Being a Feminist in Mayim Bialik’s World

I just read Mayim Bialik’s op-ed in the New York Times, and cringed all the way through. I have the urge to sit her down, this 41-year-old, respected, well-known woman, and explain that she was never safe. Just lucky. That her Not Like The Other Girls manifesto is steeped in so much internalized misogyny it makes me want to scream. Or cry.

What really killed me is, she clearly has stories. Grown men calling her “baby,” for one. Her telling comment that she has “almost” no experience with being invited into hotel rooms. She obviously saw way more, or was told things by others. But that’s not what she focuses on. She doesn’t use her platform to say, “Look, these fucking assholes were going after LITTLE GIRLS. LITTLE GIRLS were being groomed for this from MINUTE ONE. I missed the worst of it, thank God, and for all those children who became targets, in their names, I am COMING FOR YOU NOW. I, Mayim Bialik, with all the credibility in the world, and with less trauma to bite at my ankles, I am going to BRING YOUR HOUSE DOWN AND BURN IT.”

Wouldn’t that have been something to read? Wouldn’t it have been amazing? But no. Oh, no. Instead, we are treated to a lecture about modest behavior and some incredibly disturbing victim blaming of, again, children.

The immaturity of her worldview makes my head spin. The point is so far away as to have vanished completely. Abusers don’t only target the “pretty” girls. How can a grown woman think that? She actually analyzes her lack of desirability to the sick fucks grooming children while implicitly smearing the girls who didn’t, or couldn’t, fight back.

It’s horrifying. We know “dressing modestly” won’t save us. It’s a fact. What you wear does not matter. How you act does not matter. To suggest that it does is to give cover to those undefined powerful men she talks about. To hear her repeat these lies makes me sad, and so angry.

Something about it reads like survivor’s guilt to me, too. Who knows. Maybe I’m reaching. But I’ve been on both sides of similar dynamics, though in much milder ways. I’ve been the one who got attention from men that made me uncomfortable, while other girls drew away from me because it made them feel small, and I’ve been the one who watched and said nothing while other girls were targeted by men in ways that made me feel jealous, because this society is broken and cruel and doesn’t care about us. I’ve been the one who watched while other girls ingratiated themselves with the powerful men and felt left out, and I’ve been the one who knowingly leveraged my smile and my charm. These situations are complicated, and fraught, and no one is ever really ready for them, at any age. Especially not when the literal adults in the room are the ones perpetuating the toxic, soul-destroying mess.

But by this time in her life, with the experience she’s clearly had, Mayim Bialik should know better than to blame the victims. I can’t figure out her angle, especially towards the end of the piece. Does she think the women she perceives as being more physically beautiful than she is want to be assaulted? Is she really trying to suggest that those women are all just enjoying the attention so much? What is this poison? Her attitude is wildly, willfully insular, and I cannot for the life of me condone whatever particular brand of feminism she claims to be promoting.

My feminism is not appeasement. My feminism whispers until it’s safe enough to shout. My feminism understands that if one person is in danger, we all are. My feminism knows the system that calls one girl ugly and another pretty is setting them both up to be abused. My feminism is not naïve about the culture we live in, Mayim. My feminism knows there is no hiding behind an outfit, or an attitude. My feminism is there for the women trapped in hotel rooms. My feminism won’t excuse the men who ushered them in.

Tonight at dinner.

There are many things I did not say at dinner tonight while interacting with a man I had never met before. He was obnoxious, impressed with himself, rude, sexist, and more interested in making sweeping, incorrect generalizations than in conversation. He changed his argument and the direction of the conversation every time he was challenged on any of those many sweeping generalizations. It was faux intellectualism taken to truly astounding heights. Also, he managed to insinuate at every opportunity that I, the only woman in the conversation, didn’t know what I was talking about. Following is an incomplete list of the things I did not say.

“If ‘society’ were reset,’ in your words, and we were all ‘dumped naked in a field with no tools,’ I’m pretty sure our first response would not be to kill each each other. Your first response, based on your behavior so far, would be to look at my breasts.”

“You are not an expert about something because you have the most baseline cynical opinion possible about it. Everything you have claimed the intellectual high ground on so far is something that I know for a fact someone at this table knows more about and is more thoughtful about than you.”

“I did not start paying attention to your conversation with [friend] again because you ‘were done nerding out.’ I am a nerd. I am not interested in combative pedantry, which is what you were doing.”

“I have, in fact, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I just told you that I have. I have read many things, actually. My breasts do not interfere with my vision or my ability to decode language. So when I finish quoting the scene you are laboriously trying to explain to me, it’s not like I’ve done some amazing trick.”

I know this might all seem petty. I know. But I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was being shut down, over and over, for nothing so heinous as challenging a man who seemed to think that he deserved to be talking by virtue of his maleness, where maleness correlated to rightness. I, as woman, was supposed to sit there basking in the attention, gratified that he would be choosing to share his thoughts with me. Gratified, and appropriately impressed by his intellect.

In closing, I leave you with one of the most powerful set-downs in the history of modern cinema, delivered by a woman in a bright pink muppet sweater, the subversive epitome of femininity.

Thank you, and good night.

Older Men, Teenage Girls: An Essay in Three Parts

This post is long, and deals with uncomfortable situations involving minors (including me). They happened a long time ago, and didn’t cause lasting damage to me, although I don’t know and can’t speak to anything that might have happened to anyone else. I was very lucky.

When I was in summer camp the year I was fifteen, there was a counselor, a wonderful, thoughtful guy named Stephen, who patiently and with a little bit of horror in his eyes lived through being subject to our affections. One day, as we were hanging out at a picnic table discussing writing, one of my friends (who had a huge crush on him) said that she didn’t think the age difference between a fifteen and a nineteen-year-old was so big. To his credit, he didn’t bang his head into the table or run screaming or anything. He just said that there’s a lot of life experience that happens between then and now. What about people in their twenties? we demanded. Twenty-one-year-olds date twenty-five-year-olds all the time. He, still patient, ever-patient, said that it didn’t matter so much after college, but that when you’re still in high school, you’re in a very different place. I am still grateful to him for that conversation. Not so much because it changed anything, but because it put a quiet, non-parental voice in my head, a voice from someone close enough to my age and my perceived “cool” levels, that maybe some of the other things that were about to happen involving me might, just possibly, be on the wronger side of things.

Later that summer, I was part of the costume crew at a theater running a fairly expensive and (in its own mind, at least) prestigious youth program. The techies were all men in their late twenties, good-looking, etc. I had an uncomfortable (for both of us) crush on one of them, but he kept mostly to himself, away from the shrieking, hormone-fueled, slightly confused, sexually frustrated on a molecular level, roiling mass of teenager that had infested his theater. There was another one, though. I’ll call him Jon. The average population of any high school musical production is going to be heavy on girls, and teenage boys were, as they have always been, a combination of terrified and consciously oblivious that is very frustrating then and in hindsight a survival mechanism for the good of the species. Jon spent a lot of time with a few of the girls. He was at least thirty, and came across as funny, smart, and interested. The attention made us feel good, you know?

I got a weird vibe off Jon, kind of. I spent more time with the techie guys than the girls in the show, and he was a little too friendly when he was friendly, but he was all business a lot of the time, so it seemed okay. I know Jon and I talked. I know I must have been flirty, it was what I did. I liked using my words, and here were a couple of older guys who seemed to like talking to me. There was a rumor that the old lighting guy had been fired because of “something happening” with a girl our age, but we were safe. He had been fired, and she wasn’t involved in productions here any more. (That was mentioned sideways, like maybe she had been culpable, too.) Of course we were safe! How could we not be safe!

One afternoon, it was in a break between scenes. It was me, two other girls, and Jon sitting in a clump on the darkened stage. One of the girls, a thin blond wearing plaid shorts, was talking about something, and she said something funny. We were all laughing, and Jon put his hand on her thigh like it was the most natural thing in the world. Another time, he and I were in the wings killing time between scenes, and my hair color came up. He asked if “the carpet matched the drapes.” I, in a reckless display of ingenuity and ignorance, shot back with “What do you think?” I had no idea what that meant until I got home and asked one of my friends. When my friend told me, I was aghast, but it wasn’t any dumber or weirder than the questions the guys my age were asking me, so I let it go.

Few days later, he pulled me into him, wrapped us in one of the wing curtains, and kissed my neck. I was surprised. This wasn’t a thing that grown men were, you know, supposed to do to me.

Holding me in that old, dusty black velvet, he said, “You’re seventeen, right?”
I blinked. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not know how old I was. I felt myself start to smile.
“Think again.”
His arms stiffened. “Sixteen?”
Now my smile was real, if tremulous, and just a little bit vicious. Remembering it now, I am sick to my stomach like I was at the time.
“Think again.”

I had not, up to that point in my young life, seen the color actually drain out of someone’s face before. He immediately let go of me, untwisted us, quietly falling all over himself, saying he was sorry, that he thought I was older, that it was a joke. I’m pretty sure he called in sick for several days, and didn’t come near me again the rest of the time I worked on that show.

I haven’t told that story much. I was lucky, I know I was. He’d been assuming I was legal, which made me nonprosecutable fair game, even though it would never have been fair. He was nearly twice the age he thought I was, and twice the age I actually was. He’s forty-one, now, and I hope he still feels ashamed of himself. Hell, I hope he never did anything worse.

So when I listen to talk of James Franco messaging with a seventeen-year-old girl who got her picture with him, I think about being seventeen. I think about being half in love with a dozen different movie stars, playing and replaying fantasies in my head that somehow magically involved me being older, or sometimes they didn’t. It was strange, because my historically minded self reacted with revulsion whenever I heard about marriages where the groom was so much older than the bride. Some fantasies aren’t supposed to come true.

Would he have messaged a twenty-one-year-old? Or a twenty-seven-year-old? Or a thirty-year-old? Or a thirty-five-year-old? Somehow I doubt it. These interactions are age-specific and they are all about power, and the assumption is that the man has all of it. Also based on the idea that there is some kind of secrecy, that he is protected because she won’t say anything. He told her not to tell. Sometimes she will. Not always, but she will. I am so happy that Lucy Clode did.

I didn’t say anything about Jon at the time. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell the director of the show, or the director of the program. I didn’t want to disappear, like that girl who’d been involved with the lighting guy disappeared. I was protecting myself against questions about my own behavior (which was probably verbally questionable) and against the embarrassment, and in the process I protected him. I should have said something.

Post it everywhere when anyone does something that makes you uncomfortable. I don’t care who you are, or who they are. Tell everyone. Shout it. Make fliers. Paper the world in our discontent and our vulnerability and our power. Tell them to think again when they go to seduce us, to take advantage of our limited experience and boundless desire to be older, to control our fates, to be like the older girls. The hardest part is the first part: telling ourselves to think again.

No fun.

I don’t want you to have any fun. ESPECIALLY NOT YOU. YEAH, YOU.

See, this is what all the talking about “respecting boundaries” and “sexual harassment” and “consent” is really about. It’s about how I do not want you to have any fun. None at all. No suggestive remarks at the expense of my body, or my behavior, or my sexual proclivities, (real or imagined) or even just my smile. No being able to touch me whenever you like, just because you want to and I’m there and I’m female.

Nor should you be able, in my little fantasy world, to make sweeping generalizations about half the human population of this planet as if we are lesser than you are, or subject to your whims.

I know that’s going to make a real dent in how you amuse yourselves.

I feel better now that I have pulled the mask of wanting equality, of wanting safety, of wanting to be included with all our flaws and all our gifts without fear, off this despicable monster known as “feminism.” Which, by the way, in its highest form extends those privileges to all genders and all people, without exception.

That might be fun.

How is it different?

I didn’t read a single book for a month. It felt really empty inside my head. I had my Kindle on the subway, and I wanted something fun. So I started Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs. I liked it! Characters good, protagonist compelling, men sexy, women capable, werewolves… well, just werewolves, actually. Doesn’t have to be more than that, right? Supernatural, politics, good voice. So what I’m saying is, there isn’t anything wrong with this book. It’s a lot of fun. Satisfying, in fact.

The protagonist has something of a privileged place in their society, they’re sort of an outsider, but everyone needs them for something. They have vaguely troubled relationships with a bunch of more-than-usually-attractive people, and they go on adventures and figure out who the bad guys are and kick ass while still being vulnerable and non-invincible and having to grow as a person. Sounds fun, right?

So, why do all my male friends start rolling their eyes when I tell them about it? Ah, yes, I do realize. How could I forget? It’s because the protagonist is female.

These are people who live and die by Harry Dresden, and does the basic premise of that series sound familiar? But, no, because the protagonist has boobs, well, clearly they get to smirk at me because I like it, because it must obviously be trashy supernatural porn. I have never been so tempted to smack people in my entire life. It happens a lot, haven’t you noticed? I’m talking about something I read, or a character I really like, and I see that smirk.

I’m sick of the smirk, my dear friends. I am well and truly sick and tired of it. If a book is about a woman, so what? If a book is supernatural werewolf porn, where do you get off judging me? What are you reading, honeybear? Last I checked it wasn’t James Joyce or anything, and even if it were I would expect your attention and respect if you decided to spend your time with me.

Listen and nod the way I do as you’re expounding for the zillionth time on some finer point of Marvel mythos, or DC relationship dynamics. Act interested. Or, here’s a thought, BE INTERESTED. These are stories! People doing neat stuff! There’s action! Adventure! Romance! (Which, by the way, isn’t shoehorned into every story in the world just for the ladeez. Men enjoy it too, thanks so much. It’s a huge motivator for the choices people make, and don’t you try telling me different.) I like the stuff you like, I’m thoughtful and I bring other perspectives to the table, even if it isn’t my favorite thing in the world. Why don’t the stories I’m more enthusiastic about than you get the same consideration?

I am honestly interested in the stories about male protagonists, and I am so sick of not getting the same attention from my male friends that I give. Even if you’re not interested, I deserve your respect. I am a thinking human being with a lot to say, and if you can’t hold in your desperate desire to feel superior then you can go fuck yourselves, because you sure as hell won’t be getting any from me.