Published on February 23rd, 2018 |
by Aya de Leon
In Defense of Aziz Ansari’s Mama: How Toxic Masculinity Undermines Mothers in Rape Culture
I know in my heart that Aziz Ansari’s mama didn’t raise him to act like that. She didn’t raise him to interrupt a young woman halfway through a meal on their date and take her back to his apartment to pressure her for sex. She didn’t raise him to keep trying to get her in bed, even after she gave him clear verbal and nonverbal signals she didn’t want it. I read the account of “Grace,” the anonymous New York photographer who left her date with Ansari in tears, and I know his mama didn’t raise him like that. I know because I’ve seen her. He was at least a courteous enough son to put his mama in his TV show. And having seen the woman, I can’t believe she raised him to move into that zone between persistent and predator, where a man systematically breaks down a woman’s resistance to his sexual agenda.
But that’s the thing about raising sons under patriarchy. We start out with sweet, loving boys, and male domination demands that they turn against everything female, including their mothers. Our role is to contribute the emotional labor and the domestic labor that makes their lives and our families run, but we are undermined in our intellectual and moral authority to shape their minds and values. Our attempts to raise sons who respect women are systematically sabotaged by the culture of toxic masculinity.
We are in a watershed moment about sexual violence in our culture. The biggest change has been that women are no longer being silent about the brutality that we endure routinely in rape culture. We are seeing breakthroughs in public conversation about the problem and unprecedented consequences for perpetrators of violence. However, as the conversation shifts from punishing extraordinarily egregious violators, like Harvey Weinstein, and moves to exposing the less clear-cut sexual misconduct of someone like Aziz Ansari, a stronger backlash has begun. Weinstein abused a level of power that most men will never have, but Ansari abused a more familiar quantity of power that is available to most men. Before our conversation gets too polarized between #MeToo /#TimesUp and #NoWitchHunt I want to dig deeper into the case study of “Grace” and Aziz Ansari, to reveal roots of rape culture, and look at possibilities for transformation.
Abusers deserve consequences. The lack of consequences for mistreatment of women is as old as patriarchy. Lack of consequences certainly continues to encourage the abusive behavior. But punishment, in and of itself, is neither transformative, nor preventative. I’m not saying sexual violence shouldn’t be punished. Rather, in addition to punishment, we need to commit to the larger project of ending male domination.
Male domination is the social, cultural, political and economic structure of our world. While individual results may vary, men—as a group—dominate women and children, and men are constantly vying for power to dominate other men, as well. Mothers of boys have the struggle and oftentimes hearbreak of watching their sons’ indoctrination into toxic masculitnity.
According to the story on babe.com “Grace compares Ansari’s sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old.”
Grace said he acted like a teenager, but what does that mean? Who are teenage boys and why are our standards of human behavior so low for them?
Many feminists have written about the gender training in male domination that would press Grace into the role of unwilling participant. But what about the forces that would press Ansari into the role of insistence? They are a product of male domination, as well.
Male domination doesn’t only include wielding abusive power over women, but over children, as well. Boy children don’t actually fare well under male domination. They are abused by their fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and older boys in and out of their families. Children are vulnerable, and vulnerability isn’t manly. To be less than manly is to be humiliated, shunned, and tormented, physically and emotionally. Boys learn to cut themselves off from empathy, but above all from connection. If you stay close to your mother, you’re a “mama’s boy.” Meanwhile, girls are stupid and inferior, but boys had better not get to close to other boys, or they’ll be targeted with homophobia. Boys grow up in a context that is brutal and increasingly isolated. Children are filled with emotions, but boys will be humiliated if they show anything but anger. They play violent video games, and either live in fear of bullies or become bullies.
Male domination is brutal to girls, too, but boys get the message that if they just hang in there, they will become adult men, and they can be the ones in control. So the deal is that, while girls are cuddling at sleepovers and playing in each other’s hair, boys need to go it alone. Until middle school, when boys are supposed to become obsessed with sex. I believe this obsession is a result of boys finally being given an acceptable pathway to some human intimacy.
At this point, girls are no longer yucky, but they are still inferior. Meanwhile, heteronormative scripts emerge: girls could like them, listen to them, care about them, and they can have a feeling of being connected to another human being. As adolescence creeps forward, girls, and particularly girls’ bodies, become the key to liberation from all the misery of boyhood. But boys also have that training not to show feelings and to be in control. They lack the emotional intelligence to have healthy relationships. Their exposure to pornography distorts their expectations of sex. So they learn to objectify girls as they ascend into their dominating role as adult men. They cut off relationships that become emotionally uncomfortable. They increasingly narrow their focus to sexual conquest. It feels good. They get a fleeting connection, but not one that requires any uncomfortable emotional attachment, and they can brag about it to their buddies, thereby increasing their status in the male domination pecking order. Sometimes those same boys do try to have relationships, and then they learn a whole other set of strategies to dominate and control their partners. But that’s another story.
The key issue here is that boys who are targeted with this type of toxic masculinity as little boys never get a chance to heal. They continue to objectify and mistreat women well into their presidency. This is not at all to excuse the behavior of an Aziz Ansari (or a Donald Tr*mp). But rather, to identify root causes. If we want to stop rape culture, we need to stop rapists, and rapists don’t start as full-grown men who take advantage of the license to abuse that the society gives them. The start as baby boys who will be brutally hazed into the dynamics of abuser and abused and simultaneously denied every other form of human connection until they are capable of monstrous acts. Of grabbing women by the pussy, of extracting sexual submission on a casting couch, of masturbating in front of horrified female comedy colleagues, of pestering a young photographer ten years their junior into sex, even as she verbally and non-verbally resists their advances.
I think one of the things that confounds some of the naysayers in the case of Grace and Ansari is the fact that he may well have been willfully ignorant of her lack of consent. Ansari reflects what I would call the narcissism of male sexual development in rape culture. In his privileged desperation, the narcissist cannot imagine that any desires exist other than his own. Like with porn, sexually narcissistic men pick a type of porn that is their fantasy. And inside the sexual storyline they get to watch a scenario in which the woman will be excited by and satisfied with that very same thing that the man wants sexually. They don’t negotiate. They don’t check in. It just magically all works out. It doesn’t matter what the actual woman actually feels, because she’s an actress. When men are narcissistic in real life, it doesn’t matter what the woman actually feels, because she is not a real person. She’s just a player in his movie. He’s so caught up in the fantasy script of what is supposed to happen and how it’s supposed to make him feel, that he doesn’t have room for the authentic woman, her actual displeasure. Grace’s detractors have blamed her for not screaming “no,” slapping him, or running out of his apartment. That level of victim blaming is unacceptable. Men need to be able to hear clear cues like the ones Grace gave, and stop pressuring women for sex. However, Grace’s accusers may be accurate in identifying the types of behaviors that would have required to snap him out of the narcissistic trance. I can’t proceed with my fantasy of fucking this woman if she’s running out of my apartment. Grace is not to blame for Ansari’s alleged predatory behavior. These are simply strategies that we can put in our own toolkits for the future. By necessity, these kits must have a range of tools, and include more subtle items, because as Melissa Hillman, so wisely pointed out, women who reject men are routinely abused and killed. Grace’s more placating verbal and nonverbal cues are an important survival strategy. Also, running out isn’t a tool available to all women. As Shailja Patel has pointed out, sometimes the apartment is their home and the sexual pressure is coming from partners, husbands, or male relatives. Rape culture permeates heteronormative marriage and patriarchal families as much as heteronormative dating.
Second wave feminists had it right when they said that rape was about power and violence, not sex. And this type of pressured or narcissistic sex is also about men’s desperation for intimacy. If men just wanted to get off, they could masturbate, with or without pornography or a sex toy. Why did LouisCK need an audience when he masturbated? Solitary sex doesn’t cut it for many men, because they want to be connected to another human being, in this case a woman, as part of the sexual experience. And this poses a problem for many men. Because they want a real-live human partner, but they also want to control her and have her act out their script. So they pick women who are vulnerable, less powerful, eager to please. They pick women whom they outrank or supervise at work. They pick women desperate to get cast in movies, or women who are dazzled by their celebrity. Above all, they pick women whom they assess will blame themselves, and will keep their mouths shut or won’t be listened to if they do speak.
I don’t think we have a real shot at dismantling rape culture until we dig down to the root of this sexual desperation in so many men. And this doesn’t just occur in dating or the workplace. So many women in relationships with men have experienced that sexual desperation from partners. Sexual nagging or pressuring or bullying. We understand this as “just how men are” but I disagree. Men’s sexually aggressive behavior is a learned behavior with many layers of toxic socialization, and it has deep emotional and physical isolation at the center. Many times this masculine hazing happens over the objections of their mothers, in spite of their mothers’ attempts to stay connected to them, in defiance of their mothers’ offers of the non-sexual maternal love that they’ve been taught to reject. Yet—as adults—men’s underlying yearning for intimacy doesn’t appear to exist. It’s crushed beneath toxic masculinity’s ironclad demand that such vulnerability be completely buried, never spoken of, considered dead. There’s a reason that self-absorbed men are called man-babies, because they clearly didn’t get enough mothering. Such men engage in adult relationships with women using a dual approach: part dominating patriarch and part demanding infant.
Rape culture thrives at the convergence of the toxic masculine socialization of boys, the equally toxic socialization of girls to be pleasing and endure pain, and the power that society gives to adult men to indulge every fantasy, whim, and emotional demon via the bodies of women. This is all not to give any man a pass for objectifying, pressuring, preying upon, or sexually abusing women. But rather to show men that dismantling male domination is not about being woke to impress women, but a stand for the humanity of the boys they once were.
Men’s rights activists speak one accurate truth, they are emotionally in touch with the residue of their brutal childhoods. They are disgruntled recipients of the promise that growing up to be men would make it all better. So they are like little boys who were promised women’s bodies as the Christmas present to make up for daddy beating them the other 364 days of the year. But Christmas day (adulthood) comes and there’s no human Barbie waiting under the tree to fuck them whenever they want. But instead of blaming male domination for abusing and lying to them, they blame women for not acting out the promised role. Meanwhile, other “good” guys are busy trying to act like they are so different and don’t have that sense of desperation, of entitlement, trying to pretend to be woke. Aziz Ansari cast himself in the role of woke feminist dude, but he couldn’t pull it off. The lure of male privilege and willful ignorance can become too appealing, and many men default to domination and exploitation, even when they “know better.”
If we want to stop rape culture, we need to stop being a culture that produces rapists. Male domination doesn’t only harm women and girls, it harms boys, too. Those of us who seek to end rape culture need to also end the domination of and among boys. And men need to join the project of ending male domination, not only as allies to women, but also to reclaim their own humanity. As women, we fight for self-determination of our bodies, and as mothers, we fight for the power to shape the minds and values of our sons.