This is not a story about Aziz Ansari harassing or assaulting me. This is not a story blaming “Grace,” the woman accusing Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct. This is a story intended to be part of a larger, more complicated conversation that is far from binary, a place my younger self would not have wanted to accept. This is a story about accountability, our individual lack of it, and our collective obsession with fame and celebrity.
When I was twenty-six years old, I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. We met while I was a cocktail waitress at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I was a struggling actress and writer with a desire (like everyone in Hollywood) for fame and fortune. The night we met, he asked for my number. I gave it to him. I’ll spare you the details because they’re just not interesting. A few days later he formally asked me out. The night of our date he picked me up in his car (chivalry is not dead!) and we would drive to Largo on La Cienega Boulevard where he would perform a set— where I got to meet comedy stars, Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro backstage. For a few moments, it felt thrilling— to be young and hanging out with famous people. I’m sure Aziz knew this too, often the elephant in the room between famous and non-famous people. We love it on both sides! Afterwards, we would walk to the bar next door, have a drink, ask each other boring first date questions and then drive back to Aziz’s apartment. Again, I’ll spare the details; they’re just not interesting. They’re not unlike any other generic date millions upon millions of people have experienced.
Except that he was famous.
Before I went on the date, I told my therapist that Aziz Ansari had asked me out, that I wasn’t sure if I felt any chemistry with him but that I wanted to go anyway. She asked me why. I said because he has what I want. In my young, female-conditioned brain (the same part of my brain that wants to be liked at any cost, that puts a guy’s feelings before my own) I had convinced myself that I would somehow catch the things he had through some form of osmosis. Knowing my therapist for six years, she probably smiled and nodded— The: ah, yes, I understand, woman to woman. Because the truth was, I didn’t really believe I could attain any form of success (if that’s what being famous means) on my own merit, which I had justified because, goddammit, I was a woman and it was harder for us.
We had been working on my victimhood. My accountability. My desire for wealth, and fame and power that had been instilled in me since I was a child, growing up among the elite and powerful in Washington, D.C. with a father whose drug of choice was money and status.
We had been working on my self-worth.
When I walked into Aziz’s apartment that night, I remember taking a look around at his things. Again, nothing interesting. I didn’t find some magic wand that would make me famous. He didn’t provide me with any hidden secrets of Hollywood. And he didn’t have any writing advice. We made out a little. I got bored. And I remember thinking about this—That a very sad truth is the collective gaping hole we feel as a people and a culture, where we value celebrities more than teachers, money more than knowledge, fame more than humility, Access Hollywood more than The History Channel. We have an obsession with power and fame that is unprecedented in the world. We are the epicenter of greed.
We are all complicit.
The fact that the Babe article was even written is reflective of a culture obsessed with celebrity where the worst cases of sexual harassment are happening right now in our service industry to women far less privileged. An industry I was a part of for nearly ten years.
And yet still, I had been complicit.
In those moments with Aziz, I had pulled back the curtain, demystified a part of Hollywood as far as I was concerned, and got my answer. I was just in some nerdy guy’s apartment who may or may not have been eager to hook up with me. I didn’t feel any chemistry. And I didn’t want to live a lie. The myth that this would somehow fill a void in my life wasn’t real. Let me repeat that. It wasn’t real.
So I called a cab and I left.
Perhaps Caitlin Flanagan’s article, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” in The Atlantic was right: “Grace,” who claimed that her bad date with Aziz was the worst night of her life wasn’t because he assaulted her, but because she was hitting a bottom. He was famous, which was more likely than not, a factor in her decision to go out with him, toppled with having to face her own conditioned behavior—that she can’t say no, that she can’t leave, that she must stay quiet, be polite, say it another way to make it different, but she didn’t know how. Because maybe no one has taught her how. And now, she’s confused. Confused about the difference between what constitutes as consensual and non-consensual. Can we blame her?
Though I made the “right” choice, I empathize deeply with “Grace.” Maybe the backlash she’s received is the lesson she needed to learn so that next time she gets up, she walks out, she knows her worth. We don’t know her sexual history, her parents, or her past. We are here in this loud, uncomfortable grey area where we are walking a fine and dangerous line with each other. And maybe next time Aziz will slow down and look at fame as something to be careful with.
There are lessons on both sides.
Personally, it has taken me almost a decade of therapy to re-program my brain, to understand my self–worth, to learn to say no, to stand up for myself when I feel degraded, to ask for what I need, to leave when I feel uncomfortable— because this problem we are having is not solely a man’s job to fix. Yes, we should absolutely change the way we raise our boys. But this is also an inside job for women. Breaking the cycle of the way we have been told to behave- to be nice, to be polite, to be small. And in light of the Aziz story, ridding our culture’s sick obsession with celebrity.
I’ll end with this: A few years later, I was sitting in that same therapist’s office reminiscing of that date I had with Aziz, laughing at my idiocy for wanting to date someone solely because he was famous, breaking cycles, and being proud of the progress I had made. My memoir, After Perfect, had just been published, the same month as Aziz’s, Modern Romance. Turns out, I didn’t need a famous man to define my self-worth. All I needed was my voice, and that’s what “Grace” has just discovered.
Christina McDowell is the author of After Perfect: a Daughter’s Memoir