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Modesty and Mayim Bialik

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

“I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise,” writes Mayim Bialik in her October 13, 2017 op-ed in The New York Times. “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 have wanted to approach the subject of modesty for some time, and the controversy of Mayim Bialik’s writing has given me the opportunity to address the question directly. Reflecting her own anxieties and insecurities, Bialik’s editorial speaks of her humiliation at the hands of colleagues and family as they offer criticism of her appearance, and her difficulty in navigating the conflicting expectations of “Hollywood” and her conservative family. Though her mother’s encouragement gives her the confidence to deny unwanted physical contact and speak up for herself, she also teaches Bialik to be dismissive of performative femininity, denying her daughter cosmetics and manicures, and thus teaching the impressionable teenager these things, and their performance, are wrong. She implies that she learned modesty from her family, and forwards the expectations of modesty in her reflections on the rampant abuse in Hollywood.

“Modesty” is a false attribute of respectability which encourages self-effacement, while punishing confidence and agency, aggressively enforcing a puritanical madonna/whore dichotomy. This dichotomy teaches a lack of respect for bodily agency, and directly contributes to the victim shaming still prevalent in modern rape culture, a charge of which Bialik is facing in the wake of her publication. Policing performativity, the value of “modesty” denies choice and self-expression by suggesting the natural body is lurid or shameful, and the displayed form is a static beacon for unchecked sexual abuse.

“Modesty” as a value judgment is a gendered term, applied differently dependent on one’s perceived gender presentation in a binary system. “Modest” as an adjective is most often used to evaluate a male-presenting person’s accomplishments and ego, positively reflecting achievement without bragging or bravado. It is admirable, the concept suggests, to work diligently to achieve greatness for the sake of the accomplishment itself, rather than the acclaim that may come from such work. When used to describe female-presenting individuals, the word most often indicates style of dress, reflecting a culturally-established lexicon of fashion: it means a woman who does not wear clothing that exposes her skin, nor styles that closely fit her shape. Necklines, hemlines, sleeves, cut, and even underwear all fall under the purview of “modesty,” and though the definition is not static, and shifts from community to community, the connotations of the term are consistent: “modest” is a word of positive connotation that signifies a hiding or covering, be that body or achievement. And the positive connotations of modesty and the negativity surrounding vanity are oppressive patriarchal constructions that teach women their sense of self-worth and bodily expressions of confidence must be externally attributed by the very institutions which seek to define and restrict the female form.

The discourse of and around Bialik’s article remind me of Jamaica Kincaid’s 1978 short story “Girl,” in which an unidentified narrator offers a stream of lessons and advice to the titular girl, fueled by aggressive anxiety: “this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming”. The “slut” is jarring when it is unexpected, compounded by the performative innocence of the girl, and may be read as cruel, or at least negatively critical. Yet the experience articulated by the advice suggests an awareness of the dangers of such a reputation, and a desire to protect the girl from the consequences of critical perception. It is a story of appearances and reputation.

Though the editorial frequently voices Bialik’s disappointment at “not being a ‘perfect 10,’” and her ongoing investment in her appearance, she offers what she calls an “upside”: “I have almost no experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms. Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.” Though she calls on women to not be naive, and follow her example of defensive modesty, her model of assault is narrow and, frankly, Hollywood: the problem here is that she is only considering the traditional performer assault narrative of ingenue and lecher- the one that is being represented in the news. But this is not the only narrative, and thus her response is narrow and cannot resonate with the greater population. She is condescending to those she believes are held in greater esteem in her business, those who "diet, get plastic surgery, or hire a personal trainer," and creates in them a strawman to counter her superior "feminist" identity. But feminists are assaulted. And feminists can diet, get plastic surgery, and train their bodies. This is not a one or the other. Her choices are right for her, but this correlation is erroneous, and damaging.

These remarks, and others, found in “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World,” draw ire from readers who criticize the actress for blaming victims of sexual assault in Hollywood, to which Bialik initially responds equally critically. The Washington Post[1] quotes the actress’ October 15 Twitter retort, in which she states “A bunch of people have taken my words out of the context of the Hollywood machine and twisted them to imply that God forbid I would blame a woman for her assault based on her clothing or behavior.”

It is not the decision to cover one’s body of which I am critical; rather, it is the connotations of the term used to describe this choice, and Bialik’s condescension of those who choose differently. The decision to cover or display one’s body should be a personal choice expressive of preferences, comfort, identity, and style, and not a culturally-militant regulation by secondary parties. Neither privacy nor display articulates permission in the absence of vocal consent; both offer value and opportunity to the individual establishing the evolving project of their self. A person’s choice to display their body does not devalue that individual; rather, it can be an argument of value in the face of decades of criticism and belittling and judgement from the lips of strangers, society, and loves ones alike – just as Bialik describes her adolescence. It can be an expression of joy in self, and an acceptance of an artistic vehicle through which arguments of identity can be made. It can be elation and confidence and personal fulfillment. Bialik’s forwarding of a “feminist” agenda that devalues performativity is toxic, and the glorification of “modesty” is not innocent in the discourse of rape culture.

[1] First accessed at 2:04pm on Wednesday, October 18, I read the Washington Post article then titled “Mayim Bialik responds to critics of her Harvey Weintein op-ed”; when reviewed twenty-four hours later the same article was titled “Mayim Bialik apologizes for Weinstein op-ed: ‘I am truly sorry for causing so much pain’” and includes apologies issued by the actress as of 3:23pm on October 18.

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