Whatever Happened to Modern Romance
January 16th, 2018
This piece was previously published at The Interrobang.
“Your most casual encounter could lead to something bigger, so treat those interactions with that level of respect.”
-Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance
This weekend’s revelation that comedian and Golden Globe-winning actor Aziz Ansari had sexually assaulted a woman on a date a year ago is more unique than it seems at first glance. After all, he’s not the first comedian to face such allegations: in recent months, Louis C.K. has dealt with criticism for his conduct toward women. He’s not the only Golden Globe winner to face them: James Franco is currently stumbling through a series of allegations himself.
He’s not even unique in that he’s previously created art that would indicate he knows the right way to behave. The trials of dating have been covered exhaustively and artfully on his Master of None; season 1’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” explicitly shine a light on the challenges women face in the dating world that men are often oblivious to. Season 2’s “First Date” and its literal revolving door of prospective partners is a pitch-perfect portrayal of what dating in the “app generation” has become. And in fact, Master of None’s most recent season ends with the dissolution of his character Dev’s work partnership with celebrity chef and serial abuser Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale).
And yet, Ansari is markedly unique from others...because he positioned himself as not just an ally, but an authority on the subject of doing dating right.
Modern Romance, released in 2015, is a “how-to” guide for dating in the digital age, co-authored by sociologist and writer Eric Klineberg. Ansari and Klineberg transformed the comedian’s musings on courtship, love, and building strong relationships into a well-researched and thoughtful book, focusing in a lot of ways on how technology has altered our take on love. In many ways, Ansari came into his own comedically as he developed that material; Modern Romance marks an application of those jokes that (at the time) felt fresh, insightful, and even necessary. And the result? Readers, females in particular, came to trust Ansari, believe he was the good guy that was willing to acknowledge in print, “[a] firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.” So, what happens when the author is revealed to be a bozo?
Revisiting Modern Romance in the wake of these allegations was a more frustrating task than I had originally anticipated. In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike revisiting the text messages from an ex, searching for clues that the faith you placed in their words wasn’t misplaced. Passages like, “There’s something uniquely valuable in everyone, and we’ll be much happier and better off if we invest the time and energy it takes to find it,” or “it can get difficult to remember that behind every text message, OkCupid profile, and Tinder picture there's an actual living, breathing, complex person, just like you,” seem to ring hollow, to leave the reader wondering, “but he understands why I have a hard time believing that from him, right?” It’s these questions that will undoubtedly taint the legacy of Modern Romance long-term. One quote in particular stands out among many others:
“Our romantic options are unprecedented and our tools to sort and communicate with them are staggering. And that raises the question: Why are so many people frustrated?”
I’ve heard this question voiced in regards to the nature of Ansari’s allegations. Unlike several other sets of accounts, Ansari’s regrettably feels pretty familiar. The question of whether it was assault at all, given that prior interest had been expressed and that Ansari appears to only have learned after, has been raised several times (the answer to that, by the way, is yes. Yes it was assault). He and Klineberg are absolutely correct: we do have unprecedented tools to communicate. And yet, many of us feel frustrated. From the tone of Ansari’s eventual public statement, I suspect that frustration extends to him. Ultimately, the reporter who interviewed Ansari’s accuser nailed down the source of frustration well. Katie Way of Babe.net said, “Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s okay. Just because something happens a lot, doesn’t mean it should ever happen.” And just because someone has called out “straight-up bozos” before, in print or on stage, doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to exhibit that bozo behavior themselves.
This latest fall of a respected man in comedy, and the manner in which it calls into question his prior advice, is as important as it is unfortunate. Why? The disparity between the sound and insightful counsel of Modern Romance and its author’s actual conduct proves that it’s deeper than who we can point to as “bad,” and who we can set aside or lift up as “good.” Those casual encounters that Ansari and Klineberg said should be treated with respect, aren’t always conducted that way. And as we’re learning now, this is possible even by the men who believe they’re on the side of good. And that, for all the arenas sold out and books sold, is no laughing matter.