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Sexism and Racism Parallel Journeys in Master of None

Last night as I was falling asleep I had a random thought, the kind that only come to you when you’re half awake and the sleeping mind mixes with your waking conscious. I started thinking about the episode of Master of None where Dev (played by Aziz Ansari) hears a story about a female coworker of his getting followed home from the bar one night and he’s absolutely astounded at the story and then again as he retells it to his friends and realizes that it’s a normal occurance for women. In my semi-conscious state, I started drawing parallels to the story and my own experience “discovering” racism this year. I always knew it existed, that it was a problem for people that don’t look like me, but this year as I’ve been reading and learning I have begun to appreciate how big the problem truly is and it baffled me at first.

I decided to give it a rewatch this morning because it was stuck in my head, and because Master of None is, in my opinion, one of the greatest television shows to ever grace my screen. The show is so well put together, with every character playing true to their parts in order to tell a broader story that sucks in the audience. I’ve watched this show so many times that I don’t need any exposition to get drawn in to the world that Asiz Ansari and his writing partner Alan Yang created of diverse individuals navigating the world of New York City. The episode opens in a bar, with Dev and Arnold captivating me immediately with their big bud/little bud bromance that always touches my heart. How cute is it when they give the bartender “mean mugs” as he ignores them to make a drink for “the hot girl”. I love that the episode starts out by showing this alternate view, like the life of “a caucasian man and his charming Indian sidekick” is so hard because they’re not attractive women and therefore can’t get bar service in a timely manner.

While they’re at the bar, a female coworker of Dev’s, Diana (Condola Rashad), is having a drastically different experience in the same location. She’s temporarily left alone and a man comes up to her with two shots of tequila. She politely declines and he immediately guilt trips her, saying something along the lines of “seriously? I already bought these and you’re just going to turn me down?” Let’s start there – at the moment that takes place in the first five minutes of the episode. The woman, Diana, is harassed by this man in the bar simply because she’s sitting alone. As if the very act of being a woman in a bar means that you’re looking to get laid.

Before all the men of the world get all up in arms, I understand that bars are a great way to search for some temporary companionship, and that a lot of people both men and women, gay and straight, use the atmosphere and the alcohol to make a quick connection. However, this is not the only reason bars exist. In Diana’s case, she’s going to the bar because her friend is having a birthday party, not because she’s trying to ring in last call with the last man standing. If you, as a man, want to go up to a woman and strike up a conversations by all means do so, but read the vibe please. Don’t show up with a shot of tequila because you’re saying that you’re trying to get drunk and get the woman drunk, so that you guys can fall in to bed with each other and experience a night where she won’t have an orgasm and lie awake wishing that you would leave so she could have her apartment to herself again.

The show transitions to the walk home from the bar, showing us the experiences of Dev and Arnold (two men) walking together, and Diana’s experience walking home by herself. The contrasts are vast, the music alone shows us that these two experiences, happening simultaneously, are incredibly different because of the gender of the two parties. When Dev and Arnold are walking, a jaunty whistling tune is playing as they decide to cut through the dark park as a shortcut while Diana is walking in the middle of the street, wherever there’s good light, as the soundtrack to a horror movie plays. The worst thing to happen on Dev and Arnold’s walk is that Dev steps in dog poop, the worst thing to happen to Diana is that she gets followed home by tequila dude from the bar, has to predial 911 on her phone, and calls them as the self proclaimed “nice guy” is standing outside the door to her home, banging on it saying she should really “let a nice guy win for once”.

Flash forward to Monday at work, Dev is filming a commercial with Diana, and they start talking about their weekends. He talks first, going on and on about how terrible it was that walking home from the bar he stepped in poop and had to throw away his favorite pair of “sneakies”. Diana says “that sounds really terrible, I’m sorry that you had to go through that.” When he finally asks her about her time, she freezes, on the precipice of telling Dev a story that’s going to put his poor “sneakies” tragedy to shame.

I can’t help but draw parallels here, since I went to bed and woke up thinking about how Dev’s journey discovering sexism in this episode is so similar to mine with racism. How a black friend could ask me about my weekend and I could come up with plenty of trivial inconveniences and make them sound tragic. Woe is me, right? And then I could ask them the same question and discover that they were shopping for their grandmother’s birthday present and were asked to leave the store after being followed since they walked in the door, and on their way back to their car someone called them a n–.

Dev and I’s experiences are similar because we hear one antidote and our world is shattered when we realize that it’s not just one story, but an epidemic. A man following you home from a bar is not a one-off story, just as being harassed as a black person is not one-off. Women leaving bars by themselves are followed constantly, harassed while in the bar all the time. I’ve been leaving a bar in my small mountain town and had a man screech to a halt in his truck as his friend jumped out of the back, ran up to me, and planted a big old wet smooch right on my mouth before jumping back in the truck and driving away. I’ve also tried to go to the bathroom in a bar to have a man kick in the door before I latched it shut, telling me he saw the look on my face when our eyes met and he “picked up what I was laying down.” I don’t even remember “locking eyes” with that man. He made that assumption because I was a woman, just as the country at large makes assumptions on the basis of skin color.

As Dev continues on his journey of this episode, he and Arnold ask their female friends “what can two gentlemen like us do to help?” The only response Rachel can come up with is “I dunno, don’t do that stuff?” That question is so complex, like asking “what can I, as a white person, do to help my friends that aren’t white?” The easy answer is “don’t do racist things” but the complex and underlying issue is that small actions that I make in my day to day life support a system that compromises the safety of people of color. Dev and Arnold may not treat the women in their life like garbage, but what are they doing to support a system that endangers women?

Towards the end of the episode the narrative takes a turn that I don’t completely agree with. Dev gets drunk and starts talking to the commercial director, Brad, about the roll of women and the end result is that Dev loses his spot in the commercial because they reworked it to feature the women. When Rachel expresses to Dev that Brad introduced himself to all the men in the group but not the women, Dev’s instinct is to shrug off the instance because who cares about the opinion of one asshole? He fails to see that by doing so, he is shrugging off the experiences of all women when they are made to feel less than on the basis of their gender. This is something that gets left relatively unresolved and it frustrates me. They could have done a much better job at pointing out that excusing individual actions holds up the flawed system. It’s hard for me not to wonder about the real life parallels, as this episode came out in 2015 and in early 2018 Ansari was accused of being too forceful with women he dated. I have to wonder if he made this episode because he believes that women should feel safe, but it fell short because he was not taking responsibility for his own actions and how he perpetuates a sexist society that makes women feel unsafe.

Overall, I still give this episode 3.7 out of 5 stars because it addresses many issues directly, for instance when Dev and Denise make a “citizen’s arrest” of a man who was masturbating on the subway, a occurrence that’s common as Denise points out “that’s the third time this year I’ve seen that.” When they speak up everyone on the train mentions that they saw it but all of them were clearly too afraid to say anything, and all it took was a show of solidarity for everyone to band together and call out the offender. The conversation that Dev has with the subway masturbator ties together how I feel about this show, sexism, and racism. The offender says it’s just what he likes, and how would Dev feel if the sexual acts he liked were taboo? Dev says “the sexual acts I like don’t traumatize other people.” To which the offender responds “Well if they did, I bet you’d have some internal conflict.” And Dev replies “Stop trying to make me weirdly sympathize with you .”

When we open up the broader conversations about sexism and racism, we will find that the people behind the hate are fully formed humans, with desires and needs of their own. They have their own struggles and internal conflicts. However, those do not justify actions that hurt other people whether it’s masturbating on the subway or degrading people with different skin colors.

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