On Monday night, appearing on the Late Show With David Letterman, comedian Aziz Ansari came out as a feminist. His girlfriend is a "big feminist," he said, which is what led him to think about feminism in the first place. And as a result of this bit, Ansari is getting pat after pat after pat on the back, simply for picking up the word and calling it his own.
I know that 19-year-old feminist-button-wearing me would have been thrilled. At some point, especially early on in one's interaction with feminism, the word alone feels profound; it's gratifying to share it with anyone.
But now, hearing Ansari's ensuing explanation makes my skin crawl: "If you look up feminist in the dictionary" — the classic introduction of mansplainers everywhere — "it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights."
I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that by "have" he means "should have." In any case, the audience applauds and he goes on: "Now people think feminist means, like, some woman's gonna start yelling at 'em ... That's why even some women don't clap. 'Oh I don't want that crazy bitch yelling at me!'" [Cue raucous laughter.]
In this part of the joke, Ansari summons the specter of this yelling, angry woman as something "feminist" doesn't mean. His feminism doesn't need to be threatening. It doesn't have to make anyone uncomfortable. He knows why you ladies might hesitate to use this cool new word he's handing you, and he knows why you shouldn't. Feminism, in Ansari's portrayal, is a small, easy pill to swallow.
But I'm a woman, and I'm angry. Generally speaking I try not to yell, but it happens. That crazy bitch he's talking about could be me. In disassociating her from Good Feminism, it feels as though Ansari is trying to kick me out of my own club.
Then, too, the issues Ansari goes on to list as the central tenets of his feminism are very particular, and very safe: equal pay. The vote. The undue burden of domestic responsibilities. And certainly, these are all important, and worth caring about, and, with the exception of the vote, which has been ours for the taking for almost 100 years, remain unsolved.
They are, as my friend Christine Friar cheekily put it, "the man with candy in a van of feminist discourse," a conciliatory nod with dubious intent. They are, with the best of intentions, a perfectly fine starting point.
They are also the issues most prevalent among feminism's first wave; Ansari's version of feminism is largely white and upper class. Low-income families can't afford to wonder who will stay home and raise the kids. Women of color face a much steeper wage gap than white women. When Ansari invokes Beyoncé and Jay Z as the model couple, he is speaking about two of the richest human beings on Earth. When he suggests that someone might go to an On the Run show and think to himself that Beyoncé should be at home cooking for Jay Z, it's a joke, but it's also absurd. Obviously, they have a chef.
It also seems worth mentioning that Beyoncé herself has, on countless occasions, presented the public with her own identity as an all-caps FEMINIST — more complex, more challenging, shown more than told. That Ansari somehow manages to put Beyoncé and feminism in the same sentence without acknowledging that is irksome.
That's what grates the most about the interview: Why congratulate Ansari for claiming a watered-down version of something so many women have been arguing (however angrily, or not) for ages? It is akin to someone showing up late to a party already well under way, and to then announce that it can finally begin.
This is not a problem exclusive to Aziz Ansari. Before him, there was Joseph Gordon-Levitt — widely praised for calling himself a feminist, first on Ellen in January, and again in a video called "RE: Feminism" released last month. Gordon-Levitt's feminism echoes the banal platitudes of Ansari's, if delivered more smugly; in the latter video, he says, "To me, it just means that your gender doesn't have to define who you are." Oh, word? How wonderful.
It's not just that he's objectively wrong — our gender, and our gender presentation, how we identify, and the way other people identify us, do absolutely set boundaries in our lives — but that he's making it sound so simple. It's not simple. It's the most difficult thing I encounter every day. To have it borrowed, set to music, and delivered back to me by a handsome young man who strips it of all nuance entirely, feels co-optive. Whatever it makes me feel, it's not congratulatory.
There is a push and a pull here, and it's not only about famous men. I ultimately would rather Ansari, and Gordon-Levitt, and any man, whoever he is, to think about feminist issues than not. It will never be too soon. A little is better than not at all. Feminism is for everyone and I want to believe that. But I no longer think claiming the word feminist is particularly worthy of accolades. Acting like one — that is.