On #Shirtstorm and Completely Missing the Point

On #Shirtstorm and Completely Missing the Point November 21, 2014

So I said I wasn’t going to write about this, but I am. While googling to find a link to use in a previous post, I found article after article defending Matt Taylor’s shirt and completely missing the point. So here I am, blogging about it.

First, a quick word of introduction for those not in the know. On Wednesday November 12th, the European Space Agency landed a spacecraft on a comet. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and involved a great deal of time and effort. In the hours before the landing, Nature Newsteam interviewed some of the scientists involved. One was Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor, who wore, as Verve reported, a “a bowling shirt covered in scantily clad caricatures of sexy women in provocative poses.”

This tweet pretty much sums up the reaction to Taylor’s shirt:

To me, this all seemed pretty open and shut. I’ve been following the problems faced by women entering STEM field careers for a long time. (I’ve also followed the entire GamerGate phenomenon, which is in some way related.) The bottom line is that men have staked out this territory as theirs for decades, and the culture they’ve created in these spaces is too often unfriendly to women, whether intentionally or not. This unfriendliness often comes in the form of the sexual objectification of women—treating women as sex objects or sex dispensers rather than relating to them as people. Shirts like the Taylor’s contribute to that environment.

Taylor later apologized for wearing the shirt during the interview, stating that “I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I’m very sorry about this.” Now here’s the thing: I don’t think Matt Taylor is a horrible person. His choice to wear that shirt for that interview almost certainly involved no malice toward women—but it didn’t have to. This is an example of what is often called “casual sexism,” and it doesn’t have to involve any sort of malicious intent or ill will. 

Most of the response to Taylor’s shirt that I saw had more to do with using the occasion as a moment to educate than it did with vilifying Taylor. When women in STEM fields—or women in gaming—say that there is a problem, they are frequently not believed. This moment placed the casual (and sometimes not so casual) sexism these women experience every day out in the open where everyone could see it. This provided an opening to talk, once again, about the problem.

But what I thought was pretty open and shut went over many people’s heads. For example, there is this on the Telegraph:

As for the design of the garment, I have studied it as closely as the photos will allow, and I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I suppose there are women with long flowing hair and a certain amount of décolletage. But let’s not mince our words: there are no nipples; there are no buttocks; there is not even an exposed midriff, as far as I can see.

It’s the hypocrisy of it all that irritates me. Here is Kim Kardashian – a heroine and idol to some members of my family – deciding to bust out all over the place, and good for her. No one seeks to engulf her in a tweetstorm of rage. But why is she held to be noble and pure, while Dr Taylor is attacked for being vulgar and tasteless?

And then there was this one, from USA Today:

So how are things going for feminism? Well, last week, some feminists took one of the great achievements of human history — landing a probe from Earth on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away — and made it all about the clothes.

And this in the LA Times:

Eventually #Shirtstorm will die down, like other storms. But meanwhile I have this observation: Taylor’s shirt really was in bad taste. But not because he’s some sort of sexist pigdog,” as one critic called him. It’s because he falls into a recognizable human category: Science Nerd.

These sorts of responses make me want to bang my head into the wall. And I could have included more! I ventured onto twitter and was equally surprised by how many people were completely missing the point.

You know, for people who claim to be oh so rational, I’m really not seeing it.

This isn’t about being prudes about nudity. This isn’t about the fact that Taylor didn’t wear a suit and tie. This isn’t about feminists making it “all about the clothes.” Honestly, it’s not really about the clothes. It’s about what they represent. It’s about the casual (and not so casual) sexism that is still extremely common in STEM fields and creates a toxic environment for women.

The burka shirt tweet is especially dismaying. Why is it not possible to talk about more than one problem facing women at the same time? Yes, it is wrong to require women to wear burkas. It is also wrong to sexually objectify women in a professional workplace setting. Can we not talk about both problems? And what is with the utter lack of nuance? What is with this idea that female oppression = burka? Can these people not see how many levels of discussion that sort of simplicity flattens? Is it really that hard to understand that one can oppose the sexual objectification of women in the workplace while still being sex positive?  

For those who are interested, I thought Greta Christina did an excellent job explaining the problems with Taylor’s shirt in her post, A pornographer (and atheist) explains why the science guy’s shirt crash-landed.

Women in our culture, in case you haven’t noticed, are routinely reduced to purely sexual beings. We are routinely treated as if our brains, our talent, our imagination, our inspiration, are useless and trivial unless they’re applied to sex and sexual attractiveness. And the sexist treatment of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is legendary, and very thoroughly documented.

. . .

I am not a sexual prude because I bloody well want sexual imagery to be enjoyed consensually, in times and places that are appropriate, in times and places that don’t tell women, “Your intelligence, your insight, your hard work, your accomplishments — none of that will ever matter as much as your tits and ass.”

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not give you an article by well known scientist Phil Plait of the blog Bad Astronomy.

If you think this isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes when there is still a tremendously leaky pipeline for women from undergraduate science classes to professional scientist. It comes when having a female name on an application to do research at a university makes it less likely to get accepted,† and have your research paper cited less. It comes when there is still not even close to parity in hiring and retaining women in the sciences.

So yeah, it’s just a shirt.

And it’s just an ad.

It’s just a saying.

It’s just a TV show.

It’s just the Internet.

Yes, but you almost make as much as a man does.

It’s just a catcall.

It’s a compliment!

It’s just that boys will be boys.

It’s just that she’s a slut.

It’s just that your dress is too short.

It’s just that we want to know what you were wearing at the time, ma’am.

It’s just it’s just it’s just.

It’s just a death by a thousand cuts. No one cut does the deed. In the end, they all do.

Some people do get it. As for the rest, I’m at a loss as to what it will take to get through to them. These issues really shouldn’t be that hard to understand. Maybe the problem is that they’re not actually listening.

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