2017 was one exciting year to be an Asian actor! No, seriously. I mean, it did suck to watch Scarlett Johansson play a Japanese cyborg and the Iron Fist really should have been updated to Asian badass instead of whiny white dude and (SPOILER ALERT) we were still recovering from the loss of Glenn on The Walking Dead. But overall, our community made huge steps forward in the industry last year.
Producers continued moving beyond the concept of “diversity” in t.v. and into actual, sincere representation. More network episodics now feature Asian actors as leads and guest stars including Mr. Robot, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place. Fresh Off The Boat is well into its fourth season, Crazy Rich Asians is gaining a lot of media attention before it’s even been released and Riz Ahmed became the first Asian male to win a best actor Emmy for his role in The Night Of.
I'll be honest, when that article first came out it was hard for me to take it seriously. I was like, “Nah . . . not Aziz. He’s one of the good ones.” After a few hours, it sunk in that the story wasn't going away and I found myself praying, “Please Netflix, don’t cancel Master of None. That’s one of only two decent shows we Asians have right now.”
I know. I’m a horrible human being. But admit it, some of you Asians thought the same thing.
It’s surprising how quickly we're willing to throw out one set of values if they conflict with separate convictions we unconsciously deem more important. Following the Harvey Weinstein accusations, I was 100% on board with the #MeToo movement. Week after week, powerful male figures were being burned at the stake for acts of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault they had committed.
“Burn them all!” I chanted to myself. And then they came after one of my personal heroes.
Fuck. Now what?
I clicked on the article with the hope of gaining some clarity, but that proved to be more challenging than I thought. Aside from my personal biases, the entire piece was convoluted and weighed down with so much gratuitous detail that I struggled to gauge whether my responses were as objective as I wanted them to be. Like many other readers, I was left asking, "Did he actually assault her? If he did and that’s the point you’re attempting to make, can you give me an account that's a little more concise? Thanks.”
I kept wondering if Katie Way, the reporter, was just trying to cash in on the #MeToo movement and the convenient timing of Ansari's Golden Globe win. Or maybe, deep down, that’s what I wanted this all to be; just someone taking advantage of a successful minority’s moment. “So a woman had an awkward, albeit, bad first date with a male celebrity. Are we really still surprised about this?” And then finally, it hit me: That’s why this is wrong.
It wasn’t so much the article, but the conversation and controversy surrounding it that put Grace and her experience with Aziz Ansari into perspective. Everything about her date was “normal”. It’s normal for a guy and girl to text and flirt after meeting. It’s normal for a guy to take a girl out to a nice dinner on a first date. It’s normal for a guy to be reminded repeatedly that his date wants to take things slow. It's normal for a guy never to ask if it's okay to kiss his date, touch her or even mention sex to her. It’s normal for a girl not to tell her date she’s feeling uncomfortable. It’s normal for a guy to not read the situation correctly. It’s normal for people to brush off a woman’s bad experience with a man and say, "Well, that sucks, but now you'll be less naive."
It was unsettling for me to realize how low my standard for “normal guy behavior” had become throughout my adult life. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was willing to give Ansari a free pass for being a "normal guy" because I admired his work. Still, it was easier for me to find some kind of resolve regarding the Grace-Aziz story as a woman than it has been for me to accept as an Asian-American.
The thing that makes Grace’s story so hard for some of us to grasp isn’t that we found out Ansari is a psychopath. That might have actually made it easier to digest. It’s easier to disapprove and wash your hands of someone’s actions if you know that they are truly, without question, mentally deranged and depraved. But he isn't a psychopath. What makes this account so disappointing is the revelation that Aziz Ansari is just a normal guy.
Realizing that one of the most successful champions for your underrepresented community is incredibly flawed and capable of doing reprehensible shit can be devastating. While Aziz isn’t the only artist representing Asians in the media right now, he was kind of a big deal. He and Alan Yang became the first two Asians to win Emmy Awards for their writing on Master of None and Aziz went on to win a second the following year alongside Lena Waithe. He also became the first Asian to win a Golden Globe for best actor just days before the infamous Babe article was published. Those aren’t feats to be taken lightly, especially when you’re a member of a minority community that barely gets any, non-stereotypical recognition.
We choose our so-called “heroes” because they have accomplished things on such a scale that others like them have not. We make them our heroes because we believe them to be above average; they are supposed to be better than normal. For many in the Asian-American community, Aziz was the trailblazer we had been waiting for, paving the way for the rest of us to be heard, seen and succeed in an industry that is very quick to shove us in a corner and cast a member of the majority instead. And he wasn't just fighting for one minority group; as a South Asian Muslim man, self-declared feminist and advocate for the LGBTQ community he was practically the ultimate minority champion.
We all had high hopes when it came to Aziz Ansari, his work and all that he had yet to accomplish. It was truly inspiring to see an Asian-American who was born to immigrant parents and of Muslim heritage accomplish all that he did. It was encouraging to hear a man, even one who identified as a minority, acknowledge his privilege and call out those who couldn't own up to theirs. He was supposed to be one of the good ones. “Nah, not Aziz. He’s fighting for all of us.”
But yes, even him. Because Aziz Ansari is not the ultimate champion for minorities. He's just a person who did great things for a time. And now that time is past.
It really is devastating to finally comprehend that some heroes are just normal guys, including your own. And it’s sad coming to terms with what that actually means. I know it's natural to want to defend your heroes because in so many ways it seemed like they were fighting for you. A huge part of me still wants to fight back for Aziz because of what he did for the rest of us Asian-Americans. And I hate admitting that.
I hate admitting that I’m still struggling to empathize completely with Grace, but I am. As a woman who has experienced sexual harassment and assault, I always thought I would be the kind of person to fight for those who had experienced the same, or worse, as I have without hesitation. I was wrong.
It's hard for me to not feel as if I have to pick sides. Is it Grace or Aziz? I am both woman and Asian-American; I wish there was a middle ground. But I know in my heart that there isn't.
I am an Asian-American woman. And it's time I stop making heroes of normal guys.