The TV star has made a fortune promoting pseudoscience and making parents miserable — so does she deserve an even bigger platform?
In the wake of executive producer Mike Richards’ resignation as the new host of Jeopardy! after facing allegations of employment discrimination, the Jeopardy! powers that be decided to go with someone as interim host who seemed immune to cancellation: erstwhile Nineties fashion plate, longtime network TV sweetheart, and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik.
On the surface, Bialik did indeed seem like a safe choice. Having built up cultural goodwill from her time on shows like Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, Bialik has carved out a career as a professional personality and lifestyle influencer of sorts, penning books and op-eds about her veganism and views as an attachment parent, a philosophy that advocates for fostering closeness between mother and child. As many Jeopardy! fans have recently pointed out on social media, however, a closer look at the views publicly espoused by Bialik reveals that she has spent the past decade espousing toxic, false, and, in many cases, highly dangerous views about gender, sexuality, health, and science.
But it’s arguably her role as a parenting influencer — peddling medical misinformation and retrograde views to a vulnerable population of new parents — where she’s potentially done the most harm. Comments she made in a 2010 issue of Self, which surfaced recently on social media, underscore the toxicity of her beliefs. Bialik is a home birth advocate, and what she told writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner about c-sections is particularly worrisome: “There are those among us who believe that if the baby can’t survive a home labor, it is OK for it to pass peacefully. I do not subscribe to this, but I know that some feel that… if a baby cannot make it through birth, it is not favored evolutionarily.”
Many on social media were outraged by these comments, pointing out that they echoed hardcore fundamentalist beliefs about childbirth and motherhood and contained more than a few whiffs of eugenicist theory (indeed, there is substantial overlap between the roots of the “natural” childbirth movement in 19th century Britain and eugenicist theory).
Jeopardy! has yet to issue a statement on Bialik’s comments or her history of pushing misinformation, so it’s unclear if she will follow Richards out the door and be replaced by another host. But it’s worth revisiting the extent of the damage she’s done by promoting pseudoscience, misinformation, and anti-feminism to her millions of followers.
Much of the focus on Bialik has revolved around her previous statements criticizing vaccination, and indeed, her record doesn’t look good. In 2009, she told People magazine her family was a “non-vaccinating” one: “we based [our decision] on research and discussions with our pediatrician, and we’ve been happy with that decision,” she said in that interview.
In a blog post on the website Kveller, she also endorsed the work of Dr. Bob Sears, the son of attachment parenting guru William Sears (more on him later) who advocates for alternative vaccination schedules and opposes mandatory vaccination. At one point, he compared the “persecution” of parents who don’t vaccinate to that of Jews in Nazi Germany (he later apologized for the comparison).
In recent years, as her profile has grown, Bialik has backtracked on this view. Last year she released a video on YouTube saying that, while she would get a Covid-19 vaccine when it became available, she had not given her kids flu shots and had delayed vaccinating them, though she said they were indeed vaccinated: “as of today, my children may not have had every one of the vaccinations that your children have, but my children are vaccinated.” Bialik added that she felt children receive “way too many vaccines in this country” and that “the medical community often operate[s] from a place of fear in order to make money.”
Earlier this year, Bialik also gave an interview to Yahoo Life clarifying her position, saying: “It’s not, ‘I’m pro every single vaccine that anyone talks about all the time everywhere, every single minute.’ I have a lot of questions about the vaccine industry, as do a lot of people. I have a lot of questions about the profits involved. [But] when it comes to this virus, the insidiousness of this virus, the way this virus works, the way that it adapts, we absolutely need to see this as distinctly different from the flu.” (Bialik’s spokesperson told Vanity Fair she is “not at all an anti-vaxxer.”)
Despite her neuroscience background, Bialik appears to be particularly susceptible to medical and health-related conspiracy theories. In March 2021, she released a video with Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, who had previously produced The Business of Being Born, a documentary questioning the safety and efficacy of medical intervention in childbirth and advocating for home birth (without noting the increased risk of neonatal death associated with the practice). In 2020, Lake and Epstein started crowdfunding to produce a documentary film of Sweetening the Pill, a popular yet highly controversial book questioning the safety of hormonal contraception and accusing Big Pharma of luring women to take the pill to keep them in its thrall.
In the video, Bialik promotes the belief that hormonal birth control is related to higher rates of mental illness among women, including depression and anxiety. “It is a powerful drug with a lot of side effects and it is not a mood regulator…many women experience staggering depression, emotionalability, and something I’m concerned about is the stereotyping of women and their moods and even about PMS may actually be reflecting the hormonal manipulation of our systems,” Bialik said in the episode. Birth control in itself has not been found to cause depression, though certain forms of hormonal contraception have been linked to side effects such as weight gain and mood swings. “When you review the entirety of the literature and ask, ‘Do hormonal contraceptives cause depression?,’ the answer is definitely no,” said the author of a 2020 Northwestern study reviewing previous literature on the subject.
In 2018, Bialik came under fire for penning an op-ed for the New York Times that argued that the reason she successfully avoided being assaulted by predators like Weinstein was because she dressed modestly and did not “act flirtatiously with men.”
“In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in,” Bialik wrote in the guest opinion essay, which was excoriated on social media and accused of being misogynistic and victim-blaming. Though Bialik initially claimed her words were taken out of context, she later apologized for the op-ed, addressing her statement to victims: “You are never responsible for being assaulted… I am truly sorry for causing so much pain, and I hope you can all forgive me.”
The field of “nootropics,” those alleged brain performance-enhancing supplements, is a largely under-researched one. For this reason, most medical practitioners eschew taking the supplements, and they’re largely limited to sci-fi movies starring Bradley Cooper, men’s magazine backpage ads, and Alex Jones informercials. But that hasn’t stopped Bialik from jumping on the nootropics train by appearing in an ad for the supplement Neuriva in which she touts her credentials as a holder of a neuroscience degree. “Neuriva Plus is backed by strong science — yes, I checked it myself — and it combines two clinically tested ingredients that help support six key indicators of brain health,” she said in a press release announcing the partnership. A 2020 Psychology Today article disagreed, referring to Neuriva as “just another tasty snake oil.”
Bialik is perhaps the most visible advocate for attachment parenting, a philosophy pioneered by Dr. William Sears. Attachment parenting advocates for fostering closeness between parent and baby, in the form of such practices as exclusive breastfeeding; baby-wearing (meaning one carries the baby around in a sling, as opposed to pushing a stroller); co-sleeping (or sharing the same bed), a practice that is discouraged and considered high-risk by most pediatric health organizations; and home-schooling. In her 2012 book, Beyond the Sling, Bialik herself advocates for many of these practices, often while overhyping the benefits or negating their risks. In a 2011 op-ed in Today, for instance, she argues that bed-sharing is “actually really safe and really smart” and that “rolling onto a baby is an exaggerated fear that is not based on any research.” (The American Academy of Pediatrics, which warns against parents bed-sharing with their infants as it increases the risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, disagrees.)
It’s important to note here that attachment parenting is not inherently harmful, and many of the practices advocated by Sears and its proponents — such as exclusive breastfeeding having salutary health effects for both mother and baby — are rooted in extensive research. But it is controversial, in large part, because it’s difficult to talk about attachment parenting without acknowledging the role it has played in creating a climate of intensive, competitive parenting, in which any parent who falls short of the lofty standards set forth by the philosophy feels inferior. It’s also difficult to discuss attachment parenting without acknowledging its anti-feminist roots: Sears has historically downplayed the role of men in childrearing, and as recently as 1997 he publicly advocated for women to avoid holding full-time jobs until their children are grown.
Bialik has spent a good part of her career defending attachment parenting and preempting criticism that it is inherently anti-feminist, despite the fact that the tenets of attachment parenting essentially dictate that women subsume their emotional lives to the well-being of their babies. Instead, she has framed attachment parenting as a tool of empowerment for mothers by allowing them to make choices outside of institutional frameworks, and has made a decent living off selling that message to an audience of vulnerable, anxious new parents. “We have empowered ourselves and refuse to endure a male-centered obstetric history that has taken women’s bodies and molded them to their preferences for their convenience, their comfort and for their world view,” she wrote in a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times. “Now tell me how attachment parenting is inconsistent with feminism?”
But in considering Bialik’s endorsement of attachment parenting and its associated principles (some of which are not evidence-based) in the context of her other beliefs, a clear pattern emerges: despite her UCLA credentials and her high-gloss patina of TV stardom, Bialik is simply a woman who’s made a lot of money talking very loudly about things she doesn’t know much about. And in the context of a show like Jeopardy! — which ostensibly relies on a solid grasp of trivia and facts to a mainstream audience — perhaps she’s not the best choice to be a trusted host in millions of living rooms and beyond.
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