Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My very urgent not at all late Mayim Bialik op-ed take

A million years ago, I read (and reviewed) that "Israel Lobby" book. The main thing I remember about the book itself was a certain rhetorical device: the authors would preempt whichever point about a sinister Jewish cabal controlling everything with a finely-worded disclaimer about how of course they are not anti-Semites and of course they do not think a sinister Jewish cabal controls everything. It was this odd back-and-forth - the thing they were arguing, and the periodic insistance that anyone who noticed what they were arguing had (willfully?) misunderstood.

Disclaimers are funny like that. If everyone thinks you wrote X, but X is something you don't think, not even a little bit, it's always a good idea to stop and think why that mistaken belief about your work is out there. Sometimes there will be a reason - a bad headline, say - but you want to be sure. You want to be sure you're not arguing X. I went through something like this when writing my book. I anticipated certain criticisms. But rather than disclaimerizing and saying that even if you think my book is about X, oh no, I insist, it's not, take my word for it, I went and looked at the texts that are deeply X and examined where I did and did not agree with those stances. Where you think something controversial, you need to own it. Where you've been unfairly accused of thinking something you don't, you should at the very least know for yourself why the accusation is unfair.

This approach is more easily accomplished in a book than an op-ed. Maybe that was the issue with actress-scientist Mayim Bialik's recent NYT piece. But also, maybe not? Because bad takes are clickbait, or maybe for a more noble reason I'm not thinking of at the moment, the NYT Opinion pages had her do a video continuation of the op-ed as well, where she could defend herself from her critics. I watched a lot of it. I watched her go through the ritual of explaining that of course she doesn't victim-blame (which she does; that's central to the op-ed!), because... well, what was her reason, exactly? Because it's her, and she's a good feminist, and how could anyone possibly think something like this of her? (And I caught the very beginning, where her editor notes how well the piece is doing traffic-wise. You don't say.)

Well, the reason people criticized her piece was because she wrote it. I mean, I have no preexisting beef with Mayim Bialik. If anything, for various personal reasons (see comments to the post below) I'd have been biased to agree with her. But... the piece itself! Why is it remotely relevant to Bialik's history or lack thereof with respect to the "casting couch" (on that term, see Jessica M. Goldstein's excellent take) that she was not allowed manicures as a child? Why the cutesy ending about how plain-looking women don't need to look for love on casting couches, as though that's remotely what the expression "casting couch" has ever referred to? Why the reference to choosing not to flirt, as though the women men think are flirting with them actually are in all/most cases? Why the treeeemendous blind spot of, dressing modestly within a religious context has a long history of not doing a darn thing to prevent sexual abuse or assault?

I get the minuteness of Bialikgate. Minute compared with what's happening in Somalia, minute compared with the story now circulating of Trump joking about how Pence wants to murder gay people, and minute within the broader Weinstein-and-abuse story. (Bialik's story is about having not been a victim; thus in a sense the press it's gotten, since anything other than #MeToo was, from a cynical journalistic perspective, a fresh take.) The fate of the world does not hinge on whether Mayim Bialik gets, I mean really and truly gets, where her op-ed went wrong. And it's not as if she's abusing anyone. Anger should be directed at abusers, at the culture, not at individual self-identified feminist women who fail to meet flawless Awareness standards. Why am I still thinking about it even at all?

Partly it's that the piece came so close to being useful. It might have been a reflection on the ambiguities of an industry where, under the best of circumstances, people - women especially - are getting chosen for work in a large part based on their looks. It might have been a piece that reflected on how an industry (or society) that pseudo-values women only when young and gorgeous winds up screwing over all women. It might even have been an unpopular-opinion-ish point about how lived experience is different for women deemed sexy and those deemed less so - about how plain-looking or dressed-down women can absolutely still get assaulted, abused, etc., but may not be the recipients of a certain kind of ambiguous male attention. It might have been nuanced. It might have stayed put at Bialik's own highly specific experiences, without the additional take-tastic level of and you, too, could avoid sexual assault, if only you wore longer skirts, hussy. But who would have clicked on that?

So I guess this interests me as a media story. But also a rhetoric one. The it's me disclaimer, the one where the argument that the author is not actually saying whatever it is they're saying isn't so much an argument as a demand not to besmirch their good name, is really something else. I wonder if it's a rhetorical devise only really possible if you're someone generally protected from criticism. A star, in one area or another. Someone without the protection from criticism that stardom allows may well want to pull a but it's me, but be, at one stage or another, prevented from doing so.


Miss Self-Important said...

I still don't see the problem with the modesty comments if it's true that some harassment is preventable. Certainly, wearing a long skirt and not flirting etc. is not a policy that, if universally adopted, is going to eliminate all unwanted advances of every kind. But it might avert some kinds in some cases. I don't know if we can conclude from the occasional sexual predation scandals in religious communities that there is broadly more harassment or assault in them than in mainstream secular communities. Could be, but how would we know? Especially given that the meme has informed us that mainstream secular society has a 99% assault rate for women, could religious communities possibly do worse?

Part of the problem in determining this is, as you said below, how vague the terms have become. "Sexual assault" means everything from rape to harassment of any severity. By these vague standards, I can definitely recall instances when I could've avoided predictable bad behavior from men by behaving differently, but also precisely b/c this bad behavior was of such little significance to me, I determined that behavior modification wasn't worth the effort. This is one of the ambiguities of "me too" - all these women posting something like, "I didn't think much of it at the time but now I realize I was ASSAULTED." If we're to accept that an act that was merely "weird" or "annoying" or even "uncomfortable" a few years ago is now a full-fledged sex crime, then aren't we also expanding the number of sex crimes that are preventable by behavior modification on the part of victims? Cross the street to avoid getting cat-called by construction workers, dress frum or wear a cape at a college party to avoid getting hit on, turn down invitations for drinks with male colleagues, avoid eye contact with all men who have bad reputations. Won't that avert a whole host of minor indignities, even if it won't stop the very determined men? It may also be true that these precautions aren't really worth it, but if you think the indignities are crimes, then they should be worth it, shouldn't they?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Some would say - and count me among that "some" - that it's a problem that girls and women must constantly monitor our behavior and clothing choices and so forth so as to avoid unwanted attention. Some use the expression "rape culture" to describe this, and while it's not the term I find the most useful (precisely because it blurs important distinctions between rape and, say, ogling), I think there's something to the general idea here. Why should a woman need to cross the street because there's a construction site, or not wear a tank top if it's hot out, etc. I think there should be a way of discussing the overall strain the dual demands to look sexy and not look too sexy can amount to.

I can't say I've seen any posts from women who claim to have just realized they were assaulted, when previously they thought they'd been putting up with awkwardness. What I *have* seen is a collective realization that women put up with a lot of low-grade awfulness because 'that's how it is', but what if that weren't how it was?

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that's certainly the goal of this meme - to argue that women shouldn't have to monitor their behavior, and men should modify theirs. My objection is that when you ramp every negative interaction up to assault, you create a contradiction: if men's actions towards women are that damaging and traumatic, then, while it's good to encourage men to behave better, it's more urgently imperative for women to avoid becoming victims, so modifying our behavior is self-protective common sense. Changing men's behavior may be a long-term goal, but avoiding victimization yourself is top priority.

A parallel: while we would all like to reduce violent crime, we do not walk around dangerous neighborhoods alone at night in order to make a public point that, in a better world, a decent person shouldn't have to avoid walking down a street. We prioritize our safety over asserting our liberty, even though we do have this liberty and our grievance against violent crime is perfectly legitimate.

If the primary risk in interactions with men were assault, and not annoyance, insult, discomfort, then a reasonable person would take measures to protect herself, even if she resented having to do so, just as I resented not being able to walk freely in cities at night. That we don't (at least, I don't) take the same kinds of precautions around men even while knowing that they pose risks suggests that we do not perceive the risks of everyday harassment to be as serious as assault. (I’m actually not sure I’d even call everyday unpleasant behavior harassment for the same reason that I wouldn’t rhetorically heighten the urgency of harassment by conflating it with assault.) Now, I think it’s pretty reasonable to assess these risks as low and dress and behave in ways that might provoke men. But we can't have it both ways: we can't imply that all negative interactions are as traumatic as rape while refusing to take any measures to protect ourselves and instead waiting around for men to have a collective change of heart and stop raping us. That’s either martyrdom or insanity.

I think the meme has generated precisely this contradiction by refusing to delimit what kind of male offenses “count.” Women participating are understood to be confessing a dark and painful secret, on the level of rape or childhood abuse, not saying, “Yeah, I was also repeatedly called fat by guys in high school gym” or “My boss used to tell me which dresses he thought looked hot on me.” And some of the participants ARE disclosing serious crimes, but unless they specify, we really can’t know, and the point of this meme is precisely to include everything and NOT to specify.

Evidently the men responding have understood it this way as well, since responses have all been, “I had no idea this was such a pervasive problem but I am listening and I believe you and how can I support you,” etc. That response doesn’t make much sense if women are understood to be reporting “low grade awfulness,” since everyone knows that sex-based meanness is a thing. What man can honestly say he’s never objectified a woman in even lighthearted ways? And if all that’s in question is whether you were bullied in school, there isn’t much reason for anyone to disbelieve such claims, nor is much current “support” necessary. So the implication, I think, is that men (and many women of course) are understanding the confessions of me too as confessions of traumatic situations, not mundane sexism. That’s what makes reasonable the demand to modify behavior. After all, if it’s really that bad out there, shouldn’t you be covering up, even if it’s just in case?

Miss Self-Important said...

So the stronger argument still is to distinguish between degrees of severity. Rape is not harassment or low-grade awfulness. Two of these things are legally actionable, with different legal consequences. One is socially unpleasant. Importantly, by distinguishing, you can still advocate against low-grade awfulness without undermining the seriousness of rape. And you can more reasonably defend your right to behave and dress as you wish when you specify that the real danger of a short skirt is not rape but catcalls, so wearing a longer one won’t prevent rape and there is no reason to be rude over a short one. This unhelpful conflation is, I agree with you, a problem with the rhetoric of “rape culture” as well. I just think it extends to the meme. Taken to their logical conclusion, both these conflations mean either we punish any sex-based insult as though it were rape, or we stop worrying about rape at all b/c it’s just an advanced version of a construction worker yelling, “Hey, babe!” The advocates of the rape culture paradigm are betting that we can never become inured to the gravity of rape, so there is no danger in expanding our definition of it. But I very much doubt that’s true.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I think the missing piece here is, the behavior modifications you're talking about (longer skirts, say) produce an imposition on women, *without much impacting the truly scary stuff.* As in: harassment, assault, domestic violence, these happen in all sorts of situations where people know one another, where they see one another regularly, and where a woman's physical self-presentation (or beauty/plainness) is pretty much irrelevant. So I don't see this about anyone trying to have it both ways.

But I do think there's a problem with the vagueness of both "rape culture" as a term and the me-too hashtag. Not quite the same problem you're seeing with it, though, but maybe some overlap? Basically: I don't think the lesser issues are non-issues. They are important, and it is meaningful to talk about obstacles women face that men do not. Women do sometimes need permission to believe... not that catcalling (or being told at a conference by a male prof that you have "blossomed"...) is in fact assault, but rather, that it does in fact count as an obstacle.

The problem with me-too and its vagueness, then, is that rather than alerting all to a *system* where women face obstacles of (tremendously) varying degrees of severity, it looks as if women have en masse announced that every last one of us has been a victim of either rape or sustained workplace sexual harassment. But the vagueness is only part of it. It's also - and this has (of course) come up on Twitter - that it's *so much easier* to speak out publicly about relatively minor or long-past instances. So some of the women complaining about relative trivialities - or not saying anything - have indeed been the victims of things everyone would agree would count, but just aren't announcing this. (Why not? Because the man in question is still their boss, or is a vengeful ex-boyfriend, etc.)

In a sense there's no answer here - the assumption of a universal me-too ends up placing some women in a victim category who don't belong there. But it also doesn't work to assume *only* women using a particular hashtag are dealing with the issue in question, and that those who fail to signal properly (and publicly) online are just blithely oblivious to what other women have to deal with.

Miss Self-Important said...

"I think the missing piece here is, the behavior modifications you're talking about (longer skirts, say) produce an imposition on women, *without much impacting the truly scary stuff.*"
Right, this is what I was trying to suggest earlier by saying some kinds of harassment are preventable, some not, and the kind that behavior modifications successfully prevent is probably low-grade, like: not going out to drinks with male coworkers = not getting drunken proposition from one while leaving bar. Is the possibility of drunken proposition worth avoiding all after-work socializing? Probably not. But if women appear to be claiming that the drunken proposition is not just insulting and uncomfortable but an experience resulting in years of shame and trauma, it will make more sense for men to expect women to take such self-protective measures as not going to drinks with male coworkers. If, however, we maintain that the drunken proposition is wrong but far short of traumatizing, it makes less sense to expect or demand that women will take extreme evasive measures to avoid it, and more sense to expect or demand that men stop behaving poorly (but not criminally). Does that make sense?

I do see how appealing to trauma makes the male bad behavior seem so much more serious than saying, your drunken proposition was gross and offensive but I'm personally just fine after it, which is much closer to the truth. And of course it's hard to viscerally illustrate the downstream social effects of pervasive but minor bad behavior. I suspect that's why this visceral, trauma-elevating approach has become popular. But I also think the temptation to add urgency to the cause by adding the false impression of trauma is ultimately going to be self-defeating.

About the lack of immediacy of the complaints, my first reaction to the meme was actually that the next one should be #nameandshame. What a public shaming melee that would incite! It might event take us all the way to civil war. There's certainly enough social media mob energy post-Weinstein to go after other individual offenders, even if they're obscure. A really committed troll would try it...

Miss Self-Important said...

Though for obvious reasons this is not what I'm arguing for, there is this: http://forward.com/opinion/385424/no-modesty-wont-protect-you-from-the-harvey-weinsteins-but-this-might/.

Miss Self-Important said...

And, about women recounting harassment that is no longer salient vs. being silent about harassment recently or currently happening which might jeopardize their careers, this: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-10-18/scandals-like-weinstein-s-won-t-end-sexual-harassment.