HLN host Ashleigh Banfield closed a long week of talking about the Babe.net report of a sexual encounter between a 23-year-old woman and Aziz Ansari with a Friday morning appearance on Megyn Kelly TODAY. This particular convergence between Banfield (who's been on her soapbox about this all week) and Kelly (who just recently suggested some women actually want to be fat-shamed) could have been a nightmare. But Kelly did something wild and uncharacteristic by pushing back against Banfield, and made a surprisingly good point about the trajectory of the #MeToo movement.
Banfield's been outspoken about her distaste of the Ansari story all week. On her HLN show Monday, Banfield read an "open letter" to "Grace," the fake name given to the woman in the Ansari story. After crediting Grace with chiseling away at the #MeToo movement, Babe.net writer Katie Way responded to an invitation to appear on Banfield's show with a scathing email criticizing her position on the story, her lipstick, and age. Banfield read part of the email on her show Wednesday, criticizing Way for her ad hominem attacks of her appearance. The full email was posted later by Business Insider.
There are two basic understandings of what happened between Grace and Ansari: One is summarized by Banfield, and argues that her story has no place in the #MeToo movement because it doesn't constitute assault. And the other is that Grace's experience adds a much needed dimension to the movement – if we're talking about assault, we should be talking about the myriad shades of it. And what happened between Grace and Ansari is certainly colored by one of those shades.
Banfield used Kelly's show to reiterate the same points she's been making on her own show. And then Kelly methodically and patiently questioned Banfield's arguments, effectively blowing roles right through them. "When I read [Grace's] account, she didn't seem to be saying, you know, #MeToo exactly," Kelly said. "She seemed to me to be saying this is another thing we need to discuss."
At the end of an exhausting, divisive week, this is an impressive stance for Kelly to take. Kelly has been open about her own experiences with sexual harassment under former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who, among other things, tried to grab and kiss her in the office. Both Kelly and Banfield have no doubt faced harassment over the course of their careers, something Kelly acknowledged during Friday morning's segment. But while Banfield has chosen to use her experiences as an excuse to belittle Grace's, arguing that what happened to her was nothing more than a "bad date," Kelly chose to respond with empathy and compassion. And in doing so, bridges a gap between two sides of the divisive argument surrounding Grace's story.
"We've both been harassed, you don't get to our point in this industry without being harassed," Kelly said to Banfield. "But this is something else. I'm fortunate to be able to say I actually always managed to extricate myself from these situations. But I know lots of strong women who weren't able to."
Kelly is right to acknowledge that the situation between Grace and Ansari is something women of her and Banfield's age have experienced. And she's also right to acknowledge that it isn't something anyone else should have to experience. Yes, the #MeToo movement is about speaking up. But it's also about listening. What we're in the midst of is (hopefully) a complete restructuring of our collective understanding and tolerance of assault and harassment, which is all the more reason to be considering how to name and classify behavior like Ansari's. Banfield has spoken all week about how glad she is to see the toppling of the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world, but what Kelly seems to be asking is, why stop there? It's possible to say Ansari's behavior is unacceptable while still acknowledging that it's not the same as Weinstein's. But if we're given the chance to rewrite the rules here, let's fucking rewrite them.
The week has been a mess, and my god, poor Grace. To have a nightmarish sexual encounter with a celebrity become the lightening rod of a weeklong debate about the nuances of assault and consent is surely a living hell. But the conversation sparked by all of this is one worth having. Progressive movements like #MeToo are messy by nature. I'll concede to agree with one thing Banfield said, which is that this is a pendulum, and it will swing back and forth. The good news is that it's not done swinging.
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