A Low-Grade Fever: On Aziz Ansari's Comeback Netflix Special

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

by Reina Gattuso

Maybe it was his nice-guy image or the fact that Master of None was so endearing. Maybe it was because the scene of mounting sexual pressure “Grace” described was, unlike the outsized horror of the Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby allegations, so disturbingly familiar. Whatever it was, for women across the internet, the sexual assault accusations against Aziz Ansari, detailed on Babe.net in January 2018, hit close to home. 

They shook me, too. They reminded me of every gaslighting ex-boyfriend, every Tinder date who wouldn’t take "no" for an answer, every aggressive sexual encounter that made me feel like a candy wrapper, eaten and tossed aside. Some commentators found feminist anger at Grace’s story extreme or even vengeful. On the contrary, by refusing to excuse away Ansari’s behavior, we refused to accept the chronic sexism that made it seem so normal.

Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special, Right Now, which began streaming July 9, is his first since the 2018 allegations. It is full of claims of growth. He begins by saying he’s sorry that Grace “felt that way,” though he never acknowledges that he made her feel that way. He does frame the allegation as a wakeup call, saying it made a friend think through every date he’d ever been on. This willingness to reevaluate cultural expectations of love and sex is promising, and the rest of Ansari’s set, though it doesn’t overtly mention the allegation, tackles similar questions of public shaming, discrimination, contrition, and change.

He asks: Considering that our society’s standards for acceptable behavior around race, gender, and power are shifting so quickly, how can we call each other out while acknowledging we are all still growing? 

At best, the special is cutting and smart. Ansari is especially good at lambasting the violence of whiteness and American supremacy, like when he points out that the same white people whose grandfathers were slaughtering Vietnamese civilians are now self-proclaimed authorities on pho. His anecdotes about family obligation are clever and poignant. His criticism of progressives’ social media scramble to out-woke each other is well-observed. Instead of this self-righteousness, he suggests, why not accept that we are all, in some way, “assholes,” and embrace the fact that we have to make mistakes to grow?

I wondered how much of Ansari’s advocacy for a more forgiving politics was the result of a desire to exculpate himself.

On one hand, I vibe with Ansari’s vision of forgiveness. As someone who writes on the internet, I live in a constant state of vigilance so I don’t harm someone through my work. Like Ansari, I worry that I will be canceled from “the discourse” because of a privileged mistake, or because of some god-awful opinion I held when I was even more of an asshole than I am now. I hope that when I inevitably do mess up, others will be generous; that when I feel other people have messed up, I can be kind.

But when the credits rolled, I was left wondering how much of Ansari’s advocacy for a more forgiving politics was the result of a desire to exculpate himself. Because what the special doesn’t seem to leave space for—and what makes me ultimately skeptical—is that feminist anger at men who have harmed women is not all Twitter posturing and competitive wokeness. It is life-saving, and it is hard won. 

Because it’s not just the extreme or sensational gendered violence that harms us. It’s also the daily acts of degradation—the sexualizing comments, the street harassment, the unequal domestic labor—that wear us down like a low-grade fever. Toward the end of the special, Ansari says he’s extra-grateful to be on that stage performing, because at one point he was afraid he’d never come back. “It almost felt like I died,” he said. But that’s precisely what we’ve been trying to tell him. The constant, low-level violence Grace detailed can diminish us until we find ourselves pushed out of the theaters of our own lives. Unlike Ansari, many of us don’t get to make a glitzy comeback. 

More than two years into #MeToo, I believe more deeply than ever in our collective capacity for growth. We each carry inside us the seeds of our better selves. If only we create the social conditions that can allow for it, everyone who has caused harm—and that is every single one of us—can change. At the same time, my experiences of gendered violence have taught me that we can’t wait around for individual men to get the memo. Yes, their growth is possible, but we will die of asphyxiation if we hold our breath. 

Anyway, Ansari’s transformation is besides the point. Society as a whole is growing, not because of the men we’ve accused, but because of the people who have taken on the amazonian task of shifting our collective standards. We demand not just consent, but pleasure. We demand not just an absence of violence, but profound respect. Throughout the special, Ansari repeats that in 2019, we live in a brave new world of quickly changing ethics. Damn right. 

Ultimately, watching Ansari’s Netflix special feels like seeing a guy I went on a shitty Tinder date with three years ago posting some thoughtful, funny reflections on Facebook. I believe it is possible that he has changed. I hope for the sake of the women in his life that he has changed. But I’m certainly not about to hit him up on a Friday night. Because believing in change does not mean we have to let specific men back into our lives. Not our dates or our dads or our ex-boyfriends. And, though he’s produced a decent Netflix special, not Aziz Ansari.

Reina Gattuso is a feminist journalist covering food, sex, and politics. Follow her work at @reinagattuso and reinagattuso.com.