When television critics write their think pieces about Aziz Ansari’s brilliant new Netflix series Master of None, they will most likely focus on ethnic identity. In the provocative episode “Indians on Television”, the Indian-American Ansari depicts Hollywood’s insensitive treatment of Indians throughout the years, and depressingly points out that little progress has been made in the struggle for fair representation. This episode feels like a game-changer, as if, for the first time, a blindspot has been exposed. Ansari reminds us that television may be more diverse than cinema, but despite the progress, Indian-Americans still struggle to break through the entertainment industry.
Television critics will praise Ansari’s construction of ethnic identity, and rightfully so. However, just as progressive is his challenge of masculinity with the main character Dev (Ansari). Unlike the men we typically see in romantic comedies, Dev isn’t cool, calm, and collected. When it comes to dating, he’s the most neurotic television character since Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker).
Master of None was made for millennial men who can relate to Dev’s relationship struggles. Many of the episodes revolve around Ansari’s favorite topic, modern romance (he co-wrote a book about the subject with sociologist Eric Klinenberg), and his attempts to meet women in a social media age. When he finally meets Rachel (Noël Wells), a young woman he likes, he struggles to maintain a relationship with her.
In romantic comedies, female characters typically ruin the status quo of a relationship by bringing up the future. For example, in HBO’s iconic Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) constantly messes things up with her lover Mr. Big (Chris Noth) by pressuring him to make a 100 percent commitment to her. In the season one finalé, Carrie memorably breaks up with Mr. Big because he doesn’t know for sure if she is his soul mate. “Just tell me I’m the one,” she pleads in the scene below. Mr. Big is unable to do so, and as a result, their relationship comes to an end.
Ansari reverses the gender roles in Master of None. In the season finalé, Dev and Rachel attend a friend’s wedding, and afterward, Dev begins to have doubts about Rachel. He likes her and is happy with her, but isn’t 100 percent certain that she is his soul mate.
It’s interesting, because Dev shares Mr. Big’s doubts, but his actions resemble Carrie’s. Rather than enjoy his relationship with Rachel in the moment, as Mr. Big would do, he picks a fight with her and raises questions about their future. In one excruciating scene, Dev asks Rachel to participate in a “game”, which constitutes both of them writing down how committed they are to each other in percentage terms on a piece of paper. Rachel reluctantly agrees and writes 70 percent. Dev is insulted because he writes 80 percent. As expected, they get in a big fight, and by the episode’s end, the future of their relationship hangs in the balance.
We should pay attention to the gender roles on display. In Ansari’s show, it’s the man who can’t conceal his feelings, and the woman who wishes that he would just appreciate the relationship for what it is. Dev is not depicted as the masculine ideal. Instead, he is needy and insecure, and often has trouble keeping his frustrations to himself. In other words, Dev is the anti-Mr. Big.
I’m not arguing that women are supposed to be needy and insecure, and that men are supposed to be cool and confident. However, historically that’s how they’ve been portrayed in romantic comedies, with few exceptions. We’ve seen countless scenes of neurotic women waiting by the phone for the man to call, only to find that the man is out with another woman. We rarely see a man obsess over the tone of a text message, or question his beautiful girlfriend’s 100 percent commitment to him. Whether we like it or not, in romantic comedies, men are often the cool ones who go with the flow, and women are often the neurotic nut cases who want to get married and have children after the third date. Master of None successfully subverts these gender roles.
Unlike men in traditional romantic comedies, Dev analyzes the text messages he sends and receives, and stresses over every little punctuation mark. In the Master of None episode entitled “Hot Ticket”, Dev invites a beautiful waitress Alice (Nina Arianda) to attend a concert with him. She agrees to go, and he gives her his number. As the days pass and the concert approaches, Alice doesn’t call or text, and Dev starts to get paranoid. He confides in his friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) for advice, and the two men obsesses over Alice. It’s a hilarious scene that leads to Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe) informing Dev, simply and straightforwardly, that Alice isn’t interested in him.
This scene alludes to the classic moment in Sex and the City when Berger (Ron Livingston) tells Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) that the guy who hasn’t called her “is just not that into you”, after Miranda spends hours talking about it with her girlfriends. The famous line inspired a bestselling self-help book and movie.
The joke in Sex and the City is that women like Miranda have spent years making excuses for a man’s ambiguity, only to discover they were wasting their time because, well, “he’s just not that into you”. However, the fact that Berger delivers the advice perpetuates the problematic notion that women are so clueless about dating that they need a man to explain it to them.
Master of None thwarts this notion with the Alice storyline. Dev and Arnold take the place of Miranda and her girlfriends, and Denise assumes the role of Berger, the wise member of the opposite sex who has all of the dating advice. The point of the scene is to show that men can be just as obsessive about dating as women, and as a result of their obsession, they fail to observe the obvious writing on the wall.
Romantic comedies feed audiences an idea of masculinity to which men can never realistically adhere. Ansari deserves credit for reminding viewers that it doesn’t have to be this way.