The Sacred is All Around Us

One way you know that you are on-to something useful and significant is that you see it pop up all over the place.  You'll be minding your own business, doing whatever it is you do normally, and all of the sudden something will happen and you will think "wow, that's yet another example of The Thing, popping up in an unexpected place."  That's been my experience with the ideas of Rene Girard.  Every few months or so, something will come up in popular culture that is controversial or ambiguous, and my first thought is "oh, that's an example of scapegoating," or "I know exactly what Girard would say about this."

That was exactly the experience I had this weekend reading a New York Times op-ed piece by Mayim Bialik, which is a perfect example of the Girardian concept of "The Sacred."  Bialik is an actress who came into prominence as the star of the 90s TV show Blossom.  As she states in the piece, she left acting after Blossom to obtain a Ph.D. in neuroscience, before returning to acting on the show The Big Bang Theory, which is currently one of the longest-running and most watched shows on network television here in the U.S.  This is not especially relevant, but in the interests of full disclosure, I do not believe I have seen a single moment of either show, and so I have no preconceived notions of Dr. Bialik as an actor.

To be honest, Dr. Bialik's piece is a little all over the map, but her basic point is that the fact that she is not the stereotypical Hollywood bombshell, and doesn't seek to be, has protected her from the predations of people like Harvey Weinstein.

And yet I have also experienced the upside of not being a “perfect ten.” As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal 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.

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.

In other words, as framed by Dr. Bialik, the reason she has not been victimized by Harvey Weinstein or Harvey Weinstein-esque people ("I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms") is (1) she is not attractive ("I have also experienced the upside of not being a 'perfect ten'"); and (2) she does not try to become more attractive ("as a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery, or hire a personal trainer") and/or act provocatively or "sexy" ("I dress modestly.  I don't act flirtatiously with men as a policy.")  By implication, if you fit one or more of these categories--if you are a "perfect ten" and/or you seek to be so and/or you dress and act in a sexual manner--you are at risk for being preyed on by folks like Weinstein.

That implication--that attractive or sexy people did something to cause themselves to be preyed on--caused a tidal wave of negative feedback.  That criticism is fair, but there is a deeper point to be made here.  By believing that her lack of attractiveness (at least in a relative sense) and her lack of a public "sexy" persona is the thing that has kept her from being preyed upon, Dr. Bialik has invested the concepts of attractiveness and sexiness with enormous power.  A few stomach crunches or a little make-up or a shorter dress is the difference between being assaulted and not being assaulted.  We are given no explanation for why this is case, why these traits have such dread power.  But we are told that they have such power.

Dr. Bialik provides us a narrative for why the victims were chosen to be the victims.  There are rules to this process, a clear and predictable chain of cause and effect.  Dr. Bialik doesn't defend these rules, she doesn't believe them to be fair.  It's not that she thinks that women who are attractive or sexy should be assaulted.  But she clearly believes that being attractive and/or sexy will cause you to be assaulted.  That's just how things are.  We may not like that attractiveness or sexiness has such dread power, but it does, and (says Dr. Bialik) we must all reckon with this reality.

Notice, also, why Dr. Bialik would be so quick to advance this narrative.  If she is right, if attractiveness and sexiness have the dread powers she says they do, then at the end of the day she can rest secure.  A universe that operates according to her master narrative is one in which she doesn't have to worry about being assaulted.  Because the world is predictable, because there are rules to how things come to pass.  If the world is predictable, if our master narratives are true, then we have control.  And we always want to have control.

It is these master narratives of why victims were chosen to be victims that collectively form what Girard calls The Sacred.  In Dr. Bialik's version of The Sacred, we see two core properties of all such narratives.  First, it invests some person or attribute with outsized, even divine, power.  Attractiveness  and sexiness are so important, so powerful, so terrible, that it would cause someone who wouldn't otherwise be assaulted to get assaulted.  Victims become victims because of some divine characteristic that they possess or don't possess, and there is nothing that we can do to change that.  The virgin must always be chained to rock for the dragon to take; the person who draws the black mark in The Lottery must be stoned; the attractive and sexy aspiring actress must be grist for the mill of the Weinsteins of the world.  It's just the way it is.

Second, The Sacred provides a sense of protection from the world.  If we are not the virgin that must be sacrificed, if we are not the one who drew the black mark, if we are not that attractive or sexy, then we are safe.  We participate in The Sacred because The Sacred protects us, or at least purports to protect us.  The Sacred gives us a sense of control, and because we like control, we like The Sacred and we advance the narrative of the Sacred.  Which means, necessarily, that whoever ends up being the victim under our particular version of The Sacred at least tacitly deserves it.  After all, they should know that This Is The Way It Is.

All of this, Girard insists, is bullshit.  The selection of the victim is always, always, essentially and ultimately arbitrary.  Weinstein didn't assault women because they were attractive or sexy; Weinstein assaulted women because they happened to be there.  Nothing about Dr. Bialik's chin or nose or clothes would have made any difference if circumstances had happened to put her in Weinstein's path.  And even if those traits are used as a metric in the moment, those traits are ultimately just as arbitrary as anything else.  There is no inherent power to being attractive or sexy.  Attractiveness and sexiness have power because we attribute power to those things, and few attribute more power to them than Dr. Bialik does.  She has convinced herself that they are so powerful that they decide who will be assaulted and who will not be assaulted.  They have become, for her, the Boogey Man.

I say this not to demean Dr. Bialik, but to show how powerful The Sacred is, and how desperately we want the universe to operate according to rules that we can control.  The notion that victims are selected arbitrarily means that we could be selected arbitrarily, at any time.  Our existential dread of being the next one to draw the black mark causes us to go to enormous lengths to armor ourselves against that possibility.  Lengths that often, if you step back from them, look an awful lot like superstition (If I told you that wearing red causes bad luck, you would think I'm crazy.  But how different is that, ultimately, from the idea that wearing a short dress will get a woman assaulted?)  But we do it because we want that sense of control.  It is very, very hard to accept the idea that victims are arbitrarily selected, so will fill that conceptual space with master narratives that explain what you must do to avoid the Boogey Man.

It is not enough to simply say that "Harvey Weinstein's victims aren't at fault for being assaulted"; Dr. Bialik likely doesn't believe that the victims are morally responsible for being assaulted.  We have to go deeper, into that Girardian space, and challenge the just-so stories that provide us with a clean and self-serving narrative as to why those women were assaulted.  The false why, the self-justifying why--that's the heart of the problem. 

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