It’s a total shirtstorm

UPDATE: This isn’t about “Taylor is a bad person”. He apologized, with clear sincerity. It’s more of an invitation to be thoughtful.

Recently the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet. That’s a mind-blowing achievement of huge scientific value. A project scientist, Matt Taylor, gave a press conference wearing a shirt covered in images of scantily-clad women, opening up a controversy known as #Shirtstorm.

Matt Taylor's bowling shirt
Photo from the ESA news stream, via @RoseVeleth’s Twitter feed

Can you imagine what happened next? Of course you can. Feminists complained that this was a good example of objectification and marginalization of women in the sciences. Then legions of other people complained that the feminists were distracting everyone from an Amazing! Achievement! with their whiny complaints about a shirt. And Matt apologized, tearfully, on-camera, but that didn’t do much to change the course of the Shirtstorm juggernaut.

The complaint that bothers me the most is about those darned oversensitive feminists distracting from the great achievement by their complaints “about just a shirt.” So, two things:

First, it wasn’t the feminists who brought a million-candlepower distraction to a press conference about a scientific achievement. You want your achievement celebrated? The way to avoid distractions is not to bring them. The achievement was not his alone; it was a diverse, international team. And as their spokesman he did not have the right to use the occasion for his personal expression.

Sure, a lot of dudes barely noticed the shirt. As astronomer Phil Plait said, fish don’t notice water, either. But imagine for a moment if you were a woman in the sciences. Your appearance is a constant topic of uninvited discussion, and your academic and scientific achievements get a lot less attention. When you publish, you’re less likely to be cited in other publications. Your career will face roadblocks because of this kind of treatment, which started getting old on day one.  And it is invisible to people who perpetuate it and benefit from it.

So the message to women in the scientists is… that you see a prominent scientist who uses women’s bodies for personal decoration at a press conference, and you’re just supposed to pipe down about it? Yeah, No.

Second, the shirt is an example of something that happens all the time. So don’t shoot the messenger. If it isn’t the shirt, it’s something else, and it’s every day.

A lot of defenders have noted that the shirt was made for him by a female friend. And that’s all cool and everything, but people watching the press conference don’t know that. That context, if it matters, is missing; all the information they have is what they see on-camera. I suppose he could have turned to the camera and said; “You may have noticed my shirt: it was made for me by a woman so it is totes cool.” And it would be his choice to do that at a press conference, just like it was his choice that day to select that shirt and not some other. But if viewers don’t receive that (actually irrelevant) context, then it’s basically an in-joke. And in-jokes are often counterproductive in front of an audience, whether it’s everyone in a staff meeting, or in front of cameras at a news conference.

Every time feminists complain about something like this, they are met with the most vile abuse and threats online*.  Discussion threads are often buried in death and rape threats against feminist individuals, by dudes telling them to just chill out and be cool, right? Don’t take pervasive abuse so seriously! I think history is still waiting for the first example of that approach ever working.  Wouldn’t it save time to just listen instead?

Empathy is hard, yes it is. You have to stop being you for a moment, and try to be someone else.


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Older technology guy with photography and history background