“I am so proud to exist among young women, even though their feminism doesn’t necessarily look like mine. It’s so important to be part of a larger movement.” If this doesn’t sum up International Women’s Day, I don’t know what does.
These are the words of Mayim Bialik – but you might know her best as the loveable awkward scientist Amy Farrah Fowler from the hit series, The Big Bang Theory.
She’s a qualified neuroscientist, a mother, an author, an activist, a podcast host and an actor who helped to inspire countless young girls into STEM. And now, she’s a director. Mayim is going from one stride to the next.
About to make her directorial debut with her first feature film, As They Made Us, Mayim talks us through her creative processes as well as the gender disparities rooted in the still male-weighted ‘showbiz’ world.
Sat in her podcast studio, cracking jokes in between questions with her all too familiar wit, Mayim opens up to The New Feminist about the realities of being a middle-aged woman in Hollywood, breaking into male-dominated spheres, and the harsh truths, as well as the beauty, of being a woman.
Q: We can’t start without talking about your upcoming directorial debut As They Made us. How are you feeling for it and what inspired you to transition into directing?
A: “I’m feeling terrified and excited, which seems like the right combination of emotions.
“I actually wrote the screenplay and directed it. My father died seven years ago, and there’s a year of mourning for traditional Jews. After that period, which is very intense, emotional and complicated, I had this desire to start putting down images, memories, things, and literally ended up writing a screenplay.
“I say that it’s based on my childhood, but it’s based on a lot of people’s childhoods. I grew up in a home with mental illness on both sides of my family, going back many generations, and we didn’t talk about those things. Then I started thinking about directors. They were having me read people’s resumes and I just thought, gosh, to explain to someone what I’ve experienced emotionally and visually, that seems like a waste of communication. So I ended up directing it.”
Q: And, like you said, it’s directly inspired by your own life experiences. What was the creative process like putting down your life into film – was it quite therapeutic?
A: “It was emotional. But there are also things in this movie that never happened. What’s important to tell as a story is actually more interesting to me as a writer and director than recreating things that have happened. But yes, using the structure of a family or an experience, and then building a story around that, was cathartic. You can also make up things that you never had the courage to say, you can have reactions that you wish you would have had differently.”
Q: We’re very much inspired watching you become a director in what is still quite a heavily male dominated industry – what does it mean to you to have women directors like yourself breaking into the industry?
“I was raised and trained that feminism is the voice of equality for race, class and gender. I think of the feminist voice, especially academically speaking, as fighting for the rights of all people of whatever colour, socio-economic situation, gender or sexual identity. So, for me, as a female director – a female writer – my goal is not just to make a way for myself, but to be able to create a set that is diverse as it can be.”
Q: You’re not just a director, you’re a mother, a neuroscientist, producer, mental health activist, a podcast host and an author. How do you balance it all?
A: “I’m very clear about the fact that when I got my doctorate when I was working, that was my life. And sure I tutored on the side because I needed to make ends meet and, I did other things, but I ended up leaving academia to be an at home parent. So it’s not so much balance, it’s like a shifting.
“I was able to return to acting because my husband at the time and my now co parent was able to be with our children. It’s the constant shifting and juggling and reprioritizing. I don’t want to be like it takes a village because that sounds pretentious, but the notion of balancing is not something that I do alone.
“I have to go to therapy, or everything starts fraying. I go twice a week. There are weeks when I feel like I’d like to go every day. But for me, especially as a female person in this industry, and as a 46 year old female person in Hollywood where I already feel like I may as well be in the grave because of how out of my prime I am, it definitely takes a toll on mental health and so I have to prioritise that.”
Q: What inspired you to start these important conversations around mental health like on your podcast? Do you think it still needs to be talked about more in the States and beyond?
“Yes. I started my podcast Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, which is available on Spotify. We also film it so you can watch it on my YouTube channel. But my partner Jonathan Cohen and I started it during COVID Because we realised our mental health was suffering because of the fear of a global pandemic that we really knew very, very little about. If we with all these resources like therapy, books and access to all this support we were still struggling, think about people who don’t have access to those things. So we set out to talk very openly and honestly about our mental health challenges, many of which have not resolved. But we started this podcast to talk to people about what works for them and what doesn’t. Everybody has their own way of figuring it out. And we are really happy to be along for the ride.”
Q: You are a role model for so many young women in STEM. Do you remember what drew you to science when you were younger? And did you find it challenging at all entering a very male heavy field?
A: “I actually am a I’m a late bloomer to science, because I was told it was for boys and I was born in 1975 so being in school in the mid 80s and beyond, the boys said they were better at it and I believed them.
“I trembled when thinking about raising my hand, especially in a math and science class, and I did not think I had the smarts to do it – until I had a female tutor. It was the first time I had a female mentor who was young and passionate and just so excited about science. Then I fell in love with it. She gave me not only the skill set to be able to go to college and pursue a science and pre-med degree at that, but also the confidence to believe that even though I was a late bloomer, even though it may not come naturally to me, there’s still a lot I have to offer the world as a scientist.
“It it’s also been very instrumental in helping me understand my role in our society, in terms of sexuality, gender, cultural expectations; I got to do a lot of learning about diversity in terms of gender and sex long before it was being talked about publicly. Gender is a spectrum and, there are many aspects of gender that are social constructs completely. And then there are many things biologically that we are bound to which also change.”
Q: Playing Amy in The Big Bang Theory was one of the most prominent fictional female icons in science. How important would you say your portrayal of Amy was in opening the door for young women to get into STEM? Did you see an impact from playing her?
A: “I think the whole cast saw that we hit at a time in our culture where people really were receptive to not just like geek chic, but to actually give value to people who emphasise different things. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and I saw television shows with really attractive people; that was enough for me. Obviously, it taught me terrible things about being female and what’s expected of me and what’s acceptable. But we’re at a new place in our culture and for nine years when I was on the show I got to be part of that with this incredible cast. Melissa Rauch, who played Bernadette on Big Bang Theory also played a scientist. She played a microbiologist, who was much more traditionally feminine. Melissa and I represented two very different kinds of females portraying scientists, both who have fulfilling lives in their own ways.”
Q: How important would you say visibility is for women in directing and in STEM? Do we need to see kind of more women in male dominated to inspire younger generations?
A: “One of the main things is young girls or young women being able to see women doing things. But also honouring that there are differences, statistically speaking, between things that girls and boys are often interested in. And yes, some of those are cultural construct, and some of them often are not. So I wouldn’t want women engaging in any fields that they don’t want to. I don’t want men engaging in any field that they don’t want to. But the notion that all careers should be available to all people is important.”
Q: What advice would you give to any young girls out there who may be starting their careers but are a bit intimidated to enter male-centric fields?
A: “Seek out women in related fields to what you might be interested in. Mentorships are incredibly important. The God’s honest truth is that it is very, very difficult to be respected as a woman in many arenas of our society.”
Q: What one thing comes to mind that you think deserves more awareness or attention with regards to kind of women’s equality?
“The fact that there is any place where it is not safe to have access to legal and safe abortion is astounding to me. And that there is violence against women in certain countries in the world where women struggle as it is to exist as autonomous beings. When it really comes down to it, breaking the bonds of race, class and gender, and ensuring safety for people regardless of these intersections are to me the issues of feminism that we have a very long way to go with, and that’s devastating.”
Q: This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is breaking the bias. What biases do you think lie within the showbiz industry today that need to start being broken down?
A: “That’s its own thesis.
“Many of us are learning to shift pronouns. Those things really do matter. I think that the words we use around women and men are still very different in the industry, and in the world in general. We still have that old stereotype of men can be forceful and direct, but when women are literally forceful or indirect, they are given a whole different set of reactions. I’ve had things said to me as a grown woman that I don’t even think you’d say to a small male child, like ‘needing to get my emotions in order’ or, ‘do I need a timeout?’ I would also like for people to not assume that women who are being direct or honest are hormonal or on their period.”
Q: What is your favourite thing about being a woman if you could choose one?
A: “It’s difficult to answer because for me, being a parent has been an incredibly significant thing for me, but I also know that that’s not what makes me a woman. I also know that that’s not the choice for everyone.
“And this body, this sense of compassion and heart, is very, very special. It really was the academic practice of feminism that taught me that we have special abilities that can help us be advocates for people regardless of their race class or gender and their struggles.
“Many of us believe feminism has the possibility to transform our world, and I believe we do that, you know, one day at a time.”