In October 2017 a serious and deeply unpleasant scandal rocked Hollywood – and the rest of the world. The famous producer Harvey Weinstein, of The Weinstein Company, was accused of multiple sexual offenses, including rape. Many women also spoke up to say that they too had interacted with Weinstein and found his conduct unacceptable. Others further complained about the sexist culture that had led to such things happening. But actress Mayim Bialik had a different take, and it made people very angry indeed.
So who is Mayim Bialik? Well, she first came to public attention as a child actress. In fact, she starred in Blossom from 1990 to 1995, and it gained her two Young Artist Award nominations. But her heart, it seemed, belonged to the field of science, and after Blossom ended, she headed to UCLA. She later achieved a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience and began working towards her doctorate.
In 2007 Bialik gained her Ph.D. while also working as an actress, no small feat. But in 2010 she landed the job most people know her for today. Yes, she joined the cast of the smash hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory as Amy Farrah Fowler, a character who is, like her, a scientist.
Throughout all of this, Bialik has always identified as a feminist. In a 2014 interview with BUST magazine, she said, “I’ve been teased and mocked for being a feminist at least from the sixth grade on. I’ve never shaved my legs, which was absolutely part of my feminist identity.” She also said her Blossom co-star Joey Lawrence would jokingly call her “a crazy, lunatic feminist.”
The interviewer later asked, “Do you look at your love of cooking through a feminist lens?” And Bialik answered, “I’m glad I was raised with a love and appreciation for the things that I can do with my hands that are distinctively female in my culture.”
Meanwhile, Bialik’s religion is also a huge part of her life. She grew up in Reform Judaism but then became an Orthodox Jew. And one part of Bialik’s take on this involves modesty and modest dressing, which the actress has written about before. In 2015, in fact, she penned an article for Kveller called “Common Myths About Orthodox Judaism – Debunked!” In it, she wrote, “Basic Jewish law requires women to cover their upper arms, upper legs, and chest.” This is what she herself adheres to.
Indeed, Bialik often wears long skirts and sleeves on the red carpet. And in 2012 she told The Jerusalem Post that it was “close to impossible” to be an observant Jew in Hollywood. She said, “It’s more the aspects of the ‘red carpet’ and needing to wear designer clothes that are strapless, and all those things that I don’t do.”
It’s arguably rare to find someone in high-powered celebrity circles who sticks to and promotes a modest style of dress. And in fact, in 2014, Bialik courted a little controversy when she blogged about singer Ariana Grande and an advertising campaign Grande had appeared in.
“I have no idea who she is or what she does,” Bialik wrote of Grande. “Based on the billboard, she sells lingerie… And if she has a talent (is she a singer?), then why does she have to sell herself in lingerie?” The magazine Cosmopolitan criticized Bialik for “slut-shaming.” Its article read, “Accusing famous women of doing something wrong just because they wear a certain outfit or have thin figures helps no one feel better about themselves.”
Still, it was this same idea – that women ought to dress a certain way – that formed a big part of Bialik’s article about the Weinstein scandal. Published on October 13, 2017, the article was titled “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” Bialik wrote, “I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with being employed in an industry that profits on the objectification of women.”
She began her article by describing the body-shaming she had endured as a young child actress. “I grew up constantly being teased about my appearance, even from members of my family,” she wrote. “A TV Guide critic described me, in a review of the pilot episode of Blossom, as having a ‘shield-shaped’ face of ‘mismatched features.’ I never recovered from seeing myself that way.”
The piece then went on to essentially encourage women to dress conservatively, like she did, to avoid unwanted attention from men. “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,” she wrote. “I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”
“I am entirely aware that these types of choices might feel oppressive to many young feminists. Women should be able to wear whatever they want,” she continued. “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.”
It was these comments in particular that caused a tidal wave of anger. Indeed, celebrities who had been affected by the Weinstein case responded to Bialik on Twitter. Actress Patricia Arquette, whose sister Rosanna is one of Weinstein’s accusers, wrote, “I have to say I was dressed non-provocatively at 12 walking home from school when men masturbated at me. It’s not the clothes.”
Gabrielle Union was one of the loudest voices against Bialik’s article. “Reminder. I got raped at work at a Payless shoe store. I had on a long tunic & leggings so miss me w/ ‘dress modestly’ s**t,” she wrote on Twitter. Underneath her tweet, countless people commented their agreement. Some of them also said they had been wearing “modest” clothes when they were raped.
It was clear, then, that Bialik’s article had brought some extremely painful issues to the forefront. Multitudes of rebuttals sprung up all over the Internet. “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!” read an article in Psychology Today the day after Bialik published her op-ed.
So just two days after the article had gone live, Bialik issued an apology of sorts via Twitter. “A bunch of people have taken my words out of 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. “It’s so sad how vicious people are being when I basically live to make things better for women.”
The next day, she made another attempt to clear things up by appearing on Facebook Live. “There is no way to avoid being the victim of assault by what you wear or the way you behave,” she clarified. “I really do regret that [the article] became what it became because literally I was trying to speak about a very specific experience I’ve had in a very specific industry. I was not looking to speak about assault and rape in general.”
Yet still the controversy continued. The Jewish community also positioned itself in opposition to Bialik’s views. “In her strangely regressive, self-centered account of how she evades Hollywood predators like Harvey Weinstein, Bialik sold out female solidarity, upended the pride she’d engendered in Jewish women, and gave patriarchy a free pass,” read an article on the online edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Unfortunately, then, the public may take a long time to forget the whole incident. Meanwhile, more Hollywood higher-ups have been implicated in sexual assault cases, and in many ways it seems like a dam has burst. It’s unlikely, though, that Bialik will have anything further to say on the matter.