An Open Letter to Mayim Bialik
Dear Ms. Bialik,
With a handful of IMBD credits on small productions to my name, I am no one and you’ve never heard of me. My voice carries less weight and my platform is not as high, but I wanted to reach out, for what it’s worth.
Because I’ve heard of you. With starry eyes and a hopeful heart, I watched you on Blossom, and it made me feel like maybe I, too, could realize my dream of acting in movies and on TV. You showed me that it was possible for a “less than perfect” looking girl to be successful, recognized, and valued. It meant a lot to a chubby kid with crooked teeth and asymmetrical features; so much so that I owned an embarrassing number of floppy hats decorated with giant flowers.
Which is why it’s so painful to tell you this: you are part of the problem. It isn’t that your choices are wrong, but rather your inability to see the choices of other women as valid and equally deserving of respect. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you meant by your op-ed in the Times. What matters is that you didn’t stop to think about what women like me would hear. And yes, I know “what kind of woman” I am.
I’m the kind of woman who is reprimanded for skirts that are too short in the workplace, as if that were more important than doing my job.
I’m the kind of woman who has been branded everything from Prude when I won’t give it up to Slut when I do, Difficult when I voice my opinions, and a Bad Influence when I encourage other women to openly embrace the full, beautiful complexity of their sexual selves, in any way they choose.
I’m the kind of woman who hears “no one wants to read that” about my creative work, because I write about women who love sex, unabashedly and without reprisal or retribution. And as you have so plainly illustrated, lots and lots of people are threatened by the power of an overtly sexual woman.
You may be wondering, What can this sex-obsessed harlot possibly be writing that in any way contributes to a meaningful life? Well, I am so glad you asked. I write about women who pursue passion with others and come to find it in themselves. I write about young women discovering their truth the first time they kiss another girl. I write about women who are beautiful, smart, and accomplished, because none of those things are mutually exclusive, and all of them deserve to be celebrated.
What you will likely judge the most, however, is that I also write feminist erotic fiction. Feminist, in this usage, does not equal having a doctorate or dressing modestly. My feminism centers on fierce, unbridled female sexuality without shame or apology. And also wearing whatever the f*ck we want. Like you, I am “a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer…” (Although it should be noted that physical exercise is beneficial for every human, not just the beautiful, sexy ones.) I also do not look like a typical starlet, and I never have.
Unlike you, however, I have been harassed, groped, and propositioned on numerous occasions, both inside and outside of Hollywood.
With the rash of spotlights being shone on sexual predators, so many people are sharing their stories of assault, harassment, and abuse – men and women alike. I’ve never shared my stories publicly, but like countless others inspired by your perfunctory opinion piece, I’ve decided to share my stories with you.
I’ve been molested three times. Once by a stranger, who put his hand under my shirt, groping my breasts. Twice by people I considered friends, who put their hands down my pants and between my legs. All three times, I woke up to these things happening to me. I was asleep. The stranger stumbled into my tent at a music festival. One friend climbed into bed with me at a house party, in a back room where I’d gone to lie down. The other friend took liberties after I’d spent part of our evening telling him about the other instances I’ve just disclosed to you.
Obviously, sadly, this point needs to be made again and again: I was not flirting. I was not dressed in scandalous clothing. I did not ask for it. I was asleep.
Inside Hollywood, I worked on an indie film with some well-known stars. I was on set as both a PA and a stand in for the lead actress. The DP made several untoward comments about my attractiveness while lighting scenes, and I just ignored him. I wanted to keep my job, and saying anything at all felt like a risk. At the wrap party, he cornered me and said, “We should go somewhere. Let’s go somewhere and fuck.” I wasn’t in his hotel room. I wasn’t asking anyone to help advance my career. I was a 22-year-old woman who wanted to make movies, thrilled to have one of her first real jobs on set. Tragically, my priority in this moment was to avoid getting blacklisted from working on other sets. I didn’t want to offend this highly offensive man, because his was in the position of power. Instead of kneeing him in the balls, I gently reminded him he was married, to which he replied, “So what?” and moved to put his hands on me. By some miracle, I managed to slip away, find a trusted male grip who walked me to my car, and left.
As you said, women should be able to wear what we want, flirt how we want, and be as sexual as we want, without fear of what liberties people will take because of ‘our behavior.’ We should also be able to do all of those things, and pursue a career in the film and television industry – or any industry – without someone in a comfortable position of esteem and success telling us that any behavior outside of modest clothes, prim interactions with men, and private sexuality is naïve.
The proliferation of women telling women’s stories is absolutely a part of the change we so desperately need in both Hollywood and our society. Another part of that change is to champion every woman’s agency, over her work, her body, her life, and her sexuality. What we need to do for each other, as women, is to advocate for all of us to live as we choose. For you, Ms. Bialik, shopping at Talbot’s and embracing propriety are not oppressive. For me, they are. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my past experiences, I refuse to shrink. I refuse to make myself smaller, to mute my sensuality, style, or personhood to a size that will make other people comfortable.
So the next time you see a woman in a really short skirt tossing her hair while she talks to a man, I urge you to practice adjusting your attitude. It’s a simple phrase, easy to remember:
Good for her, not for me.
Only when we are all seen, heard, and valued for the full complexity of our beings – including our sexual expression – will women truly be treated as equals in our society. Equally respected, equally worthy, and equally free.
Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin
Writer, Actor, Shameless Hussy