Let me start by saying that I’m a fan. I think you’re a fine actress and a powerful activist for issues that I care strongly about – women’s lives, parenting, and Judaism, among others. I’ve been following your social media work (more than Big Bang Theory, to be honest), and I know that you have some important ideas to share with the world, and I deeply admire your courage, your intelligence and your willingness to use your platform to make a difference in the world. So please take my comments in that context.
As someone who has written hundreds of articles and three books on hot-button topics, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. But I also know that every once in a while, there are lessons in there. Not all pushback is vicious. Some of it helps us examine our own ideas and find where we can do better.
Like many other people, I read your New York Times editorial on Harvey Weinstein with great interest, which quickly turned to dismay. I wanted to learn more about your experiences with body commentary in Hollywood. But the way you conflated issues did not work.
It sounded like you were saying that since you were always so cruelly typecast as the “ugly” and therefore asexual one, that this somehow protected you from sexual assault. It sounded like you concluded that since you embraced that “ugly asexual geek” label, that you are outside this whole dynamic of sexual abuse.
I have a feeling, though, as someone who sometimes says things that come out wrong, that maybe you didn’t mean to say it that way. From your online response, I think I understood that you weren’t trying to say that women who dress a certain way deserve to be sexually assaulted. I think maybe you were trying to offer another angle on how sexual abuse works in Hollywood. Maybe you were trying to paint a different picture of the way women’s lives, careers and self-concept are so often molded by powerful men or dumb commentators with a following.
You did not say it in these words, but I would like to suggest that you are a victim of Hollywood’s sexual abuse problem, too.
You were a girl with an acting career who was told she was ugly. You were, I might add, a smart, talented, and very cute girl (I loved you in Blossom, by the way) whose face was nitpicked by every jo-shmo in the industry. And that left you with many scars. You still carry them with you. You still think that the only part you can safely play is ugly geek, even though you are still smart, talented and, by the way, beautiful.
That is also a story of sexual abuse, and it is one that we need to hear.
Many women and girls have every minutia of their appearance commented on, mocked, or gossiped about ad nauseum. I grew up with discussions about women’s and girls’ chins, ankles, stomachs, thighs, arms, waists, and skin as fodder for Shabbat table talk. In my school and my community, discussions about women’s knees, elbows and necks were rampant – not by the teenage boys, but by the teachers, rabbis, and disciplinarians. This was all considered normal. In so many places, it still it.
But let’s not take this as normal. Relentless commentary on girls’ and women’s bodies is also a form of sexual abuse. It may not be rape, and it may not even include body contact. But not all abuse is physical. Sexual abuse can be non-contact, too.
When a man (or woman!) comments on your body and your sexuality without your consent; forces you to see them naked when you don't want to; allows himself to see you naked without your permission; leers invasively; takes photos without permission; comments about your desires, your appearance, or your demeanor or your whole person; discusses your sexuality in front of your whole family or whole community or their whole Facebook page; walks in on you changing without permission (even if you are, say, in a dressing room of a Miss America pageant that he owns); secretly videotapes you in the bathroom or the mikvah; stalks you; catcalls you; mocks your body or your sexuality in front of others; makes sexual threats; suggests that you deserve to be raped; says you are too fat to be raped; or continues to invade your space and your privacy even after you say, again and again, back off – this is sexual abuse.
It is non-contact sexual abuse. It's a thing. And it leaves scars, sometimes really big ones, even if the attacker never physically touched you.
To be clear, modest dress is not a protection from this. In fact, it is the other side of the same coin. This is especially true in cases where women dress modestly because Men With Power tell them that they have to.
When people who have power over us tell us what to do with our bodies – whether movie directors, bosses, or rabbis – and they block our creative activities because of what *they* think we should be doing with our bodies, it is wrong, period.
I hope that we can use your story to have an important conversation about the other sides of sexual abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere, the aspects of abuse that are often less understood because we are often told that “nothing happened.” Even when Barry Freundel was sent to prison for video voyeurism, for example, some people still said, “Why so harsh? Nothing happened to the victims. It wasn’t as if he raped anyone.” While it is true that it wasn't rape, this attitude dismisses the real emotional scars that are often left by non-contact sexual abuse.
This is a powerful subtext of your story. Years later, after a brilliant career and so many accomplishments, you are still hurt by the awful comments of a dumb reviewer telling you that you are the ugly one.
Hopefully in your next column, you can share with us how you forge a healing path, where you learn to see your own beauty and all-around brilliance with clarity and love.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org