Two days ago, actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik penned an op-ed for the New York Times on feminism, the culture surrounding us and her own experiences as an actress, which can be found here. The title, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World,” sounds powerful—a feminist who can empower women in the scary world we live in where sexual assault is so common is what came to my mind.
However, reading through the piece made me abandon that powerful imagery. Various blocks of her piece brought up so many issues that modern feminism is trying to combat. I was holding out on her to respond to the backlash, and it was a very disappointing response, so here’s what I found problematic in her op-ed.
The quote that stood out the most to me in her op-ed was about women in Hollywood vs. herself:
“And yet 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.”
She begins with an admission of “not being a ‘perfect ten,’” which serves as a segue into her “I’m not like other women” trope. Before expanding on that, it seems necessary to explain why the “I’m not like other women” line is so harmful. Everyone has seen movies where there’s the gorgeous, mean, perfect, popular girls and then there’s the shy, awkward, nerdy, not as pretty girls. The latter often compare themselves to the popular girls, either putting themselves down or priding themselves on not conforming. At the same time, the popular girls are usually looking down on the awkward girls and priding themselves on being interested in makeup, fashion and shopping. What’s going on here? Every girl in this situation is putting another girl down in one way or another. Bialik is bluntly looking down on women who “diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer,” and somehow, doing those things is a one-way pass to “men asking [women] to meetings in their hotel rooms.”
How is putting women down for dieting, plastic surgery or getting a personal trainer helping this very obviously awful situation? Are women who do these things lesser than women who don’t? Does that excuse them getting sexually assaulted? No, and definitely not; there is no reason to excuse sexual assault. Pushing the divide between “pretty girls” and “awkward girls” also further pushes the narrative of not believing women who aren’t conventionally attractive when they’re sexually assaulted.
She continues, saying women who don’t meet beauty standards “have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and ... ignored by men in power.” Men in power who sexually assault women don’t sexually assault women just because. They do it because sexual assault is about power, not about looks. Perhaps that’s why children or women who aren’t even exposing themselves are sexually assaulted throughout the world. Actress Gabrielle Union chimed in on Twitter with a reminder:
“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.”
Again, she mentions the way women look: “I dress modestly.” The way they behave: “I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” What correlation do these points have with sexual assault? Dressing immodestly and flirting shouldn’t lead to sexual assault. Though she argues later on that women should be able to dress and act the way they want, “our world is not perfect,” and according to Bialik, women should have to constantly be on the defensive as soon as we’re in training bras. This is flat-out wrong. Women should not have to live in a world where we have to be on the lookout for sexual assaulters.
Her concluding paragraph, however, left me speechless:
“And if — like me — you’re not a perfect 10, know that there are people out there who will find you stunning, irresistible and worthy of attention, respect and love. The best part is you don’t have to go to a hotel room or a casting couch to find them.”
It’s always nice to know that there are people who will love women for more than what meets the eyes. What’s not nice is Bialik’s implication that women who want to celebrate their beauty and attractiveness are going out of their way to search for men to acknowledge their beauty and, accordingly, getting assaulted. It sounds a lot like, “Well, why did you go into his hotel room?” and “Well, what were you wearing?” as though women are to blame for the fact that they’re attacked.
I’m going to end with one more quote from her piece:
“But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.”
For the first time in the piece, she’s right. The culture we live in is a byproduct of the patriarchal values that our society holds. Values like “women are meant to be seen and not heard” and “women belong in the kitchen.” The impossible beauty standards mentioned in the piece are a direct byproduct of these values. There is no reason to compare women to other women or to put them down. Rather than being naïve, we should begin to recognize, confront and change the values that shape the culture we live in. Show women as more than sex symbols or pretty things. Celebrate smart women, pretty women, awkward women, shy women, young women, old women, trans women (all women, really), and most importantly, believe them when they share their stories and experiences of sexual assault.