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Stephanie Ruhle: A Gen Xer and a millennial discuss Aziz Ansari's #MeToo comeback

After seeing Aziz Ansari’s 'Road to Nowhere' show, Stephanie Ruhle and her younger colleague Julie Brown discuss how generational differences skew the way we view #MeToo.
Image: Aziz Ansari
Aziz Ansari attends the 16th Annual AFI Awards in Beverly Hills, California on Jan. 8, 2016.Michael Kovac / Getty Images file

We are living in some perplexing times.

Women have never felt more empowered to be independent. And yet, 78% of respondents to a love and finances survey agree that men should pay on the first date. Last I checked Instagram, men are certainly still responsible for buying engagement rings and planning proposals fit for princesses.

The #MeToo movement has called into question behaviors we never used to think twice about: from what constitutes an appropriate compliment in the workplace to who picks up the bill on the first date.

Over the course of the last two years, our team — made up mostly of females — have given these cultural conundrums a lot of thought.

How will the movement impact relationships between men and women at work?

Are we allowed to watch Woody Allen movies anymore?

Can any of the #MeToo perpetrators seek redemption?

This last question in particular has initiated fascinating conversations. We all agree that no two cases are the same, and so there's not a single answer. That grey area makes this conversation all the more significant.

While the #MeToo movement is broadening my perspective on an established mindset toward relationships, sex and dating, it is laying the foundation for Julie’s.

Stephanie Ruhle

One of those men testing the waters is comedian Aziz Ansari, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct last year when published a story detailing a date he went on — a night his date, Grace, referred to as the worst night of her life.

Nonetheless, the comedian is selling out theaters coast to coast on his literal comeback tour, titled "Road to Nowhere". Inspired by our own conversations at the office, my younger colleague Julie Brown and I decided to do some field research.

Julie is twenty years my junior. She's like the exchange student I always wanted to have — but she's not from a foreign country. She hails from “woke nation,” a moniker I lovingly gave my team last year. She teaches me the ways of her progressive people. While the #MeToo movement is broadening my perspective on an established mindset toward relationships, sex and dating, it is laying the foundation for Julie’s. I knew we would see Ansari’s quest for forgiveness differently. So we ventured across 50th Street to Radio City Music Hall to find out: What does a #MeToo comeback look like? Is it even possible? Here's what we talked about:

We both agree that Ansari’s attempt at a comeback seems to be working. Why?

JB: Almost immediately after taking the stage, Ansari launched into an explanation he felt he owed his audience. He was very careful in his wording: he never used the words “I’m sorry.” This gave his message so much more weight. He wasn’t telling anyone what they wanted to hear — just what he was genuinely feeling.

Instead of an outright apology, the comedian recalled what the last year has been like for him. He described feeling a variety of emotions since the allegations against him were first published: sadness, anger, even depression. He recalled a conversation he had with a friend who told him that Ansari's experience made him think twice about every single date he’d ever been on. That he would be more thoughtful going forward because of what happened to him. If that is a result of my experience, Ansari said, then that is a good thing.

The crowd erupted. Like Ansari’s fans, I appreciated his honesty. After all, Ansari’s life was turned upside down, too. Sure, he behaved poorly. But he suffered the consequences in a big way. It is important that Ansari’s perspective is considered. Banishing him into silence runs the risk of banishing meaningful dialogue altogether.

SR: Ansari’s comments on his own allegations seemed to imply that they were brought against him for a reason. The accessible and familiar nature of his story can serve as an example for others, and encourage them to think harder about the consequences of their actions. It can make us all better.

This explanation came as a great relief to me. After nearly two years of hearing stories about abhorrent behavior by men in power — many of whom we once idolized, it was refreshing to think, maybe, we are finally moving forward in some way. That the painful, confusing conversations we’ve been puzzling through are moving the needle.

What's different about this comeback?

SR: Aziz Ansari is not the first figure taken down by the #MeToo movement to make a concerted effort to reenter the spotlight. Louis CK surprised audiences in New York City comedy clubs earlier this year to try his hand at a comeback. The difference? Ansari’s efforts actually seem to be working. Sure, he is performing for his fans — who shelled out the money for a ticket and schlepped to Midtown Manhattan to see him on their Friday night. So was Louis CK when he was berated on Twitter by fans and fellow comedians for mocking Parkland shooting survivors during a set.

Ansari’s tone is critical to his success in winning over audiences. His set was far from “squeaky clean”: he covered our culture’s obsession with political correctness, and applauded white people for being nicer to minority groups than ever before. He even mentioned disgraced rapper R. Kelly, the subject of an old joke he is no longer "safe" to perform. Ansari masterfully toed the line, always leaning the funny and avoiding the outright offensive.

JB: I agree that he struck the right tone. But more than that, Ansari was the first #MeToo story that mass audiences could relate to. He took the movement out of the workplace, off the casting couch and into real life. In revealing the vast grey area between the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world and himself, Ansari’s experience raised questions about cultural practices that concern us all: casual sex, dating, relationships and everything in between.

I’ve had so many conversations with girlfriends who identify with Grace: they went upstairs after the date, but didn’t mean it as an agreement to have sex — just that they were having fun and not ready for the night to end. But I’ve also heard from my guy friends who see this move — venturing upstairs — as the ultimate signal of sexual attraction and interest. It’s certainly represented that way in the movies we watch and the music we listen to.

The consequences of this episode matter for everyone dating in 2019. If Ansari can’t be forgiven for his misgivings, what does that mean for all others who have abided by the same cultural norms?

So, we what did we learn from all of this?

SR: In having this conversation, I can see that we can all learn from this case — no matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married, or when your last casual fling was. I am the perfect example. When I first read the allegations against Ansari I found myself placing the blame on Grace, the woman accusing the comedian of sexual misconduct. When someone invites you upstairs after a date, they’re not thinking ice cream sundaes and board games. I knew that from my years of dating in New York — didn’t she?

This was my jaded life experience talking: After years of college dating followed by single life in New York City, cultural norms took control.

I know now that just because something is the status quo does not mean it is okay. That’s why Ansari’s #MeToo experience personifies the purpose of the movement, perhaps more than any other headline we’ve seen over the last two years. It was not built to be a machine to tear down the most powerful people, but a vehicle to evaluate all of our practices and elevate them to the best of our ability.

JB: There is a misconception that sexual interactions are an all or nothing deal. She was asking for it by coming inside, by wearing that outfit or flirting back. And when she doesn’t go all the way, she is a prude. A tease.

This does not have to be the case.

Like any relationship, these encounters are incremental — an ongoing negotiation that is never final, never settled. Our communication should reflect that. Everyone wins: women won’t risk sending the “wrong” message. Men can rest assured that they know exactly where they stand.

The #MeToo movement has far reaching impact outside of the workplace. This case can help guarantee the consequences of this long overdue reckoning are moving all of us in the right direction.

Between #MeToo, our political climate, the rise of social media and much more, we are living in some thorny times. Issues like these have become so polarizing, we’re stopped talking at all. Stephanie Ruhle hopes to restart that dialogue on her new podcast: Modern Ruhles. Find it anywhere you get your podcasts after Labor Day.

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