OPINION: What can we learn from Aziz Ansari, ‘Master of None’ and canceled culture?

Graphic by Ugen Yonten

I remember watching “Master of None” in high school and thinking it was the best show ever.

Through the self-reflection of his character Dev, Aziz Ansari seemed to boost his own ethos at every opportunity, writing himself into a modern-day hero and social justice warrior.

Ansari has never claimed to be perfect, but his uber-woke approach to social issues in America — with the viewership of liberal white America in mind — has led him to where he is today.

In January 2018, babe.net published an article detailing a woman’s harrowing date experience with Ansari. Far from the feminist persona he had adopted throughout “Master of None,” Ansari’s actions were described as coercive and predatory, even under mostly consensual circumstances.

The article, published in the wake of #MeToo, ignited discussions about the nuance of what constitutes sexual assault, and what and who deserves the wrath of canceled culture.

Recently, Ansari has slowly risen back into the public eye. In one of his most recent stand-up shows, Ansari took a reactionary approach to his damaged reputation, denouncing the very audience that his comedy used to serve.

“At least with the Trump people, I kinda know where they stand,” he said. Calling extreme wokeness “progressive Candy Crush,” Ansari positioned himself on the other side of the debate.

Revisiting “Master of None” today, I’m able to magnify Ansari’s shortfalls that I wasn’t able to before. In many ways, his impeccable progressiveness seems performative, especially now.

His show was a major PR boost for his personal credibility, because Dev, a struggling Indian actor in New York City, reflected his real-life persona. But when I take a closer look at certain episodes, such as season two’s “First Date,” Ansari is not as innocent as I once believed.

“First Date” is the first look into the presence of women of different racial identities in Dev’s dating life. Prior to this episode, Dev is only seen in a steady relationship with Rachel, a white woman with whom he parts ways by the end of season one.

“First Date” seems to address the question of why Dev only has white love interests. In the episode, “Master of None” introduces three Indian women Dev dates: Priya, Stephanie and Sona.

Priya’s model minority work ethic and uptightness makes her a bad fit for Dev. Stephanie is portrayed as weird and nerdy; from the start, she’s not a viable option. And Sona chooses a white man over Dev at her first opportunity.

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Ansari creates these characters of Asian American women intentionally — he admits he will never truly win over Asian women, aware of historical tropes — but insists white women will see something in him.

He takes this chance to break free of the shackles America has imposed upon men who look like him. Priya’s statement that he’s “not like other Indians,” furthermore, elucidates where he wants his character to stand in society.

By claiming he’s the exception to the stereotype, Ansari re-affirms stereotypes about Asian American men and women and ultimately paints his character, specifically, to be “special” and “different,” appeasing white society’s gaze with believable, palatable stereotypes about the racial politics of relationships.

“Master of None” flips the script and rewrites the narrative of undesirability that Asian American men have traditionally been confined to, but specifically at the expense of women of color in the show. To enhance Dev’s unique personality and approach to life, Ansari places each of the Indian women in the show into stereotypes.

Ansari is fully aware of his Indian identity and doesn’t completely gloss over the fact that his core love interests (Rachel of season one and Francesca of season two) are both white.

In the episode “Indians on TV,” Dev tells his actor friend Ravi, “You can’t have two Indian guys in a show. That’d be, like, an Indian show.”

While Ansari casts “diverse” leads who represent multiculturalism, his decision to cast two conventionally attractive white women as his love interests speaks to his actual acquiescence to the rule he denounces.

Although Ansari seemingly defines his own love interests in his show, it’s inevitable that some viewers will wonder if Ansari’s romantic interests similarly play into white society’s standards to prevent “Master of None” from being branded an “Indian show.”

Perhaps Ansari wanted to avoid racializing his love interests, and just wanted to cast whoever he wanted. Perhaps casting white love interests helped his show speak to “woke” white audiences.

But Ansari’s shortfalls lie in his usage of stereotypes about women of color, and contradictions between Dev’s realizations and his professional decisions to make his show palatable to white audiences.

Thus, “Master of None” failed to be as radical as it could have been, and fitting too comfortably into mainstream acceptance may have been a hint of his pandering to white liberals, the loudest voices of cancel culture.

Today, he is “canceled” by many people who used to be fans of the show. But maybe canceled culture has failed us more than he has — even if wokeness is performative, isn’t the influence of the performance still impactful and valid?

Ansari is one of few major South Asian voices in mainstream American media today. Regardless of whether he makes the conscious decision to politicize his own identity, the public politicizes it for him.

Those who relate to his stories hold him to higher standards because we feel that we cannot afford for someone like him, someone who creates the impact that he does, to disappoint. White society doesn’t care — and thus, he stays canceled.

Milly Chi PZ ’22 is an aspiring media studies and Asian American studies major from Buena Park, California. She is curious about all things media and pop culture.

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