The Rosetta shirt

I can’t resist writing a post about “shirtstorm”, the drama about the Rosetta guy and his shirt with cartoons of scantily-clad women. Humans have just landed a robot on a comet! This is an incredible achievement and yet everyone is so obsessed with someone’s choice of clothing that we have failed to appreciate the significance of what has just happened. So there’s only one thing to do and that is to add my own nonsense to the foray 🙂

I think men are fantastic (women are fabulous too of course) and when I first read about this I was reminded of a quote from the philosopher Thomas Paine who once said, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” What has this got to do with cartoon shirts of scantily-clad women? Well, what if I want to wear a cartoon shirt with images of scantily-clad men? 😉 Ok, so I don’t own any shirts with muscular, half-naked men and if I did, I’d probably avoid wearing it on international television. But even so, I think men are wonderful creatures and I can appreciate their physical form just as I presume men appreciate the appearance of women. There’s nothing intrinsically attractive about men and women it’s just that we have evolved to find each other attractive and we do.

Having said that, I do think it was probably a poor choice of attire for international television but I feel a bit sorry for the guy and hope this doesn’t have a negative impact on his career or personal life. I don’t think he did anything wrong. On the other hand, I can also appreciate that some people might be offended by that shirt. In such situations the correct thing to do is probably to say something like, “hey, I find your shirt a bit offensive, would you mind wearing something different to work”. I don’t think any of us really wants to offend anyone else and so an honest exchange of how we feel is probably the best course of action.

I just read that there’s now a petition to have the woman who first tweeted about “the shirt” fired from her job. I think this is really terrible. If someone is offended by something then we should try to be understanding and sympathetic. At the same time, I can see the other point of view in that we should be free to choose our own clothes and should avoid being judgemental of someone else’s choice of clothing. Or if we’re going to comment, then do so tactfully (this is coming from someone who lacks tact btw 🙂 ).

I find spats like this between men and women quite upsetting. It shouldn’t be this way. This kind of thing also turns feminism into a dirty word. I’m not blaming anyone but I do want to say that feminism is about equality for women – the right to vote, equal pay, the right not to be owned by a man and so on. All of us are feminists by definition. Who could possibly object to women having the right to vote?

Being offended by nudity does not have anything to do with feminism. We live together in a society and so we should try to respect each other’s sensibilities as much as we can without compromising our personal liberties. So I don’t think there is any right or wrong here but more a shuffling of cards to find harmony. Let’s find the harmony again and kiss and make up.

Now, where’s that shirt of mine with half-naked men? 🙂

47 Replies to “The Rosetta shirt”

  1. I waded in to an interesting Twitter argument (surprise surprise) that started out with an obvious male troll saying the “feminazis should get over it”, and progressed to the very real difficulties women have in getting onto top line science projects such as the Rosetta mission. Science is still a male dominated pursuit and scientists don’t help redress that by wearing t-shirts that objectify women. It’s not just about doing the right thing but being seen to be doing the right thing.

    1. It was Twitter that made me aware of it in the first place. I haven’t been following the news much lately but I saw some tweets about it which made me go and read more. And yes, I’ve seen some unpleasant comments as well.

      Yes, science is still a male-dominated pursuit but I find it difficult to understand how a shirt like this could put people off pursuing a career in a field they’re interested in. I’m a woman, I studied in the physical sciences at university and I just can’t imagine a shirt would have put me off. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen in reality, I just don’t really understand it. Having said that, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution. I don’t know why there are so few women and I’m not sure what the solution is.

      1. It’s not so much the shirt itself that is an issue. It’s what it represents. The issue also isn’t that it will deter women because it won’t. I’ve witnessed firsthand a misogynistic culture in Science that probably won’t disappear until many of the old guard retire or die off. Much like a lot of the action required to combat climate change won’t kick in until the conservative vote base (mostly older people) peg out.

      2. Ok, there probably is a culture that I’m not aware of and it will only advance one funeral at a time 🙂

  2. I think there is a real issue with gender balance in the physical sciences and so in my view wearing a shirt with half naked women at a press conference that was to promote a scientific success was wrong. I think it is important that people feel comfortable in the workplace and I can really see why people might feel uncomfortable with someone wearing such a shirt. However, my understanding is that it was shirt made by a friend and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the wearer was intending any offense, or that the apology wasn’t genuine. So, I do find it really unfortunate that someone who may well be a genuinely decent person, made the kind of mistake that ended up all over the mainstream and social media. However, maybe something good can come of this, in the sense that it illustrates how its important to be aware of how one can make others uncomfortable in the workplace, even if it’s not intended. I just hope, though, that the person who wore the short doesn’t become a scapegoat for something that is a bigger than just what shirt one chooses to wear.

    1. I am actually thinking he did it on purpose just to get the attention. Which, of course would be sad…

    2. This is a great comment, how could I possibly disagree with it. I also think he made a genuine apology and it was just a silly mistake and not something intended to cause offence.

      I agree that there is a gender imbalance in the physical sciences and I’m not sure what the solution is. I studied in the physical sciences at university, only undergrad though so my experience is limited, but I never felt unfairly treated and I don’t think I would have been put off by a shirt like this. I’ve also been treated fairly in all the jobs I’ve had in the IT industry.

      Could a shirt really turn someone off from pursuing a career in the physical sciences? I’m not convinced. Maybe it does, I don’t know, but I imagine there must be other more significant reasons for the gender imbalance than something relatively insignificant like this.

      1. I don’t think it is about the shirt specifically. Something that is being discussed/considered more and more at the moment is unconscious bias. For example, I’ve heard colleagues argue that even though the physical sciences are male dominated, our prime hiring criteria is excellence and therefore we are not discriminating. Well, that depends on how you define excellence. Could it be that excellence is defined in terms of what we’ve always regarded as excellent in a male dominated environment? Recognising that there are many possible ways to achieve excellence, could play a huge role in redressing the gender balance in the physical sciences, for example. Similarly, someone may wear a shirt or say something that in a male dominated environment may not seem particularly objectionable, but would be in an environment that was more gender balanced. So, it’s not necessarily that someone would be specifically offended by the shirt; it’s more that others may not recognise that there may be things that they do that they don’t realise is not ideal if one wants to work in a more diverse environment. So, it’s possible that the shirt is simply an indication that some still don’t consciously realise that they are doing something that may make another group of people feel uncomfortable.

        It’s getting late, so that may seem more coherent in my head, than it does now that I’ve actually written it down 🙂

      2. Yes, I understand what you’re saying. It’s important to make sure we foster an inclusive environment especially if we want a particular minority group to play a larger role in that environment. It is possible that there are biases that exclude people of which we aren’t aware.

        Personally I think the gender imbalance in top science jobs is because women don’t have as much confidence in themselves as men do. I think we’re also more aware of our shortcomings and tend not to over-inflate our abilities – not that I’m suggesting all men do this but it’s more commonly done by men. I don’t think this is the fault of society but more a general difference in our genetic makeup. There are probably things that can be done to address it but I don’t think jumping up and down over a shirt is one of them.

    1. I can’t imagine he did it on purpose. Did you see his teary apology? It looked very genuine to me.

  3. Thanks for writing this. He was called an ass and an ass hole by people who did not know anything about him at the time only that he wore a shirt. I tried to ask for a bit more moderation, but as I male I got a lot of aggression back. I hope you are allowed to call for a bit of verbal disarmament.

    The shirt was inappropriate, especially for such an occasion, but I feel also on a normal day. I would have asked him not to wear that at work. However, the reaction to it was also completely over the top. I got the feeling that this mainly came from America. For them a bit of nudity is much worse than for European. Maybe from their perspective this reaction was appropriate, but being European I did not.

    The irony and another sign that European are simply more open minded when it comes to nudity, is that the shirt was made by a female friend of his. I have seen her blog and she can also make a similar shirt with men on it. But it would cost 150€. Given his social circle and the women he knows, he probably did not anticipate this strong a reaction. I guess he knew the shirt was eccentric, but not that people would blow up like this.

    1. I changed my view on this 180 degrees in 2 days. I have no reason to believe that Taylor is not a decent guy, a sexist or macho, and surely is someone whose company I’d enjoy. So I was angry and found it very inappropriate that an otherwise resonable academic insisted on calling him an “asshole” multiple times.

      My sentiment about the issue was, like pretty much everybody else here: “Oh yes, really bad shirt but come on its just a shirt everybody is free to wear blahblahblah. I can’t imagine how someone is that much offended by it. I would never be offended just because of other people’s shirts. Totally over the top “. I still don’t get what is so offensive, demeaning or sexist about it. But if a gazillion well educated, intelligent, serious and respectable women tell me that my little intuition about their emotions is wrong, how silly is it to insist on it? Sorry Victor, here is exactly how silly it is: It puts you either in the same jacuzi with climate deniers, who are convinced that CO2 can’t possibly have an effect at that low concentrations, I mean come on, it’ just a shirt parts per million! Or of course you bubble with the real sexists (“women’s voices don’t count”). Or how can a personal opnion, devoid of even personal experience, let alone evidence or theory, overrule the huge sample of primary data you get from Twitter on that subject?

      Asshole or not? In terms of character certainly not, in my opinion. Taylor would have had the effect he wanted with a palmtree Hawaii shirt instead. But I can totally relate to someone who’s invested into science gender issues to call him an asshole, because he did a lot of stupid damage. Having been an incompetence-asshole on this occassion he will have to live with.

      Yes I also believe that there is cultural differences at work, although none that has to do with American prudery, as you seem to suggest. Anyway, I’d expect from a leading scientist in that position to be culturally sensitive enough, whith respect to North America, to not get a large part of their scientific and intellectual elite go “what an asshole”.

      1. My sentiments are much the same as yours, hvw. It was a silly mistake but certainly does not warrant being called an arsehole. I’m shocked that this is what has happened. He seems like a really nice guy and no-one can fault his response which has been to wear something else and give a heart-felt apology.

        I also don’t get how someone would be offended by his shirt. I certainly wasn’t offended by it and it wouldn’t put me off applying for jobs in the physical sciences. I agree that it was a bit inappropriate for international television but that’s about it. More important to me is that women are treated with respect and a cartoon shirt of sexy women is not disrespectful in my view. What would have been disrespectful is if he continued to wear the shirt after being told by a woman at his work that she found it offensive.

      2. hvw, could you be a bit more specific why you do not agree with me and why you do not think that Rachel or Alice Bell are sexists denigrating women by have a somewhat more moderate opinion on the matter as the mos aggressive American voices. Okay I am exaggerating, but why it is to easy and so acceptable to quickly assume this of man?

      3. I think I’ve misunderstood your comment, hvw and I’m still a bit confused. This bit:

        But I can totally relate to someone who’s invested into science gender issues to call him an asshole, because he did a lot of stupid damage.

        There’s really no excuse for calling someone an arsehole especially someone who has since apologised and rectified the situation. Who called him an arsehole by the way? And have they apologised for this? I think it can equally be said that this has done a lot of stupid damage to feminism.

      4. I had also missed that sentence, in that case hvw is right that we do not agree with each other.

        Let’s reserve that word for real arseholes (puritan spell-checker suggests armholes), the real sexists. What words would otherwise remain for them? And I would expect a leading scientist never to use that word for a colleague, in any case. It is quite a discussion stopper. The events and explanations afterwards have clearly shown that the accusation was premature and the comments should have been about the shirt and not the character.

        Rachel, I would rather not use any names. With the male I have to collaborate with and the female already got a horrible and inexcusable shitstorm back. A clear sign of sexism on twitter is that the male hard got any negative feedback for this asshole and the female got an entire horde of adolescence to endure.

        Had I only known these intolerant women, I might not self-identify as feminist.

    2. Victor,

      I didn’t know that he had been called an arse and an arsehole. There’s really no excuse for that and it’s a complete over-reaction to his shirt. I’ll go in search of some of the tweets after this. It was actually a tweet of yours that made me aware of the drama in the first place.

      I too have wondered about the cultural differences. Americans are very sensitive to nudity whereas we can go to a beach in Europe somewhere and half the women are topless and no-one bats an eyelid. Personally I prefer the relaxed European approach. Even so, that’s still no excuse to start name-calling.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the other shirts this artist has made. Have you got a link?

      1. Moi, easily offended?? Heavens no.

        I’ve seen both links already as Barry posted them further down. I read her post about the shirt too and I’ve changed my views slightly during the day. I’m less sympathetic to those who take offence to the shirt than I was before.

    3. I read some of theTweets about it Victor although I couldn’t see the arsehole ones. I did see one from Alice Bell about how it was amazing that no-one thought such a shirt would be inappropriate. This doesn’t surprise me. In my experience academics don’t tend to care much about sartorial issues. They also don’t really put much thought into their own outfits, in my experience anyway. My husband once spent the whole day at work with a huge shop tag on the bag pocket of a new pair of trousers. No-one said a thing to him so I can only assume that no-one noticed. The students in his lecture noticed though as he heard sniggering and couldn’t understand why. If it wasn’t for me he’d still be wearing 20-year-old trousers and t-shirts with holes in them.

  4. I won’t try to replicate the thread on should he have done this or that. My concern is how the blogosphere/twittersphere can conflate so many things so quickly, namely, raising the percentage of women in physical sciences. The men who most harm this cause are often anonymous to most of us, wear a suit and tie, and do their work while performing subtle forms of misogyny that are far less eye-catching than an inappropriate tee shirt.

  5. I hadn’t heard about this. Blogs are becoming my source of news!

    This reminded me a lot about The Humans and The Rosie Project. People who don’t see the human implications of their decisions. Funny what books teach you about life.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. That book looks really good! I’ll add it to my list of books that I never have time to read 🙂

  6. The problem is in the eye of the beholder. Respect for a human being should not depend upon appearance. Unfortunately, if women object to the images of other women, it offers excuse for men to have a disrespectful attitude. Not smart.

      1. Quite so. I’ve been watching this for years. It only takes a few to spoil a legitimate cause. I’m glad that mostly good sense prevails. Rock on. 🙂

  7. The very large tattoo Jessica Rabbit (lots of leg cleavage and shoulders) on Elly’s shoulder (shirt maker, and birthday gift giver) I think indicates that there was no offense intended.

    Elly Prizeman

    clearer pic from a few years ago, from her twitter photo, before she added the wolf?

    how many have condemned him without even seeing the shirt, because they heard it has ‘naked women’ on it or ‘semi-naked’.. no nakedness as far as I can see, long dresses, legs, shoulders, etc. no nakedness, ‘holding guns! – it’s just cartoon pop art style. (not work appropriate anywhere I’ve ever worked though)

    Elly’s husband gave Matt the Lander tattoo.. Elly made the shirt for an awesome sweet friend. her thoughts:
    http://ellyprizemanupdate.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/decisions-and-comments.html?m=1

    and yes, if I was his boss, I’d have said better not wear that on TV, nor probably the office, (ie forgetting feminism for a moment, you may offend religious sensibilities in some countries.)what do his colleagues think ?

    I was pretty critical of Alice Bell (guardian), who seems to have unthinkingly, based on the shirt, held Matt up as an example of mysogny and effectively labelled him to the world (so yes I can see why he got a bit emotional), Alice seemed to have seized on the shirt and used him to go into a longer article about problems in science

    Alice claims to be speaking for all women in science, it seems…
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/13/why-women-in-science-are-annoyed-at-rosetta-mission-scientists-clothing

    looking at Alice’s twitter feed afterwards, she was backtracking a lot on the shirt aspect (about Matt being focussed on)

    I wonder what would have happened if Matt had been wearing his Cannibal corpse T-shirt !! (pictured as he gets his Rosetta lander tattoo)

    the shirt
    https://twitter.com/EternalArtEssex/status/519163703737212928

    1. Thanks for the links, Barry. I think it’s unfair and also incorrect for Matt Taylor to be described as misogynistic. From what I’ve seen he’s clearly not at all misogynistic and it’s depressing to see people make hasty judgements like this about someone they’ve never even met and on the basis of just one item of clothing.

      As for inappropriate clothing at work, there’s not really a dress code for academics and I’ve always thought this was one of the nicer aspects of the job. I really think he should be free to wear that shirt if he wants to and personally I think this whole thing is a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill. Even more depressing is that it puts the focus on something insignificant like a shirt and takes it away from the real issue of gender imbalance in science, the cause of which is more complex than a cartoon shirt with sexy women on it.

  8. Methinks it is MUCH MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING! I had not seen the news on this till I read your post but obviously it has caused a furore. Has anyone ever considered that the man could have been so engrossed in his work – such awesome incredible work – that he cared little what he wore to work or for the interview .. it could be as simple as that. And I am pretty pretty certain if I was doing what he was doing … I would have probably done an interview in my night clothes … .. so focused would I be on the project where nano seconds could make the difference between success and failure that I would not be bothered by my personal appearance. .
    Common folks … give the man a break …appreciate the enormity of his work not his choice of attire. Remember the absent-minded professor?

    1. Yes, it is much ado about nothing. Or as a caption I read on the web somewhere said, “Sexism or storm in a D-cup?”. Or something like that.

      Last week my children’s school had a pajama day. Everyone wore their pajamas to school including all the teachers. The kids thought it was hilarious. Clothing is given far too much importance.

      1. I like the D cup quote !!:)
        Pajama day … neat and so cool! Kids must have loved it .. nice example at this juncture. Maybe you can write about the Pajama Shirt and get everybody up in arms again LOL!!
        TC

  9. Taylor featured quite heavily on the ‘sky at night’ rosseta special last night on the BBC and he came across as hugely passionate about the mission but also looking forward to getting back to see his wife and family in the UK; a brilliant and warm human being. To judge a whole person by their shirt is vacuous and stupid and the ‘identity politics’ behind such superficial judgements, whilst proclaiming ‘diversity’ is just soulless empty imagination free conformism. The world needs more engineers with tattoos, loud shirts and a passion for what they do and less people who want us all to be as f***g dull as they are. At least some people still have a slightly richer view of life Rachel.

    1. Wow, great comment. I said to my husband that Taylor will probably do more for encouraging young people into science, both male and female, than anyone else since he does such a good job at dispelling the staid and boring image of the lab-coat scientist. The tats and the wild shirt also suggest evidence of tolerance of diversity which is a good thing.

      1. Exactly, that is what I was mainly missing: tolerance or a love of diversity in every form.

  10. Ok, my problem here is that I can relate to everybody, yet disagree with everybody on some level.

    1. To make that clear again: I do not think Taylor is a sexist, mysogynist, or any kind of asshole in that sense. People who deduce such things about his character from the shirt-affair are morons, to put it mildly.

    2. There is a large cluster of attitude towards this event, which appears well represented in this thread, and is characterised by:
    a) missing the point through statements such as “Clothing is given far too much importance”, “To judge a whole person by their shirt is vacuous”,”I really think he should be free to wear that shirt if he wants to and personally I think this whole thing is a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill”, etc. and
    b) “I can’t understand how anybody could feel offended by that shirt, I certainly would not be, therefore the reactions are totally overblown.”

    I am arguing that there is an (easy to understand, I’ve been there) intellectual dishonesty at work. If someone you respect informs you that (s)he feels offended by your behaviour, you likely won’t dismiss this out of hand just because you are not immediately able to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Well, in case that’s not true for you, your surroundings probably consider you an asshole since a long time already. Now a large number of women that come from a rather similar background as you, i.e. academics, scientist, intellectuals, tell you exactly that: “Your gut feeling about this matter is wrong”. And by virtue of their gender (in case you are male) and life experience they are in a much better position to know something about the issue. What on earth enables you to either ignore that, or dismiss it as “over the top”? This is either plain denial, or some undercurrent of “they are all hysterical”. Or what else ??

    Obviously what offends or not is a function of culture and society. It is subjective and spatially and temporally heterogeneous. Whether something is offensive is defined solely by those who feel offended. Not granting that right shows lack of respect and is demeaning. Victor, in case you are of the caucasian type, do you insist that calling darker colored collegues “Negroes” is ok? If not, why? Makes sense etymologically, was generally used in the 1950ies, so what can possibly be wrong with it? It’s just indicative of color, you would not take offence at being called “Branco”, just show some love of diversity and tolerance in language too, mmh?

    I agree that you should not call Matt Taylor an asshole. I would not do that. I had changed my view on the issue from “come on, how can any clothing evoke such an extreme response in anybody non-psychotic” to “it seems like outrage is an appropriate response”. If you have put lots of effort, work and thinking into the remediation of a serious societal deficit (i.e. under-representation of women in STEM), and now witness that someone, completely naive, in his pursuit to be “cool”, and as shiny example of incompetence in his assigned role, does big damage to your cause, you might be forgiven to use the a-word. I have no idea what the damage really is, but it is not unreasonable to think it is big and react accordingly.

  11. hvw,

    If someone you respect informs you that (s)he feels offended by your behaviour, you likely won’t dismiss this out of hand just because you are not immediately able to put yourself in that person’s shoes.

    I largely agree with this but there is a caveat. A few years ago I got into an argument with someone I respect over gay marriage. They told me that gay marriage offended them. The only appropriate response to such a view in my opinion is tough and get over it. Suppose I was gay and wanting to get married then my behaviour would have caused this person I respect offence.

    So how do we resolve this?

    If you wear a shirt to work and the people you work with find it offensive and you want to get along with these people then wearing something different to work seems like a simple solution to me. But if someone on the other side of the planet who you’ve never met and never will meet finds it offensive then I’m more inclined to say tough and get over it.

    Sometimes people will take offence to something simply because society says they should take offence. We are like a flock of sheep and don’t always think for ourselves. I am probably no different.

    I am a woman and I work in the technology industry and the shirt doesn’t offend me. It’s not pornographic. There’s no nudity. Yes, the women look sexy – is that cause enough to take offence? I don’t believe so. The woman also appear powerful. The only thing I really object to is that some of them have guns. Do we really want to encourage guns? Probably not. If the shirt depicted women as slaves then I might feel differently.

    Hadley Freeman has an article in the Guardian in which she also thinks the outrage is a bit over the top:

    But I can’t help but feel that outrage would be better spent on complaining about how few women were present in the control room for the probe landing. There are so many signifiers of sexism in the world and – I believe (again, not an expert in this field) – the science world that to attack a man for his shirt feels a little bit like fussing at a leaky tap when the whole house is under a tidal wave. Some people online have suggested that Taylor’s shirt proves he is a misogynist, or that he sees women purely as sex objects, or that he revels in marginalising them. Personally, if I saw a male colleague wearing that shirt, my reaction would be amazement that a grown man has the fashion taste of a 13-year-old. There is a difference – and I concede, the difference may be fuzzy in some cases – between enjoying the weird fantasy-world depiction of women, and seeing actual women as sex objects.

    http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2014/nov/17/comet-scientist-matt-taylor-shirt-awful-what-should-wear-instead-rosetta

  12. Have a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy over at Slate: 2500 comments or so….All I can say is wow…

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