I wouldn’t say Mayim Bialik is my hero like, say, Alex Honnold is my hero. But I admire her tremendously. She is unabashedly herself in an industry that pushes an alarming degree of conformity. She’s ballsy. Vegan. Openly religious. And you know she must have cringed when she learned how Amy Farrah Fowler’s story was going to end on The Big Bang Theory.
Because, if you watched you know, Amy’s happy ending was to get a makeover. After she won a Nobel Prize. Let’s say that again. Amy wins a Nobel Prize. Then she sees pictures of herself. Says to Raj, “Am I really that frumpy?” And to relieve her tears, Raj suggests a makeover. So she gets a haircut, red lipstick and new clothes. Cue happy ending.
I don’t know exactly where to begin here, so I am going to start with a picture of a sign that’s posted in the bouldering gym I started going to, after watching Alex Honnold scale El Capitan inspired me to Finally. Try. Climbing. This sign is posted in the inner doors of one of the changerooms. Likely it’s posted in both, but I only ever go into one.
Maybe That Isn’t Scary For You, But It’s Scary For Me
For anyone who’s never tried climbing, it might be helpful to know that it’s a scary thing. In bouldering gyms, there are no ropes. The flipside is that the walls are comparatively low. The ones I go to — a network of three under the same brand — have walls that range from maybe 10 to 18 feet, and most are about 15. If you successfully complete (“send”) a route (“problem”), you usually end up at the top, meaning you have to either jump or climb down. Most people down climb, but some sail down off the top, which is why they always caution you to look overhead when you’re walking past a wall.
The upshot is that you can be in a very vulnerable place. Bouldering is not like going to other gyms. There’s a whole lot going on at once. You’ve got to analyze the route, figure out the sequence, physically try it, probably jump or fall off, rest, look at it again, try it again. If the gym is busy, you may be competing for space in front of the same section of wall. It’s easy to be intimidated (at first) by the more experienced climbers who sail up the routes and collapse on the mats to chat with their friends. When you’re new, it can feel cliquey and exclusive.
Even now, a few months in, I give myself the same speech inside my head as I approach the wall. “It’s just you, just you, take it slow, stay here, on this route, keep your mind here.” And I do. When I leave the gym I either feel a blissful load of brain chemicals — dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, I really don’t know which — that make me stable and at peace with the world. Or I feel mentally relaxed, like I’ve had a successful meditation session that — to be honest — is better than meditation. Usually the chemicals come after I’ve successfully made it (partway) up the wall. The mental relaxation comes from thinking about the routes, and wondering if it’s just me or are they not designed for someone 5’2.
But the good feeling doesn’t take away the vulnerability. Tonight, during a late evening session at what I think of as the Zen location of the bouldering gym (this one is often very quiet and nestled near a forest) I was working an easy 1 Hex route. I’d worked the problem before and learned I could get up higher by ignoring one of the lowest footholds. But about 2/3 of the way up I found I had a block of some kind. Just scared, I thought. Whatever, get down, try it again. And then I realized I was scared because the problem was doable. I could finish it, get to the top, and be higher on a wall than I’ve ever been before. My fear was not falling off, exactly, but getting up to the highest point and then having to make my way back down. Eighteen feet may not sound like much, but once I realized that’s what was going on, I couldn’t look at the problem again. It was a kind of oh fuck sort of moment.
The World is Made of Spaces That Make You Feel Vulnerable
So imagine me, or imagine whom you think me to be, in that gym, pressing chalk into her hands over and over again, analyzing the callouses on her palms, trying to figure out what to do next. Then remember I am in a safe space, a quiet, Zen-like gym where you have the gift of being able to just sit with a problem. It’s a gym that has that sign in the changerooms, as an overt indication that this is a safe space for all genders, but even more so, all people. This sign says, explicitly, it does not matter what you look like.
Of course, I’m taking it slightly out of context. But like most things having to do with gender, identity, inclusion and respect, what you don’t say is almost as important as what you do. The environment you create is often set up by just a few key flag poles. One may fly a pride flag — as this gym had on display tonight, for the first time I’ve seen. It may hire the right people who say whomever you are, and however you come here, you are welcome. And safe.
Because often in the world many of us, perhaps all of us at one time or another, are at risk for harm. And we are saved by each other. We don’t need a social norm to intrude on what makes us feel safe. If social norms make us feel unsafe, perhaps they shouldn’t be social norms. And we don’t need a massively popular television show, in 2019, or at any time, reinforcing a gender norm that can make some feel unsafe.
‘Big Bang’ Always Did Amy a Disservice, and In So Doing Sidelined All Women Who Fall Outside The Beauty Ideal
Why, oh why, did Amy have to feel pretty? What exactly are we supposed to make of that conversation with Raj, where she — I don’t know, has a “realization” that she’s not what some people consider a beauty ideal? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not only enormously offensive, but it’s just plain stupid. It’s stupid. Who writes this shit?
But this isn’t the first time The Big Bang Theory has shown Amy disrespect and unkindness. (There’s another word I’m looking for, but it’s fallen out of my brain. What I’m trying to say is that they could have elevated the character of Amy. They could have made her powerful and self-assured while still staying true to herself. Instead, they decided to write her as a woman who despite winning a Nobel Fucking Prize still only saw beauty — aka attractiveness to men, her potential for sexual prowess — as the only thing that mattered.) In one recent episode, Sheldon wanted Amy to spend more time on his project. So he went to the university’s president and got her lab reassigned. She’s fuming mad, of course. But later in the episode, she says she’s not mad because Sheldon got years of work taken away from her, but instead because she feared she was “losing herself in the relationship.” I’m sorry — what?
At this point you could say that The Big Bang Theory just always did a shitty job writing women and people of colour. One could ask Jim Parsons if he was ever conflicted about benefitting so handsomely from a sitcom that relied on stale gay panic jokes and thinly-veiled homophobia. I mean, Big Bang is just a terrible show. It really is. Sometimes it’s funny, but really, it’s a piece of shit.
Thankfully, it’s gone now. Mayim, stand tall. Honnold, you are my hero because you taught me about moving slowly and working through fear. Taking a course in a few days on the Fundamentals of Climbing, though, because god knows I could use some technique. I’ll be vulnerable, again, but in a safe space.
[n.b. This. The most bad-ass Honnold climbing video ever.]