The Problem With Mayim Bialik's 'Modest' Feminism

Even though the actress did not explicitly credit her wardrobe or lack of touchy-feely schmoozing for helping her avoid sexual assault, the linkage is unmistakable

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Mayim Bialik in Los Angeles, May 23, 2017.
Mayim Bialik in Los Angeles, May 23, 2017. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP

In her premiere column as a New York Times op-ed writer, sitcom star Mayim Bialik plunked herself into the crossfire of the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal — and then branded herself as being “deeply, deeply hurt” over the harsh criticism of the piece she penned, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.”

Bialik took first to Twitter and then to Facebook Live, insisting that “there is no way I implied you can avoid being a victim of sexual assault by what you wear or the way you behave,” and that “the only people responsible” for unwanted aggression are the predators, not the victims.

“A bunch of people have taken my words out of the context of the Hollywood machine and twisted them to imply that God forbid I would blame a woman for her assault based on her clothing or behavior,” she wrote, and went on to protest. “Anyone who knows me and my feminism knows that’s absurd and not at all what this piece was about,” she said, adding, “It’s so sad how vicious people are being when I basically live to make things better for women.”

The problem is that the critics are indeed addressing what her piece was about. While Bialik may not have directly “blamed” women for assaults on them based on their clothing and behavior, she clearly relayed a message of cause and effect by celebrating her personal conservative choices and noting that she has never been preyed on in a hotel room or on a casting couch. Even though she did not explicitly credit her wardrobe or lack of touchy-feely schmoozing for helping her avoid sexual assault and harassment, the linkage is unmistakable. Pointing this out, as several prominent actresses  — and thousands of non-prominent non-actresses  — have, is far from “vicious.”

In The Times, Bialik wrote, after noting that as a less-than-conventionally-attractive young woman she had “almost no personal experience” with men asking her to meet in their hotel rooms: “I have also experienced the upside of not being a ‘perfect ten.’ As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms. Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.”

As Bialik put it, “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

She went on to — subtly — chide “young feminists” for dressing and behaving differently from her, dressing provocatively and flirting. She then implicitly linked this with being catnip for predators. But in theory, she said: Women should be able to dress and behave as they please, and “nothing excuses men for assaulting or abusing women” — we still “can’t be nave about the culture we live in.”

The key conceptual error of Bialik’s piece lay in conflating the Weinstein affair with her experiences and how they reflect the unhealthy emphasis that Hollywood places on looks and sex appeal. One has nothing to do with the other. Yes, because of his position as an all-powerful movie mogul, Weinstein felt he was in a position to prey on often-scantily-clad and gorgeous famous actresses and models and not limit himself to mousy secretaries, waitresses or hotel maids. Though there is nothing to lead us to believe that he did not make unwanted advances on these women as well. 

Frankly, it's Bialik who is being naive if she actually believes her decision to cover her elbows or her lack of beauty-queen looks rather than luck protected her from harm. She seems to buy into the theory that Orthodox Jewish education peddles — as do other fundamentalist religions — that covering oneself up and avoiding unnecessary physical contact with men makes women less vulnerable and more empowered. When you don’t expose skin, you can still be exposed to danger. All one has to do is read the testimony of pious Orthodox women who have been assaulted (often by upstanding Orthodox men and rabbis in their own communities) to dispel this myth.

Some of us feel we’ve been around the block with Bialik before. Her self-described “bleeding heart liberal while socially conservative” brand may be geeky, religious, vegan and modest, but it’s much a lifestyle brand as Gwyneth Paltrow’s is, replete with multiple books and a website

It has also come with headline-grabbing counterculture opinions regarding Hollywood, looks and modesty, including everything from slamming Ariana Grande’s billboards to trashing the Disney movie “Frozen” to defending the “burkini” and singing the praises of modest swimwear.

It all began with attachment parenting. Five years ago, Bialik was promoting her first book “Beyond the Sling” and discussing practices like co-sleeping, baby-wearing and diaper-free “elimination communication” in which mothers magically sense when their baby needs to be placed on a toilet.

There was a similar dynamic at the time. Bialik would celebrate her practices as “parenting the way your body is inclined to parent,” adding that breastfeeding is “the normal way to feed humans.” Then she would cry foul when women who used formula, strollers, cribs and day care centers complained that they felt her descriptions defined them as unnatural or abnormal. No, she would insist, celebrating her own choices as fabulous couldn’t possibly mean she believed other parenting practices were less so, and that she was passing judgement on them. Still, it was clear that this was exactly what she was doing.

Mayim Bialik is worthy of admiration. She is an accomplished actress and scientist who has admirably developed a unique and often brave independent and opinionated voice, unlike many of her show-business counterparts who so fear alienating fans or angering executives that they are unwilling to express themselves on politically divisive issues.

In the past, however, when her words appeared on friendly turf like her own website, and before that the Jewish parenting site Kveller, she was somewhat shielded from the public reaction — even when it came to hot-button issues like Zionism and Israel.

Now that she is playing in the big leagues of The New York Times op-ed page, she can no longer get away with complaining that her words are being “twisted” or distract us with a Facebook Live confessional. She must either stand by her clear implication that it is her “conservative choices” and not being “the hot girl” that have somehow kept her safe from the Harvey Weinsteins of the world — or apologize for saying so.

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