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Breaking Down the Mayim Bialik Backlash

I'll take controversy for 200.

Mayim Bialik guest hosting Jeopardy!

Following the death of pop culture legend/national treasure Alex Trebek, the internet was consumed with trying to predict who would fill his highly regarded shoes as the host of NBC’s long-running trivia show, Jeopardy!. After an interim period in which all sorts of celebrities—from Anderson Cooper to LeVar Burton—hosted, producers landed on Blossom and The Big Bang Theory alum Mayim Bialik as the permanent host (alongside Ken Jennings) for the syndicated series.

While many were excited to see a woman at the helm of Jeopardy! (and one with a legitimate background in neuroscience, no less), it didn’t take much time for rumblings to emerge online about some controversial comments Bialik has made in the past. Though the scope of controversy was nowhere near comparable to the scandal surrounding Mike Richards (whom Bialik and Jennings were chosen to replace), the sizable pushback to an otherwise beloved actress and neuroscientist left many wondering why Mayim Bialik was catching so much heat online.

Mayim Bialik’s controversial stance on vaccines

One key element to keep in mind is that Bialik began her duties as Jeopardy! host in 2021, barely a year after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and sparked an ongoing international debate about the merits and ethics of vaccination. It was around this time that clips began to circulate online featuring a segment from Bialik’s book, Beyond the Sling, in which she revealed her stance on vaccinations. Bialik wrote that she and her partner “made an informed decision not to vaccinate our children, but,” she added, “this is a very personal decision that should be made only after sufficient research, which today is within reach of every parent who seeks to learn about their child’s health regardless of their medical knowledge or educational status.”

Though it’s certainly not the most inflammatory statement made regarding vaccines, Bialik’s decision not to vaccinate her children drew criticism from many, especially considering the widespread push for Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Fans were also surprised at Bialik’s skepticism of vaccines considering her scientific background; many assumed that an actress with a doctorate in neuroscience would be an advocate for vaccines, not an opponent.

Her new position

Following the backlash to her comments, though, Bialik clarified her current stance on vaccines, emphasizing that her children have been vaccinated for COVID-19, telling Yahoo: “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.”

Her stance on vaccines wasn’t the only comment of Bialik’s to resurface after she got the Jeopardy! gig, however. Scrutiny of the host intensified in the wake of Richards’ ousting for inflammatory comments about women, disabled people, and Jewish people. Though initially Bialik’s casting was received as a progressive response to Richards’ bigoted comments, some began to point out that Bialik herself has also made some questionable comments about women—particularly with regard to Harvey Weinstein’s victims.

Her troubling take on the Weinstein allegations

In an op-ed for the New York Times in 2017, Bialik wrote: “I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy … 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.”

Some critics felt that Bialik’s comments placed blame on Weinstein’s victims as opposed to Weinstein himself—so much so that she later took to social media to issue an apology:

Her time on Jeopardy!

Bialik has also received some (relatively tame) backlash from Jeopardy! fans for decisions she’s made during her time hosting the show. In a February 2022 episode, Bialik called the first round of the game “Single Jeopardy!” instead of “Jeopardy!”—a clear reference to the “Double Jeopardy!” round. Viewers were unhappy with this seeming flub, and while speaking with Yahoo, Bialik acknowledged that it’s because the fans “care a lot.”

She went on to explain that it wasn’t a mistake: “If it wasn’t right, [the producers] would’ve had me redo it. I barely act alone … there’s so many things that we re-tape. If it was literally not kosher there’s a million producers, writers and researchers and they’re all listening to me.” Bialik also pointed out that the late Alex Trebek occasionally referred to the first round as “Single Jeopardy!”

More recently, during a February 2023 High School Reunion Tournament episode, viewers criticized Bialik for accepting what they felt was an incorrect answer. In the “National Anthems” category, the following clue was given: “Heard here is this British national anthem that has the same melody as ‘My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee.'” Contestant Audrey answered with “What is ‘God Save the Queen’?”, which Bialik accepted as correct. But some viewers felt as though the answer should’ve been rejected given that Queen Elizabeth II died in 2022 and Britain is now ruled by King Charles III.

Given that this debate was surrounded on all sides by viewers on social media complaining about Bialik hosting and wishing that Ken Jennings would hurry up and return from hiatus, it sounds like less of a semantics thing and more of a bad faith argument with a smattering of misogyny.

(featured image: NBC)

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Lauren Coates is a Chicago-based film & television critic and freelance journalist who works as a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. You can find her on Twitter @laurenjcoates and read more of her work on Culturess.