Mayim Bialik shouldn't be mugged for modesty

Postmodern relativism rejects the mutuality underlying our rights: what works for me should work for thee.

Mayim Bialik of the hit sitcom 'Big Bang Theory' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mayim Bialik of the hit sitcom 'Big Bang Theory'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mayim Bialik has been unfairly accused of “inflaming, shaming ... victim-blaming,” white-girl ‘splaining and rationalizing sexual abuse. She has been so pilloried that she felt compelled to apologize not just once but three times. Her real crime, however, was deviating from the groupthink around Hollywood’s sex-abuse scandal and trying to raise broader issues about pressures women feel to dress and act in a super-sexualized manner.
Bialik is best known as an actress – Sheldon’s girlfriend Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on the television hit The Big Bang Theory. She is also a PhD and a blogger who dares to be politically incorrect.
Her troubles began when she wrote a New York Times op-ed offering a personal take informed by her traditional Judaism about Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul outed as a sex offender. Without quoting Jewish sources, Bialik tried injecting traditional Jewish ideas regarding modest dress and behavior.
She wrote that she tries to behave in a manner 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.”
Boy, did that get her into trouble. Apparently, dressing modestly and acting demurely is actually immodest and judgmental. (Of course, if she linked it to Islamic tradition it would be considered prudent and wise, but that’s another story).
Bialik condemned Weinstein’s despicable exploitation of subordinates and actresses. No one reading her column fairly would accuse her of supporting sexual assault.
She wrote, “Nothing – absolutely nothing – excuses men for assaulting or abusing women.” No one reading her column reasonably should claim she is insensitive to women’s plight. She denounces her own industry for its “objectification of women.”
But welcome to what passes for debate today. You don’t read generously but censoriously. You seize one or two lines to tweet proving your harsh interpretation, no matter how misleading. Then you demonize the person. And if you can play the race, gender, or virtuous-oppressed-person- against-this-privileged oppressor card you get triple bonus points. That’s how to throw rivals into the dungeon of shame and sic the dragons of political correctness on them. Inflamed, the Twitter Tyrants trash your reputation – until you apologize abjectly and profusely. In the process, bad feelings grow, good ideas fade and civility withers.
In demonstrating how this ideological mugging works, the Bialik brouhaha bared the bullies’ blatant bigotry. One critic wrote: “Mayim Bialik threw her hat in the ring in a bid to become the most problematic white woman at the moment by maligning sexual assault survivors.” Beyond the lie because she maligned assailants not survivors, can you imagine if someone wrote about “the most problematic” African-American or gay or Hispanic “at the moment.”
Postmodern relativism rejects the mutuality underlying our rights: what works for me should work for thee.
These attacks also show what passes for “pluralism” today – people only tolerate their own views and those of others in their ideological camp, no matter how extreme; even moderates in the opposite camp are intolerable, evil.
Ultimately, Bialik was attacked because she dared to address underlying questions of sexuality involved in rape and society’s mixed messaging. Today’s doctrine dictators, however, insist: “rape is about power not sex.” Of course, sex crimes involve power – and sex criminals are fully responsible for their crimes. But the pathology is more complicated because these crimes are abuses of power in the highly charged and personal arena of sex.
Consider burglary. Burglars wield power abusively, too.
But most burglaries are stranger-on-stranger. Some sex crimes, like sexual harassment or date rape, involve friends or colleagues. So not all sex crimes can be reduced to a six-word slogan. As with burglary, discussing risk factors, preventative strategies and even minimizing temptations doesn’t diminish the criminal’s criminality or blame the victim – it’s just common sense.
It’s disturbing that we can’t have a multi-dimensional discussion about this issue. We need the debate Bialik was trying to trigger (pun intended) beyond the context of sex abuse. Many young women feel pressured to dress provocatively then act wantonly – and much of the pressure starts in Hollywood. Our society transmits the pressure, then condemns any alternative analyses that dare question these unsubtle but unspoken messages.
This summer I wandered around a festival in Chicago.
The men were dressed in various ways. The women seemed to have a uniform. All young women seemed shoved into form-fitting, too-small mini-tubes covering their chests to their thighs. I felt badly for those who didn’t quite fit in elegantly, wondering how it felt to be losing the informal beauty contest on the street. I also felt badly for those who did fit in, wondering how stressful it was to follow that script.
We need a more mature conversation about sexual mixed messaging, objectification, and, yes, modesty in behavior and dress – beyond the discussion about sexual predators. It’s great that we have evolved to a point where women feel comfortable celebrating their bodies if they so wish – but did it come at the cost of them no longer feeling comfortable NOT flaunting their flesh? Not sleeping around? Ultimately, we want to cultivate personal dignity and achieve true freedom, wherein we can learn from tradition and modernity, thinking creatively, listening generously, living authentically and, if we choose, virtuously – as Mayim Bialik – and Jewish tradition – encourages us to do.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.