Aziz Ansari and the Dangers of the Nice-Guy Complex
There is a specter haunting pop culture: the specter of the Nice-Guy Complex. Recent events have shown that the Complex is a very real factor in many issues related to the dating and sexual world. All the powers of the male-dominated media have entered into a holy alliance to protect this specter: the filmmaker and the actor, the writer and the anchor, the musician and the politician.
No one embraces the “nice guy” persona more than comedian, actor, and author Aziz Ansari, whose characters are beloved for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. However, what is not so nice is the sexual misconduct allegations against Ansari. The reporting of the events by Babe last week has fueled the continuation of a huge and historically significant discussion about the nature of consent. I have been a little surprised at the different reactions I’ve received while talking to important women in my life about the allegations. Though many were unfailingly supportive of women who have come forward to combat the vicious pattern, this one seemed, to those I’ve spoken to, akin to a “boy who cried wolf” situation in that allegations with ambiguity about consent could weaken allegations in which there are no ambiguities. However, despite any ambiguity about consent in this story, to me the events so clearly exemplify the problems with what we as a society have deemed “normal” romantic and sexual behavior, as well as largely accepted conventions about gender dynamics in the dating world.
The Nice-Guy Complex is a concept familiar in internet circles used to describe a self-proclaimed “nice guy” who believes that, for his “nice deeds”, he is entitled to whatever he wants with women. The “nice guy” will do favors for a woman, and be her good friend, and then lament that women only want to date guys who are, in their reductive opinion, not nice, despite the fact that romance, attraction, and love are made up of countless factors. The “nice guy” thinks that it is never his fault when a woman does not want to date him, or even that it is never just random; no, it is the woman’s fault for having, in the “nice guy’s” view, bad taste in men and rejecting the “nice guy”.
Although some of Ansari’s comedy routines also lament women’s choice to date the wrong guys, Aziz Ansari’s self-characterization as a “nice guy” was my main gripe with his Netflix show Master of None. His largely autobiographical character, Dev, is frequently shown taking women on extravagant dates (like a weekend trip to Nashville) only for their relationship to sour. Ironically, he draws on a lot of the material from his book about dating in the iPhone era, Modern Romance. One episode of season 2 shows women swiping on the show’s version of Tinder, and Aziz Ansari wants the viewer to know that that some women may swipe left on Dev, and that’s okay. Most significantly, season 2 of the show (in my opinion, much better than season 1) shows Dev deeply in love with Francesca, his friend whom he met doing a pasta apprenticeship in Italy after he is left heartbroken by first season flame Lucy. Francesca is beautiful, smart, and just a small step up from a manic pixie dream girl. Francesca joins the ranks of Summer in 500 Days of Summer and Annie from Annie Hall. Dev’s Nice-Guy Complex and Francesca’s characterization as a manic pixie dream girl has not gone unnoticed by TV critics. However, the problematic nature of Aziz’s type of hero is taken to another level when sexual assault allegations against the writer are in the mix.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Dev is written as the antithesis of his business partner Chef Jeff, who is accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Dev’s refusal to stand by Jeff because he “respect[s] women” is an alarming mask for Ansari to hold in light of the recent allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. The accusations made by the woman fit eerily into an episode of Master of None up until things start to go sour. When they met at the 2017 Emmys after party, they bonded over the fact that they had brought the same vintage 80s film camera. Their date took place at a trendy oyster bar and ended with wine in his trendy apartment. As too many stories go, Grace was so shocked at the brashness of his sexual advances and disregard for her verbal and non-verbal cues that she let the situation go on too long. After the night, she responded to his follow-up text with a well-written response explaining the wrongness of the night and the way he made her feel, and he responded with an apology for misreading the situation.
An apology is, sadly, more than we have been trained to expect from the prominent men who have been accused of sexual misconduct as of late. In one of my favorite articles of the year, New York Times writers deconstructed and analyzed these apologies. The results were disappointing. In any case, it is hard to believe the gravity of this apology because, as we have seen, those who commit sexual assault tend to be repeat offenders. The basic gist of Ansari’s official public response is that he was “surprised and concerned” when he found out that she was uncomfortable with the situation, and that he supports the current movement to bring issues of sexual assault to light.
A New York Times piece by Bari White argues, along with some of the women that I have talked to, that this encounter was nothing more sinister than “bad sex” and makes an unsettling claim that “criminalizing” these encounters “takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches”. Part of the reason for this, evidently, is that White, although she acknowledges the systemic problems with the way that we socialize men and women around sex, believes that in this case the woman has no agency and is “merely acted upon”. This and other arguments that Grace’s story weakens stories of “real” sexual assault are plainly shown cases of victim blaming. Trying to differentiate between systemic problems in sexual politics is nothing but counterproductive, as is shaming women for sharing their own experiences simply because they may not seem as valid as others; or, if we’re taking it the psychological route, they are too close to home in the gray areas of a woman’s sexual past. In short, the fact that we are debating how uncomfortable someone has to be in a sexual situation for it to warrant a conversation is the issue.
I like Master of None. It’s funny, smart, and has made a lot of strides in terms of combatting whitewashing in the media. The second season episode “Thanksgiving”, a look at Lena Waithe’s character Denise figuring out her identity as a black and gay woman over the years, made me cry. But the same show that makes strides also perpetuates the status quo of rape culture by allowing Aziz Ansari to use Dev to reinforce his image as the “nice guy”. It allows Ansari to acknowledge the evils of sexual assault and place himself into the narrative as the evolved man while simultaneously, and perhaps unknowingly, perpetuating the problem. Overall, the situation is an exemplar for the deeply ingrained societal conventions that permit these types of situations, the ambiguity of which is both simplified and complicated by its relationship with today’s media, to occur.