Mayim Bialik is certainly the highest profile UCLA commencement speaker in recent history, but she may also be the most controversial.
Bialik wrote a New York Times opinion-editorial on Oct. 13, offering her take on Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, referring to herself as a conservative, “nontraditional-looking woman.” The piece faced criticism from readers and figures in the industry, with many stating that the editorial veered dangerously close into victim-blaming territory. Although Bialik has since apologized and clarified her intentions, the editorial complicates Bialik’s status as an unapologetic feminist and an appropriate commencement speaker.
UCLA announced April 4 the “The Big Bang Theory” actress would be the Distinguished Alumni Speaker for the College of Letters and Sciences 2018 commencement ceremony. The choice made sense – “The Big Bang Theory” is a highly popular show about to enter its 12th season and averaged 14.041 million viewers in its most recent season.
Bialik herself is a complex figure, someone who proudly proclaimed herself a feminist long before it was deemed socially acceptable to do so. Although she rose to fame as a teen actress on the show “Blossom,” she took a break from the film industry at the age of 19 to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience. Women are markedly underrepresented in STEM fields, and Bialik’s pride in her accomplishments is refreshing – when a reporter at the SAG Awards implied she couldn’t do calculus, Bialik was quick to correct him and explain that she is a neuroscientist.
Bialik’s New York Times piece also isn’t her first foray into editorials. In 2014, she penned a piece about the sexualization of women on billboards, lamenting that women are often reduced to being portrayed as sexually available and having to explain the images to her children. In 2017, she wrote an article refuting the assertion of Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour that Zionism is incompatible with feminism – Bialik herself has publicly identified as a Zionist.
Bialik’s self-proclaimed feminism, as well as her penchant for writing analytical articles, give context to her New York Times editorial. The piece, titled “Mayim Bialik: Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World,” comes across as anything but feminist. It starts off well; Bialik first muses on her experience “in an industry that profits on the exploitation of women,” and offers some compelling insight into the insecurity she herself faced as a young girl.
However, the editorial takes a turn when she begins to talk about how being a
“‘nontraditional’-looking woman” differentiated her experience from other Hollywood actresses. She discusses her more conservative fashion choices, influenced by her first-generation American parents, as well as how she has never experienced anything akin to the stories of seedy hotel meetings that Weinstein survivors reported.
Even before reaching the more problematic elements of the editorial, Bialik’s own admission of her lack of experience makes her voice seem out of place in the midst of the post-Weinstein fallout. At the time the article was published, Hollywood was filled with harrowing, powerful stories from actresses about their encounters with Weinstein himself or other Weinstein-like figures. In a time when it was important to elevate the voices of survivors, Bialik chose to add her singular perspective into the mix.
Bialik then segued into a reflection on the choices she deems “self-protecting and wise” – she reserves her “sexual self” for private situations, dresses modestly and doesn’t act flirtatiously. She acknowledges that this may seem oppressive and policing, but states that we don’t live in a perfect world.
“Nothing – absolutely nothing – excuses men for assaulting or abusing women,” Bialik writes. “But we can’t be naive about the culture we live in.”
Not everything within Bialik’s editorial is problematic, but this line, in particular, crystallizes the issue with the piece as a whole. Bialik rightly asserts that there can be no justification for sexual assault, but erodes that claim and her own credibility with the assertion that naivete plays a role in the act. By saying that one is naive if they do not take all the necessary precautions to avoid sexual assault, it implies that there is a correct way to act, shifting the blame from the attacker to the survivor.
The backlash against Bialik’s editorial was swift and widespread – figures from Patricia Arquette to Emily Ratajkowski criticized Bialik for being unfeminist and dangerous. Actress Gabrielle Union tweeted, “Reminder. I got raped at work at a Payless shoe store. I had on a long tunic and leggings so miss me w/ ‘dress modestly’ shit.”
Bialik’s initial reaction to the criticism was one of frustration – she stated that her words were being taken out of context, saying “It’s so sad how vicious people are being when I basically live to make things better for women.”
Even after hearing the reactions of the people at the forefront of the sexual assault allegations, Bialik’s response was tone-deaf and unnervingly defensive. Although she later offered a fuller and more sincere apology that acknowledged the pain that she had caused, her initial instinct was to double down on her words and profess her intention, rather than thinking about the impact of those words and how they were hurting people who had already experienced intense pain.
The editorial and subsequent nonapology – followed by a real apology – paint a troubling picture of an actress who may be well-intentioned, but who is unable to think beyond her own limited perspective. Her editorial implied a lack of respect for survivors, and afterward, she struggled to hold herself accountable for the impact of her words.
Senior dean of the UCLA College Patricia Turner said Bialik embodies the values of a Bruin, making her an appropriate commencement speaker. However, respect and accountability are two key True Bruin values that Bialik is demonstrably lacking.
Bialik may be outspoken about sexism, but this latest attempt at activism was misguided and unbefitting of a Bruin.