Aziz Ansari’s Got Women’s Backs: Using Comedy to Call out Sexism

Fans attending Saturday’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival in Hartford most likely had similar sets of expectations for the evening, looking forward to the seasoned consistency of headliners Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman. As two of the best-known female voices in comedy and the only two women gracing the main stage of the festival, Schumer and Silverman delivered, talking feminism, dating, and vaginas–to name just a few topics–as had their predecessors Madison Malloy and Lychana Gatica on the side stage. For those familiar with the stand-up specials by the men on the tour, also including Dave Attell and Hannibal Buress, and for those assuming Silverman and Schumer to provide the only feminist-oriented perspectives bookended by stereotypically male jokes, the unannounced guest appearance by Dave Chappelle wasn’t the only pleasant surprise of the night.

After Silverman informed the audience she would convert them all to feminism and insisted men be forced to watch ultrasounds of their sperm (because sperm, after all, have senses of smell and therefore are living organisms), and after Schumer shamelessly addressed women’s bodies, insecurities, and empowerment, one might think the following act would return to punchlines in favor of the male gaze. However, the previous theme continued seamlessly as Aziz Ansari stepped onstage and delivered the first part of his set.

Anyone who has seen any of Aziz Ansari’s stand-up specials, whether 2009’s Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, 2012’s Dangerously Delicious, or 2013’s Buried Alive, will know that he has crafted sets relying heavily on punchlines mocking relationships and glorifying the single life. There’s nothing wrong with that, and while raunchy, his jokes are often wickedly relatable. During his Oddball set, though, Ansari’s jokes became even more relatable for the women in the pavilion.

“Dudes are creepy” was the general theme of Ansari’s first joke, lasting a good portion of his set and lamenting on behalf of women that harassment is very real and very unacceptable. He asked the women in the audience to raise their hands if they’d ever been followed by a man, and even if they had ever encountered a man masturbating in public. When a majority of women in the audience raised their hands at his questions, Ansari asked the men in the audience if they were surprised by this. He asked men the same questions, wondering (practically rhetorically) if men had ever had any suspicious or harassing encounters with women, and barely any responded that they had. He even asked the men in the crowd how many of them had women’s backs–how many men in the audience supported the women in their lives and would try to combat the harassment and sexism that women face–and “seven out of ten” responded rather “unenthusiastically.”

Comedy can sometimes toe and cross a line between creating awareness and deeply offending, especially when dealing with issues of gender, sexuality, and other politicized topics. When comedians are informed and educated about the subjects of their material, the effect is stunningly sobering in the middle of thunderous laughter. Laughing about subjects with which we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable can help us to become comfortable addressing these issues in a serious and constructive manner, and hopefully Ansari’s direct calling out of sexist and misogynistic men can help audiences move in that direction.

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