Dear Ms. Bialik,
Most of the time, I am a fan of your work. The Big Bang Theory is one of my parents’ favorite shows (and given their degrees are in electrical engineering and computer science, it’s not a huge stretch to see why), and I follow your online presence with some regularity, particularly enjoying your insights on Jewish culture, heritage, and tradition. You are generally an eloquent, ardent supporter of women’s rights, and that’s great.
I began reading your opinion piece in The New York Times with high hopes, and your anecdotes about being the gawky, awkward teenager in a sea of beautiful people were both poignant and relatable. Even before your piece was published, I knew you made (and frequently continue to make) what you refer to as “conservative choices as [an] actress.” That’s totally cool. I applaud your decision to represent yourself in a way that makes you comfortable and allows you to pursue the professional life you wish to have. But then you started talking about policies you set for yourself that “might feel oppressive to many young feminists,” and as a young feminist, I’m here to tell you that the words you followed that up with aren’t just oppressive; they’re enabling to predators of all ages.
You say that “[i]n 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.” I agree, individually, with each of these statements. Ms. Bialik, I’m not aware of your history of sexual assault; perhaps you haven’t lived through it, perhaps you have. I have. I’m pretty un-naïve about rape culture, and I’m still learning. And I have some questions for you.
You talk about reserving our sexual selves for moments with those we love the most to keep ourselves safe. What, then, do we tell women who turn to sex work as a career or to keep themselves and their loved ones from homelessness and starvation? What do we tell the actors who step onstage in character for a sex scene? And what, then, do we tell those who have fallen prey to intimate partner violence? Do we tell them they should have known better?
You say you don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy, presumably to prevent them from getting the wrong idea. What, then, do we tell young women who are still figuring out their own unique blend of friendly and funny? Do we tell them it doesn’t matter they didn’t know a guy viewed it as the ever-so-popular “asking for it”?
You point to dressing conservatively as a bastion of defense for those who’d rather avoid sexual assault. What, then, do you say to children, to the girl I was, running around a playground at a fast food joint and expecting that the teenage boys who later touched me were just there to have fun too? Do you tell us that we should stifle our sense of exploration, of taking up space, because we don’t know if someone will give us a high five or grab us by the rear?
You seem, throughout this article, to argue that being the least visibly sexual is the best way to keep oneself safe. What, then, do we say to those people whose skin color establishes them as instant targets, who are so quickly reduced to something “exotic” no matter what they’re wearing? Do we tell them that it’s their problem and not ours?
In your response to the controversy your piece has caused, you state that you merely meant to discuss how those in Hollywood might choose to keep themselves safe. What, then, do we say to people like Terry Crews, who is a successful man in Hollywood and still wasn’t allowed to maintain the boundaries we hold so close to our chest? Do we tell him that because he’s in Hollywood, these guidelines apply to him as strictly as women? Do we say to a man who, like you, transitioned from a career in another field to one in entertainment, that he still made himself too available?
Furthermore, your article seems to hammer home that being less than traditionally beautiful is the only reliable defense for a smart girl or an overweight girl or a girl whom society deems ugly. What, then, do we tell the girls who see themselves as smart or overweight or ugly who have still had to face these horrors? What do we say when keep doing what you’re doing, someone will love you both clearly isn’t working and implies that every girl who’s experienced an assault was just looking for love in the wrong places? Do we invalidate the lives and desires of the girls who said no and wanted nothing more than to escape, or those who didn’t say anything for fear of what might happen or an inability to speak?
Ultimately, Ms. Bialik, you argue that feminists need to keep their heads down in the presence of powerful men simply because our world isn’t perfect. And this, ma’am, is where I’m calling bullshit. If you google “what is feminism,” the first thing that pops up on Google is this definition: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Or, in other words, feminism is the act of expecting more, of demanding to be safe in our personal and professional pursuits, of insisting we receive the respect we deserve regardless of what we look like and who we might or might not want to sleep with. If we keep waiting for a perfect world, those women who best express themselves through wearing clothes that are as daring as they are, and those women who want to use their own raunchy brand of humor to make others laugh, and those women who fall somewhere between wanting to wear lots of clothes and wanting to wear no clothes will never in their lives feel as though they are free within our world. And that isn’t good enough for me.