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Women Who Worked On Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj Called Out Its Toxic Workplace Culture. But No One’s Talking About It?

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We’re living in a time when comedians are telling us the truth and politicians and news media is cracking jokes that aren’t even funny. The rise of—do we call it informedy?—is where a majority of the ‘woke’ younger generation relies on late night shows, standup comedians and social media influencers for the real, unfiltered information. What? We’ve got sensitive ears and don’t like news anchors screaming lies every night in them! Sue us (Oh shit, they actually might? Heard there’s a case against Kunal Kamra? Again?) Let’s be honest, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Kunal Kamra and others seem to be doing a better job at not just telling us what’s happening in our world, but also making us care about it. And one of the men leading this charge has been Indian American comedian and winner of two Peabody Awards, Hasan Minhaj. His Netflix show, Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj got people like you and me to care about things happening all over the world, that we probably didn’t even know about.

Patriot Act wasn’t just limited to talking about current affairs that were already making headlines. No, it dug deep and dared to talk, with stats and figures and blazing, Emmy Award-winning motion graphics on its iconic screen featured in every episode, about things like journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and it’s possible connection to Saudi Arabia’s royalty, the censorship in China, corruption in cricket and the BCCI’s alleged role in it, insurance companies in the US refusing to pay for mental health treatment expenses, the hazards of fast fashion, how the Asian Americans were staying silent about Black Lives Matter, and of course the most recent general elections we had in India.

The show earned its fair share of backlash. And mind you, not just from Twitter trolls and random people who got offended over something Minhaj said. Entire governments got miffed. For example, the episode ‘Saudi Arabia’ from Season 1 of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj was actually removed from the show’s Netflix listing in Saudi Arabia because of government pressure. And when Minhaj talked about the Indian Elections, PM Narendra Modi’s governance, the RSS and the divisive bigoted politics that is rampant in our country, he ruffled many feathers.

In August 2020, after six spectacular seasons, Netflix cancelled Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The impact of the series was clearly visible when numerous fans and publications spoke up about how the show being cancelled at a time when we needed more such shows to tell us what was happening in the world was a travesty indeed. Heck, I was one of them. However, there was one other conversation happening on social media, a few months before this announcement, that not enough people were apparently paying attention to.

Several South Asian women producers on Patriot Act came out on Twitter with stories of mistreatment, abuse, gaslighting and harassment on the sets. They spoke about how, while the show peddled wokeness to the millennials and Gen Z, hypocrisy was the order on the sets, which allegedly made for a very toxic work environment. Some of the producers who spoke thus included Nur Ibrahim Nasreen, Sheila V. Kumar and Amy Zhang. Some of their tweets are not protected, but others, like Ibrahim’s, are still up there for everyone to see.

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It wasn’t just these women who spoke up. Their stories of a toxic work environment were corroborated by past and present employees of the show, as well as their peers in the media. They talked about how they witnessed these women, who were responsible for some of the most acclaimed episodes get treated unfairly and gaslit into doubting themselves. New York Times journalist Iva Dixit also tweeted in support of Ibrahim.

Another former employee, Zach Silberberg, who worked as a PA on the show, tweeted about his own experience on the sets and how the power dynamics did disproportionately affect the WOC.

Now, you’re probably thinking, hey, this happened way back in August, why are we talking about this abhi? Well, for starters, it’s never too late to ask for updates on such matters, especially since nobody, not even Hasan Minhaj himself, has clarified their stance or even addressed what happened on a public forum. Not a peep. And that is why, someone who was aware about this very lack of accountability decided to write about it. In an essay on Medium, writer and activist Sangeetha Thanapal recounted, for those who might not be aware or may have forgotten, the stories of these women. She also called out Hasan Minhaj who, she said, was “getting a huge pass, in a way that even Ellen did not get.”

You’ll remember the much publicised revelation about beloved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, whose show Ellen urges people to be kind and compassionate and spread joy. However, people who worked with Ellen came forth with accounts of it being a toxic work environment, directly involving the host as the one of the people who made it so. Thanapal pointed out that while Ellen was readily called out and faced outrage on social media for this, in the case of Hasan Minhaj, things were quite the opposite. Nobody was talking about it.

 

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A post shared by Sangeetha Thanapal (@kaliandkalki)

“Minhaj is seen as the South Asian progressive dreamboat. He is good looking, educated, wealthy, Muslim and progressive. The sense I get is that people don’t want to criticise one of the few Brown men in power and more, a Brown man who is progressive in many ways. During a time when many South Asians in America seem to love fascist Modi, an American who shines the spotlight on oppression in other parts of the world is rare.”

That does make sense, doesn’t it? I did my research. Other than a few publications (in single digits), nobody has really spoken, questioned, or talked about these allegations.

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I’ll admit, I was appalled. I am a fan of Hasan Minhaj and Patriot Act. And this is a classic example of why you should never meet your heroes because there’s a strong chance that their faults might be too much for the idealised version of them that lives in your heads rent-free. But it should also prompt you to be a skeptic and question them, and hold them to the very standards they hold you to. Naturally, when I came across these tweets on Thanapal’s Instagram profile (through a friend’s share) and then read her essay, I wanted to know more. I’ve written half a dozen articles waxing eloquent about Minhaj’s infor-medy (yes, I am sticking to this term I coined). He and his team was someone I’d hold to better standards considering the progressiveness that they were preaching on their shows.

But here’s the thing, I thought the accounts were a little vague and lacking specific details. Initially, I thought it was my own mental barrier. But then, I read the comments and discovered that most people, while shocked at these women’s accounts and offering their solidarity to them, had the same concern. Perhaps, and I am fumbling in the dark here, this could be the reason why not many people were talking about this? I agree with Thanapal; these women do not owe anyone the details of their abuse. But unfortunate as it is, we live in a time where people are as wary as they are gullible. At least some explicit details might help them classify this behaviour in their heads as properly misogynistic or toxic or abusive. And this might just help amplify the voices even more.

What I’m glad about is that there are writers out there like Sangeeta Thanapal, who continue to ask the important questions and won’t back down. The essay also brought forth another important issue for me, which could also be the reason why most people are dismissive of such accounts of toxic workplaces. We’ve learnt to normalise difficult and toxic work environments. Saying every boss is horrible, every workplace has its problems, you should just be glad that you have a job, maybe you’re not ready for that promotion yet, getting gaslit into thinking you’re not good so you won’t get that pay hike, or stifling ideas and constructive criticism because it might offend the big buys up there…. These are all things that we’ve come to accept and take in our stride. Especially now, at a time when the pandemic has caused massive layoffs and people are clinging to even the most toxic jobs with dear life because they pay the bills.

Sexism, classism, racism… these behaviours are found in most workplaces, either overtly or covertly. But see how casually you can say that today? That’s the problem. It’s time to call these behaviours out and support those who do so. Especially if the workplace being called out puts up a progressive front and preaches it to others. Because here’s the thing. If you’re being this hypocrite, sooner or later, the truth is going to catch up. The stories are going to circulate. And while no one might say it to your face, everyone in the industry will know working with your in the work environment you fostered is shit.

I’m not picking sides just yet. I don’t have to. But what I have to do is support these women’s accounts and call out their former employees. Hasan Minhaj and the other people of Patriot Act can still come forth, refute the claims and put their side of the story forth. And sure, we’ll listen to that too. But for that fairness to prevail, they have to TALK ABOUT IT. They have to do the very thing that Patriot Act has been all about. Taking stories that impact our lives but aren’t being discussed, and discuss them. With mind-blowing motion graphics and that opening credits tune that’s stuck in my head even now.

I’m waiting for this special.

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