He mockingly enacts the disavowment and discomfort of a record label executive in the wake of the twin towers falling (The Christmas album with Michael Buble won’t be released).
Is Ansari trying to say it’s futile to separate the art from the artist? Or just highlighting the fact that sometimes our efforts to boycott or perform social concern stem from insincerity or peer pressure?
Ansari isn’t wrong. Cancel culture does often feel like a game where everyone competes for points on Instagram (As he says at one point in the routine, “lose points for crossing the street when you see a black guy”, but “win for writing a long Instagram post calling yourself out for your own privilege”).
In his routine, Ansari emphasises the roadblock we’ve all thought about, but haven’t yet found ways to address: You can arm-twist or intimidate people into being politically correct, but does that mean they have changed?
But what does it mean when the person pointing this out is Ansari, a man accused of sexual misconduct? Is this routine Ansari’s way of saying he’s immune to what his audience thinks of him and is, by extension unrepentant?
But he isn’t. Ansari really wants us to know that he’s on a redemptive arc even as he pokes fun at the social mechanisms that led him down this path.
The show is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes about his girlfriend – the travails of being an inter-racial couple, how birth control polices women’s bodies, introducing the woman he’s seeing to his Alzheimer’s stricken grandmother.
But the many strands of his routine don’t really come together until the very end, when he finally addresses the elephant in the room in a low, seemingly sincere tone. It’s boilerplate stuff – he lists the range of emotions he went through over the past year (including “scared” and “humiliated”), finally settling on feeling “terrible” that he made the woman feel that way.
He turns it into a teachable moment, telling us to live life in the moments we create with each other and reminds us of the transience of all the other stuff. Snaps his fingers to indicate his newfound self-awareness that his career could vanish in a moment.
The applause at the end isn’t just for a good set (Ansari is still a good story-teller and still has a funny, incisive way of poking at millennial inconsistencies) it’s because his public repentance enables us to like him again without feeling the guilt of complicity.
In the end, Ansari relies on the act of performance — the very thing he mocks in his routine — to redeem himself with his audience. We have no way of knowing whether he’s personally atoned or not, but we’re happy with the public performance which includes all the right words and is delivered in the right tone.
But, coming as it does, at the end of a show about the insincerity of this whole phenomenon – you’re left wondering if this is just a charade. And thanks to Ansari’s own set, you walk away feeling like it’s impossible to know and that maybe the only thing that matters is the public performance of regret.
There are a lot of unresolved, even unarticulated, questions that have cropped up in the wake of this massive public reckoning we went through. And one of the biggest is what do we do with men who didn’t commit an actual crime but still did something bad.
Our world is now populated with men like Ansari – friends who got called out, colleagues who were anonymously accused of serious transgressions in personal relationships, bosses who didn’t do enough to prioritise safety and equality in the workplace, even women who talked a big game about holding others responsible but failed to turn the same criticism towards the men they’re close to.
We live in a world where our complicity is now public. Our outrage may feel hollow but turns out it is still powerful enough to alter lives – something Ansari fails to acknowledge even though he admits to having his life changed by it.
Ultimately, we’re left with the same questions we went in with, the chief being – what does redemption look like?