Of all the sexual misconduct stories that have come out of Hollywood since the Weinstein debacle, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I was most disappointed to read about Aziz Ansari. It’s not just because I think he’s funny and I like his work — it’s because he is a person who has consistently presented himself as an ally to women. He has repeatedly self-identified as a feminist, and he doesn’t just talk the talk; with his success, he’s certainly done his part to boost the careers and voices of the women around him.
Ansari’s willingness to help women tell their stories is a huge part of what makes his alleged behavior so surprising and frustrating. It feels like a personal betrayal to so many of us who have loved his work, who’ve been following and rooting for him all along the way because he’s one of the few male voices we felt we could trust to tell our stories as well as his own. If we can’t trust someone like Aziz to understand consent in its complexity, the road ahead of us is even more difficult than we thought.
(Spoilers to follow.)
In processing my reaction to the story, I’ve been thinking about how to reconsider Ansari’s work with this new context: in particular, Master of None, a show I’ve enjoyed immensely (and one I’m not so sure will ever get that third season after all). When Season 2 first dropped on Netflix, it was met with a flood of praise, but in the weeks following its release, people had some questions: specifically about the viability and likability of Dev’s love interest, Francesca. People were starting to realize that Francesca, as a character, was poorly drawn. Think pieces were written, and ultimately, the general consensus seemed to be that Francesca’s lack of depth was most likely intentional.
At the time, I believed this too. There was no way a writer as intelligent as Ansari would have written such a flat character without an underlying motivation for doing so. Now, of course, I’m not so sure. With what’s come to light, I thought it might be interesting to reexamine Francesca and her romance with Dev — not as a clever statement about modern romance, but as a failure on Ansari’s part to convey (or even grasp) the complexity and nuance of romantic relationships with women.
Back in July, friend and guest blogger Sally Tunmer wrote a post for us entitled “Master of None: Why is Francesca such a Wet Noodle?” In her piece, Sally introduces Francesca this way: “Francesca is easy on the eyes, fashionable, feminine, has a charming Italian accent and can make pasta. While that looks and sounds nice, she’s unfortunately missing real substance.” That lack of substance was what many people initially took issue with when it came to this character, myself included. Watching the show, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something big to happen that would make Francesca seem like a real person… but nothing ever did. Francesca, aside from being beautiful and charming, seems to be little more than a collection of adorable Italian quirks — a “Euro Pixie Dream Girl,” as Anna Silman calls her in a piece for The Cut entitled “Master of None Fails To Give Its Female Lead A Personality.”
Writing for Cosmopolitan, Lauren Hoffman has similar issues with Francesca, pointing out that even though we see a lot of Francesca, we don’t really see her interact with any other women. She notes that the show, “despite being consistently on-point in its diverse storytelling, still tends to struggle when it comes to showing conversations between women.”
That’s the thing, isn’t it? Master of None has a wonderful cast of female characters, from Dev’s best friend Denise (Lena Waithe) to Dev’s mom Fatima (played by Ansari’s actual mother, Fatima Ansari). But how often do we see any of these women together on screen in conversation? How often do any of them get to be more than Dev’s mom, best friend, or girlfriend? The notable exception to this rule is the episode Thanksgiving — co-written, unsurprisingly, by Lena Waithe. Otherwise, despite the fact that the women on this show have what seems like full interior lives, they are given very little to do, especially in relation to each other.
Francesca is the epitome of this problem. As Silman puts it, she’s a “magical, beautiful, pasta-making goddess who seems to exist fundamentally to make Dev feel something.” And yes, it can be argued that since Dev is the main character of the show, of course all of the other characters revolve around him and his story — but Francesca is one dimensional to a point that now seems inexcusable.
As I mentioned earlier, almost all of the pieces I read concerning Francesca’s flaws ultimately came out on the side of intentionality. People wanted to give Ansari the benefit of the doubt. In her post for BSG, Sally suggests that perhaps Francesca’s characterization is meant to show that women can be “the disruptive cause and not just the victimized effect.” For Cosmopolitan, Hoffman provides a different line of reasoning: maybe the show meant Francesca to represent the dangers of falling in love with the “idea” of a person.
Silman’s article for The Cut is one of the few that takes the opposite stance. Silman uses Master of None’s expertise as a reason why Francesca should have more depth, stating that her flatness feels less deliberate than just plain lazy. While I was inclined to believe in that intentionality before, at present I find myself leaning heavily towards Silman’s take, and with everything we know now, I think it’s fair to take this a step further. Francesca’s flaws are due to more than just laziness, and point to an actual absence of self awareness on the part of Ansari as the show’s creator.
Speaking to Vulture about the nature of the love triangle between Francesca, her fiancé Pino, and Dev, Ansari said, “[Francesca and Pino are] just in a lull right now and she’s getting a lot of attention from Dev and probably taking advantage of him...I think that her Pino relationship has probably lost a little spark and she’s running to Dev to get some sparks.” I think it’s important to note that Ansari clearly intended for viewers to feel Francesca was “taking advantage” of Dev. He is kind to her and good to her, and she accepts the kindness and goodness, and in doing so, she’s being “unfair” to him by denying him the romance he so desires. She returns his friendship, but that’s not enough. We’re supposed to feel sorry for Dev, essentially, because Francesca won’t drop her current partner to be with Dev instead.
Sure, this is a slight oversimplification: there are ways in which Francesca certainly ‘leads him on,’ or gives him the ‘green light,’ so to speak. She flirts with him during her fiancé’s birthday party via text message, sleeps over at his place during a blizzard, and asks him to accompany her on a number of date-like excursions. As things progress, we find out that Francesca does have feelings for him — of course she does, because this is television. But does having feelings equate to owing someone something?
The allegations towards Ansari have sparked a lot of important conversations about the complexity of consent. I’m not suggesting that anything that occurs between the two characters on this show are outside of that definition — in fact, they’re very clearly in line with it. When Francesca and Dev finally kiss, and Francesca realizes she’s made a mistake, she wrenches herself from his arms and leaves immediately. It’s easy to understand what’s happening: she’s into it, and then she isn’t, and we know this because she’s gone.
What occurs between Dev and Francesca is something that happens between people regularly — but often, I think things play out in a far more nuanced fashion. People don’t always have lengthy conversations about their feelings before they act on them, and people feeling uncertain about a decision don’t always immediately remove themselves from a situation. Complexity. It’s something real-life situations are always imbued with, and it’s something we don’t get to see in Francesca. Yes, she’s confused about whether she wants to be with her fiance or with Dev, but her actions and reactions are almost always marked by clarity. Any time they aren’t, we get to watch Dev mope about it.
Basically everything about Francesca, from her one-note personality to her romance with Dev, represents the misconceptions Ansari seems to have about women. As a person who has loved his work, it’s not easy for me to write that without wanting to delete it, but every time I think about “Grace’s” account of her experience with him, the more convinced of it I am. Ansari wrote his female lead as a woman who’s main flaw is her flawlessness, a woman who’s agency is defined by her choices about men, and a woman who, despite her initial misgivings, ultimately gives Dev what he is owed: a sexual encounter.
With the information we currently have, I don’t necessarily think Aziz Ansari is a monster. I think he is a person with a very flawed understanding of consent, and I think he needs to give a much better public apology than the one he’s thus far issued. Not just to “Grace,” but to the legions of female fans who thought he was on their side. And I hope that he will listen, and I hope that he will learn, and that the next thing he creates, whenever and whatever it may be, will reflect a true understanding of what it means to be an ally — not serve as further proof that we have so much work left to do.