Mayim Bialik Misses the Mark in New York Times Op-Ed

Dressing Modestly is No Shield Against Sexual Assault

Posted Oct 14, 2017

I was sorry to read about Mayim Bialik’s lifelong experiences with objectification and body shaming in her op-ed for the New York Times (Oct 13, 2017).  Her story, described in an op-ed in the New York Times, is yet another testament to the lasting harm of such words and the casual cruelty of the perpetrators, as when she recounts the insulting words of a one adult TV reviewer, aimed squarely at her 11-year-old self.  30 years later, those words obviously still sting.  Indeed, she says she “never recovered” from them.  Her stories of fantasizing about nose jobs and breast implants also reflect the harms of having one rigid standard of beauty dominate Hollywood and our culture.

However, Bialik not only misses the mark, she offers comments that could be similarly hurtful to other women when she moves from the topic of her own experiences to that of sexual assault.  Unfortunately, many of her comments perpetuate common myths about sexual assault.

Bialik’s comments about her own behavior represent common distortions that arise from what is known as the “just world hypothesis.”  The just world hypothesis is a fantasy that bad things don’t happen to good people.  It was first identified by Michael Lerner.  It is a wish that we all have—none of us want bad things to happen to us and hope that through our own actions, we can keep bad things from happening.  But that simply is not a good way of evaluating the world.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Hurricanes ravage communities, forest fires devastate neighborhoods.  And sometimes, people get targeted by perpetrators and criminals.  Bialik got targeted by verbally abusive reviewers who lacked enough empathy or conscience to stop and think, “Hey, you know, maybe I shouldn’t ridicule the physical appearance of a child.” 

Yet, Bialik offers up her own virtuous behavior as some kind of talisman that protected her from the worst of Hollywood.  Not wearing makeup or skipping a manicure is NOT SEXUAL ASSAULT PREVENTION!  Honestly, it amazes me that even has to be said.  Such choices obviously did not protect Bialik from many forms of sexual harassment and objectification, because she tells stories of being ridiculed, infantilized, and being approached for unwanted physical contact.  I am glad that she was able to rebuff many of these unwanted behaviors (such as calling people out for calling her “baby”), but they still, by her own account, happened, and, by her own account, some of them she “never recovered from.” 

So, it was with dismay that I saw her encouraging “modest dress.”  First of all, it is well established that has nothing to do with how perpetrators target victims.  Sexual assault is about power, control, and the desperation of some men to gain sexual experience--or sometimes revenge--by any means necessary.  

Choices to dress modestly or refrain from what she perceives as flirtatious are not “self-protecting and wise.”  First, they don’t work.  There’s plenty of research on this, but I think there are few more powerful portrayals of this fundamental truth than the recent art exhibit by Jen Brockman and Mary Wyandt-Hiebert, “What Were You Wearing?”

 The answer, so often, is a t-shirt and jeans, or other outfits that could not be further from “provocative.”  There are also so many stories of military women—and men—who have been raped while being covered from head to toe in military fatigues.  Not only are they not dressed in any way that could be called “provocative,” they are also dressed exactly like every other person on the base!

Further, this tired and well-worn victim-blaming strategy is a classic slippery slope.  Bialik claims she dresses “conservatively,” and that might be true by Hollywood standards, but the form-fitting dress that accompanies the New York Times article shows her curves and bares her knees.  That would not be deemed sufficiently conservative or modest in many cultures.  Rape happens everywhere and even to women who are wearing full burqas.  I embrace women’s clothing choices, and many women choose to cover their bodies for many reasons, including cultural, spiritual, professional, and otherwise.  Women can wear anything they want.  That’s not the same as clothing being “self-protective.”

It is absolutely essential to understand that no type of clothing is a magic force field against rape. 

Bialik’s comments about “flirtatiousness” are just as wrong-headed, for all the same reasons.  She’s referencing a very particular social standard—Hollywood standards of flirtatiousness--and placing herself in the virtuous range based on that standard.  Again, although surely what passes for “modest” in Hollywood would not pass for modest in many places, the point is that sex offenders are not picking women based on their behavior.  Sex offenders are picking victims based on who they have power over.

The stories emerging about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior describe a classic case of how a predator operates.  First, there’s power.  Always look for the power.  Weinstein is rich, he’s influential, he has (well, had) the capacity to make or break someone’s career.  These allegations describe Weinstein using his role to further his sexual predation.  Role power is not bad in and of itself—many roles, including parent, teacher, boss, commander, confer power.  But like any kind of power, it can be mis-used. 

Second, there’s access.  The power of an influential role can be particularly effective because it can deliver access.  In Weinstein’s case, he could command interviews with potential actors, who refused at peril to their career.  A teacher can ask a student to come to his office, a parent controls the home.  If a perpetrator doesn’t have that kind of power, there are other ways to get access, such as being thrown into regular close quarters.  Access is easiest in environments where behavior is controlled, such as military bases and school campuses.  A recruit can’t just run away. 

Neither of these has anything to do with manicures and wardrobe choices.  It is very disheartening to see a self-described feminist lack an understanding of these most basic elements of sexual predation.  Although Bialik states her recommended choices might feel “oppressive”—she’s right about that-- she still makes the argument that her “modest” choices are the best choices in the world we live in now.  If they had any merit at all as prevention measures, I might even agree, but these are not evidence-based suggestions.  The saddest thing about them is that women would be taking on their own oppression for no increases in safety.  In fact, if all women retreated from the public sphere in the name of modesty, the danger to women would increase, not decrease.  Self-oppression is not the path to sexual assault prevention.  Oppressed women are not safer women!

You know what is “self-protective and wise”?  Giving women—and men—equal access to resources.  In Hollywood, this means developing more women as producers, directors, and writers.  It would mean promoting a wider range of voices and greater numbers of people—women and men—who have the capacity to make a movie and get it in movie theaters.  It’s a systemic problem that is related to the focus on blockbusters and sequels, and the small percentage of roles and even dialogue that go to women.  As Bialik notes, this is improving somewhat, but it still a long way from equitable.  If there were more people who could “greenlight” a movie, then men like Weinstein would have less power over actors. 

Hollywood could also help in the task of redefining masculinity, so that manhood has nothing to do with sexual “conquests” or expressing a near-constant state of sexual desire.  Manhood, like womanhood, should be about finding a purpose, learning self-control, supporting loved ones, and pursuing excellence.  Many of the best movies and television shows tell those stories.  The Hollywood community needs to develop its own narrative of redemption and empowerment, so that well-meaning people do not unintentionally perpetuate victim-blaming myths.

Copyright 2017 Sherry Hamby.