I remember the first time I realized as a girl I was the object of a man’s sexual interest. I was ten years old, walking to the bus inside the gates of my all girl’s religious school. Yes, there were gates, tall ones that went two stories high. The bus was pulled up just before the gate, ready to take us home. I remember, as I shouldered my backpack, that I hoped we got home before the rain kicked in because there was a terrible storm brewing. As I was stepping up onto the bus, the wind kicked up hard
As I was stepping up onto the bus, the wind kicked up hard and blew my skirt up over my knee. I nearly dropped my backpack trying to cover my legs, but it was too late. I heard a whistling noise from beyond the gate. Two boys stood just beyond the chain link, high school age and no older. One of them leaned in and made a kissing face at me. He said something in another language and both boys laughed. And I knew, for the first time, they were staring at me. At my legs.
I got on the bus so fast I fell on the top step and ripped open my elbow. Only a few weeks later, my mom had ‘the talk’ with me about being a woman, and what would happen to me soon. I put two and two together that night, after Mom had gone to bed, and realized things for me had changed. I wasn’t exactly different, even though I was about to get hit by puberty like a hormonal freight train. No, this time, something had changed outside of me. Before, I was just a little girl. Now, I was seen.
That was just the first time. That wouldn’t be the last.
In high school, I had a kid in a movie theater line push up against me from behind so I felt his erection through his pants. When I spun around, he looked sheepish and said I shouldn’t wear a skirt if I didn’t want attention. My skirt was ankle-length and black.
In college, I had the friend of a friend, a guy who was one of those “tell it like it is” nerd guys who mansplained everything, grabbed my chest in the school cafeteria from behind using the pretext of a hug. When I instinctively elbowed him in the side of the head (oops), for weeks he mewled that I’d hit him and denied the groping. I heard him say later that he’d never grope “someone like her.” And by that, I knew, he meant fat.
I had a guy in college take advantage of me being drunk in the backseat of his friend’s car. I was on my way home from a party. I was wearing a tank top for the first time in public, my first show of rebellion against religious upbringing. It was black, with a silver Superman S on the front, which I insisted was for Supergirl instead. This guy, who was a friend from school and knew all my friends, stuck his tongue down my throat and his hand down my shirt, and almost forced my hand down his pants. I barely got out of the car without things going further. My two friends, his best friends, sat in the front seat the whole way back to my house to drop me off and did nothing to stop it. The week after this incident, they made a crude joke about how we’d “hooked up” in the backseat, to which the guy in question said, “it’s not like I’d date her.” That party was my twenty-first birthday. To this day, I get nervous wearing tank tops in public.
I was twenty-seven and coming home on a train from work late at night. I was wearing my work clothes: jeans, store t-shirt, big scarf and jacket for the cold. I looked like the Stay-Puff Marshmellow woman. It was late and I fell asleep against the window. When I woke up, a guy had grabbed my hand and pressed it to his crotch. I screamed, pushed him off the seat, and started roaring at him. When the cops on the next stop’s platform came aboard, he started shouting that I came on to him. It took two dudes getting in my way to keep me from murdering the guy, I was so scared. And I’d finally had it.
These aren’t all the instances of sexual harassment, street harassment, and even assault that happened to me. They aren’t even the worst of the lot. Instead, they’re examples to highlight a fallacy in recent arguments in regards to cases of sexual harassment and assault levied against women in Hollywood. Specifically, women in the Harvey Weinstein case. It seems some folks believe that to avoid getting sexually harassed, women in Hollywood should have known that the mousy, ‘less attractive’, less flirty women stay safer and others should learn from that example since we don’t live in a perfect world.
Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mayim Bialik.
I read Mayim Bialik’s post about how she avoided being harassed in a Hollywood full of predatory men with a sinking in my stomach. Here was an ostensibly brilliant young woman, an accomplished actress with a doctorate in neuroscience, pointing to her background as being a relatively “Plain Jane” in Hollywood as evidence of why she had avoided being sexually harassed and exploited. Moreover, she drew a direct correlation, it seems, between her perception of herself (and perhaps other people’s perceptions of her) as dowdy or less attractive as a reason why she avoided being harassed.
To quote the op-ed:
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.
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. They should be able to flirt however they want with whomever they want. Why are we the ones who have to police our behavior?
In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect.
No, Mayim, our world is not perfect. But neither, it seems, is your feminism.
This kind of response to reports of sexual misconduct by people like Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood execs and, dare I say it, our own walking disaster in the White House, is the perfect example of how NOT to support victimized women. It’s the same bullshit that told women who were targeted in gaming communities to just “stay off the internet” when facing harassment and doxing and stalking by abusers. It’s the same mentality that has for generations pointed the finger at women who are victims of assault and rape and tells them they were “asking for it.” It’s the same old stories of warning passed down from mother to daughter, telling them to cover up, for god’s sakes, lest the predators of the world find you. It doesn’t tell the world to hold men accountable. It tells women it’s on them to hold themselves accountable for whatever triggers might set a man off and make them the target of his unwanted affections.
So I guess when I read Mayim’s response, my first knee-jerk reaction was: was my ten-year-old little skirt, down to my ankles, too flirtatious for those boys outside the school gate? Was my long-skirt in high school? My tank top? My puffy winter coat?
Mayim spends a great deal of the article talking about how she was never that attractive in Hollywood, and how that seemingly protected her perhaps. How she spent her time cultivating her talent, her mind and relied less on her looks. In a modern twist on the puritanical mindset, she encourages young women to focus on things other than just their looks (a noble idea on its own) and downplay their sexuality to protect against predation. As if to say “tone it down, ladies, and pick up some books instead, and men won’t come after you as often.” Like being a nerd or being dowdy will keep the molesters away.
Look, Mayim. If we want to talk about women who aren’t a perfect 10, let’s get one thing straight. I’m a 34-year-old woman who has been overweight her whole life. If we were using the Hollywood scale of beauty, I wouldn’t even be up in the running. And that’s not me knocking myself. The impossible standards of Hollywood beauty are stupid and exactly that: impossible to meet. I know what that means in terms of societal standards for overweight women, no matter how pretty we might actually be in the reality that is the rest of the world. I also know the reality of being heavy in how other people look at women who are overweight. Being fat is the last acceptable bigotry, one shared by nearly every group of people, marginalized or otherwise. To most people, being fat is the final frontier of being acceptably called ugly. So if your rubric worked, Mayim, then I’d be safe from harassment, right?
Well, I gotta tell you, either I’m the unlucky outlier, or your op-ed is privileged crap.
Bullshit, Mayim. Your lesson here is bullshit. I’m an educated woman who is fairly serious, who wears covered up clothing, who is considered fat by the world. And who has dodged groping, cat-calling, harassment, and sexual assault since I was in my high school years. What was it that was enticing about me, Mayim, when I was eleven then? I was in a religious school uniform covering everything from my neck to my wrists and down to my ankles and I was eleven. Be careful to answer that one, lest you run into some VERY awful answers.
Now, I’m not surprised by Bialik’s answers entirely. Many of her responses sound eerily like the conservative excuses I heard growing up in the Jewish community, a community Mayim and I share in common. There, modesty and piety were often pointed-to as the ways to protect against the dangers of abusive men. I’m also not surprised considering Mayim stars on Big Bang Theory, which she points out is the #1 Sitcom in America, and is known in many circles to not only be the most nerd-shaming but also FULL of sexist and misogynistic crap. So when I hear her opining this kind of twisted feminism, it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Mayim Bialik’s answers are the regurgitated messages of generations of women who have seen the imbalance of power in the patriarchal world and instead of facing it head on and demanding change, have turned their powerlessness into a message of shame for women everywhere. Cover up, don’t be too provocative. Don’t be seen, don’t be heard. Stay under the radar and don’t make waves. Beauty is a curse to women, even while it brings privilege. Don’t shine too brightly or make any sudden moves, and maybe they won’t see you. If they do, you must have done something wrong.
And if something does happen, the message changes to: If they hurt you, it was your fault for catching their eye. They predators are wrong too, of course, but so are the women involved. Because they weren’t careful enough to avoid the hunter’s trap. By this metaphor, we can start blaming Bambi’s mom for getting shot too. After all, she didn’t run fast enough into that thicket before the bullet came.
What’s truly irksome about this article is that Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece couches itself in the empowering language of some feminist ideology, while turning back the clock to pearl-clutching times when modesty was the watchword of “good girls.” The fact is, Mayim, a woman should be able to walk stark naked through a room and not have to worry about being sexually assaulted. But in your world, a woman with a nice figure is the problem instead. And this is the message you’d put in the New York Times, when brave women like Asia Argento and Rose McGowen, and allies like Terry Crews, are coming forward to talk about the sexual assaults they’ve endured in Hollywood. The article comes off as self-aggrandizing, backward, and frankly cowardly.
By comparison, there is a clip going around from a decade back of Courtney Love on the red carpet. The notoriously controversial rocker was asked what advice she could give to young women trying to get into Hollywood. She looked off camera, said “I could get libeled for this, right?” then looks back at the reporter and the camera furtively and says, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you back to his place at the Four Seasons, don’t go.”
Here is a woman who had every reason to be afraid of legal reprisals from a powerful man like Weinstein. Yet instead of giving blanket assertions about modesty protecting women from the predations of molesters, Courtney Love risked legal reprisals to say to the camera what so many had turned a blind eye to for years. She didn’t tell girls to cover up their bodies, don’t flirt, don’t be themselves. She told them to look out for a known bad actor being protected by the powerful. She stepped up and showed bravery.
Meanwhile you, Mayim, made excuses for the world of patriarchy at large.
These days, more and more women are coming forward to disclose their stories of assault and harassment. Casting couch horror stories, interview horror stories, workplace horror stories, childhood horror stories. They tell us that our world is dotted not just with men who can’t seem to keep their hands to themselves, but that our world is still a place where the victims are blamed while the predators are coddled. It’s not their fault, it’s “just how they were raised” or “just the way things were back then” or a dozen other excuses made to distract from the fact that a woman’s worth is still valued lower than man’s reputation. Where men are labeled good members of the community or boys with their whole futures ahead of them, while women are slut-shamed for being the victims of men’s inability to control themselves.
As Mayim writes, it’s not a perfect world. Not by a long shot. But it won’t get better if we keep framing this as a women’s modesty problem and not a question of recognizing a woman’s worth, a woman’s word, a woman’s life, as valuable equal to a man’s. We don’t need more modest clothing, more skulking below the radar. We need more recognition, more equality, and less hemming and hawing over just who is responsible for the dangerous world women walk every day.
Me, I’m not going to sit and question whether I should have worn something other than a tank top on my twenty-first birthday, or whether I should have covered up my legs faster when I was eleven. But I still have problems wearing anything revealing, and I spend my time ready to bare my teeth at any man who dares overstep on me or any other woman I know.
Because I know what Mayim doesn’t seem to recognize, in her privilege: that perhaps she was just lucky, but not all of us were. And no matter what I wear, I’m still a target, as are other women, when a man doesn’t know how to control himself. And unlike Mayim, I know where to point the finger.