Last week, the actress (and Kveller contributor) Mayim Bialik wrote a controversial op-ed piece for The New York Times about being a feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s world. The piece – in which she describes not conforming to Hollywood’s ideas about beauty, and thus being largely ignored by powerful men in the industry — has been widely pilloried (including on Kveller) as “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming.”
Bialik’s fellow feminists in media and entertainment took aim at passages like this one:
“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.”
The Internet pile-on was, as usual, swift and frenzied. Critics suggested that Bialik was saying that “ugly” or modest women aren’t victims of sexual harassment or assault. This prompted the actress to release this clarifying statement:
“I also see 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. Anyone who knows me and my feminism knows that’s absurd and not at all what this piece was about.”
What Bialik was trying to express is an idea that to me is common sense, but has now become forbidden to say out loud: Women are harassed and assaulted, and while it’s very often impossible to prevent, there may be ways to make it less likely.
Some of the steps Bialik outlined she has taken are unnecessarily stringent for most American women, like eschewing makeup, but in hyper-sexualized Hollywood they are downright revolutionary. The realistic view of the problem Bialik portrayed in the Times is refreshing to hear in a culture now dominated by political correctness:
“In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.
I believe that we can change our culture, but it won’t be something that happens overnight. We live in a society that has treated women as disposable playmates for far longer than Mr. Weinstein has been meeting ingénues in luxury hotel rooms.”
This is how most other Americans live when it comes to other undesirable realities of everyday life. We try our best to keep ourselves safe from harm by locking our cars and our homes; we install security systems; some of us even own guns. In so doing, we aren’t surrendering the idea that we want to live in a society where burglary is unheard of. But homes and cars still get broken into, and on occasion, their occupants harmed and even killed. By protecting ourselves, we are trying to decrease the probability of those events happening to us. It’s common sense. Of course, a face without makeup is not the equivalent of a lock on a door—it’s an imperfect analogy. And certainly, women without makeup or in modest clothes can still get assaulted, even in Hollywood.
What Bialik was doing was being candid about her own sometimes stringent efforts to be taken seriously and avoid ill-treatment in a degrading, appearance-oriented culture. Many of us take these kinds of precautions and whether they’re statistically effective or not, they are a part of life as a woman.
What is perhaps most mystifying and disappointing about the Bialik pile-on is just how willing her former allies were to throw her to the wolves for stating what is, to me at least, an obvious if unfortunate, fact of life: that there are often things we can do to reduce the risk of finding ourselves in worst-case scenarios.
Bialik’s critics were willing to ignore the entirety of her past comments on women and feminism in order to make an enemy where none exists.