Today in Rape Culture: This Isn't Helping

[Content Note: Rape culture; rape apologia; rape jokes.]

Mayim Bialik, star of the '80s sitcom Blossom and one of the leads in the current sitcom The Big Bang Theory, authored a spectacularly unhelpful op-ed for the New York Times on being a feminist who doesn't fit the kyriarchetypical beauty standards favored by the entertainment industry, suggesting it has protected her from sexual assault.

And while defenders of this piece have argued that Bialik is speaking only for herself, that is patently not the case:
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. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can't be naïve about the culture we live in.
That is some victim-blaming horseshit, engaging multiple harmful tropes that uphold the rape culture.

1. That sexual assault is a compliment. It is not:
Fetishizing rape, regarding it as primarily about sexual attraction, recasts rapists as sexually frustrated men, or oversexed men, or men who simply can't control themselves when they see an attractive woman. Rapists are not merely men with heightened libidos...

And so there are men who believe that sexual aggression is always flattering, which creates in many of them a weird sort of dichotomy of coexisting notions—that rape is immoral, but aggressive sexuality is flattering, so rape must be, too—and what results from it are men who don't themselves rape, but tend to regard men who do as little more than overly aggressive lotharios. (Sex as the ends, not the means.) And thusly, rape becomes something that only happens to "pretty girls," whose suffering ought to be mitigated by the knowledge that the crime was really a compliment.
2. That what one wears can function as rape prevention. It cannot:
Left to my own devices, I never would have been raped. The rapist was really the key component to the whole thing. I was sober; hardly scantily clad (another phrase appearing once in the article), I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt; I was at home; my sexual history was, literally, nonexistent—I was a virgin; I struggled; I said no. There have been times since when I have been walking home, alone, after a few drinks, wearing something that might have shown a bit of leg or cleavage, and I wasn't raped. The difference was not in what I was doing. The difference was the presence of a rapist.

Enough blaming the victim. Enough.
3. That avoiding rape is just about making good choices. It is not:
That's the thing about rapists, you see. They rape people. They rape people who are strong and people who are weak, people who are smart and people who are dumb, people who fight back and people who submit just to get it over with, people who are sluts and people who are prudes, people who rich and people who are poor, people who are tall and people who are short, people who are fat and people who are thin, people who are blind and people who are sighted, people who are deaf and people who can hear, people of every race and shape and size and ability and circumstance. The only thing that the victim of every rapist shares in common is bad fucking luck.

Quite literally, the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Since they don't announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple, that's not a very reasonable expectation, is it?
I understand, really I do, the impulse to suggest that women can control whether they are raped by adjusting their wardrobes and behaviors. But let me borrow Bialik's own words: We can't be naïve about the culture we live in. Women who never flirted with men or wore revealing clothing are raped every fucking day. And that includes "ugly" women, who are raped by men with access to "beautiful" women.

I will note here that none of us, including Bialik, except Harvey Weinstein know his every victim. The women who have come forward have some measure of safety by virtue of their notoriety. I don't believe it's reasonable to assume such a prolific predator only assaulted beautiful actors; I do believe it's reasonable to consider that he also assaulted women outside the industry who had the misfortune of coming into his orbit, e.g. service workers, particularly given that his preferred lair of choice was hotels.

The very premise that Weinstein only assaulted certain women because of the way they look elides the possibility that he has other victims, with less influence. And that is a very dangerous and despicable game to be playing, in order to crow about one's own moral virtue and implicitly shame women who don't share those values.

If Bialik is genuinely concerned about the rape culture in the entertainment industry, there are countless ways in which she could have better directed that instinct. Which is only part of the reason that I suspect she's not. There's also the fact that the sitcom for which she's making around half a million dollars per episode has routinely used hostility to consent as a defining feature of its male characters.

Jonathan McIntosh recently published a video (with transcript at link) in which he desconstructs the "adorkable misogyny" of The Big Bang Theory, in which he notes: "Adorkable misogyny is presented as just another socially awkward personality quirk. As something that's perhaps deserving of an eye-roll, or an exasperated look or maybe some lighthearted chiding but never something to be taken seriously or seriously challenged. At its core, the Adorkable Misogynist is built around the old axiom that 'boys will be boys.' And what that phrase really means is, 'boys will be sexist' or 'boys will be creepy stalkers who sexually harass women,' as the case may be."

Or assault them: For example, in Season 9, their friend and perennial sad-sack Stewart confessed, to audience laughter, to installing a camera in his comic book store to spy on breastfeeding customers. To state the obvious, how those fictitious women dressed or interacted with Stewart wouldn't have protected them against his predation.

Bialik is making huge sums of money starring in a sitcom that upholds the rape culture. In fact, in Season 11, she was paid to deliver a laugh-line that is essentially the very argument she makes in her piece: "I passed out at a frat party and woke up with more clothes on."

She claims her words were taken out of context, but, the truth is, the closer the context gets scrutinized, the worse her words actually look. Positioning oneself as an anti-rape advocate while raking in millions of dollars every year telling rape jokes that look exactly like the victim-blaming shit you write for the Times is not "feminism." It's being part of the problem.

[Related Reading: On Harassment and the Marking of Visible Womanhood.]

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