A gaudy shirt and feminism

Ok, I promise not to write about this topic again after this post but I have to get this off my chest one more time. I got some thought-provoking comments on my last post about the gaudy shirt worn by scientist Matt Taylor on international television. Thank you. I appreciate all the comments. I even changed my views slightly. I’m a little less sympathetic than I was to those who find his shirt offensive than I was before. The shirt was a gift made by a friend, a female friend, for his birthday. Matt Taylor was apparently called an arsehole by people who have never met him on the basis of something he was wearing and by the same people who – I would have thought – ought to argue against judging others on their appearance or the clothes they wear. He’s apologised publicly and when I saw his apology I couldn’t help thinking we’re a bunch of bullies and I say we not because I took any part in the vilification but because I also call myself a feminist.

Some people say this shirt is one big step backwards for women’s equality but I would say the response to the shirt is one big step backwards for feminism. I mostly agree with Julie Bindel, the founder of Justice for Women in her Guardian article, Feminism is in danger of becoming toxic. She writes,

Instead of attacking the root cause of women’s inequality, we’ve moved towards the vilification of individuals …. Feminism, a great social movement, is in danger of becoming toxic and repressive…Moral superiority and “call out” culture has trumped political activism. Feminists have a proud history of taking state institutions and corporations to task. It would seem this is being lost in a sea of vitriol. We built this movement on a desire and willingness to question and challenge old assumptions and truisms. We are in danger of becoming autocrats who would rather organise a pile-on than try to change systems. The life blood of feminism is in danger of becoming bile.

If anyone is interested, here’s the shirt:

Yes, there are cartoon images of sexy women on it. Some of them have guns. Probably the best word to describe it is gaudy. It’s not pornographic and there’s no nudity. Sure, it wasn’t appropriate for international television but it doesn’t warrant the cries of misogyny directed at its wearer. A lack of women in the physical sciences is not an excuse for verbal abuse. There are lots of reasons why women are under-represented in physical science, one of them being that men do most of the hiring, simply because there are more of them, and people tend to hire others like themselves. I think men are also more confident in their abilities and so they are more likely to apply for the top jobs than women are. I’m sure there are ways we can address these things without unfairly labelling people misogynistic.

Boris Johnson has also waded in with,

What are we all – a bunch of Islamist maniacs who think any representation of the human form is an offence against God? This is the 21st century, for goodness sake.

Let it be known that I have a painting of a naked woman hanging in my bedroom (or I will have once the boat arrives with all our stuff). I’ve never viewed the painting as anything other than beautiful. This is not to say that I think the objectification of women is a good thing. Of course I don’t. Women are not objects. Animals are not objects either as far as I’m concerned but perhaps I’ll leave that for a different post. One controversy at a time 🙂

35 Replies to “A gaudy shirt and feminism”

  1. Also very well said. Feminism still has some important things to fight for and this is not one of them. We need to be fighting for equal pay and better protection and justice for victims of rape and sexual abuse. It is really disheartening that feminists (and I include myself because I consider myself a feminist) are pulling the focus off of things that matter and are attacking people for no reason. If these women want to make fools of themselves, that’s fine, but I wish they would do it as individuals and not attach feminism with their stupidity and hatefulness.

    1. Yes, there are lots of things the feminist movement could be directing its energy towards and having a better gender balance in the top jobs is probably one of them. I don’t want to accuse anyone of stupidity or hate though I just wanted to say that I think the use of arsehole and misogynistic by some people was unwarranted and unfair.

      1. I agree. I suppose using the words “hateful” and “stupid” is a bit much, but the man cried as a result of the harassment he faced, and I would definitely say he was bullied. Calling him an asshole and a misogynist is pretty awful though, and, as you said, completely unwarranted.

  2. Statement upfront. I find the shirt inappropriate for a work setting and would have asked Taylor not to wear it, not only on days that the press is there, but on any day. I may be progressive in mind, but tend to dress conservatively and would never wear such a shirt and would not expect to see people with such a shirt in my social circle. However.

    ” Feminism is in danger of becoming toxic.”

    In the beginning I tried to cool matters down by explaining that in Germany/Europe nudity is not so offensive as in the USA. That it is very well possible that Matt Taylor did not wear that shirt to dis American women, but that in the social circles he lives in this is acceptable, maybe eccentric, but acceptable.

    That did not lead to a cooling down, I was attacked viciously for daring not to support what the American women thought to 100%. Culture was not negotiable. American culture is the only one we should pay attention to. I was almost reminded of George W. Bush: either you are with us or you are against us.

    I will not let these people change my world view and will keep on seeing women and man as equally valuable and try to contribute to making this a reality, but I surely do not identify with this kind of behaviour.

    What makes it ever worse in this case that much of the toxicity came from scientists and Matt Taylor is also a scientist. That means for me that the scientific rules for civility apply, which are much stricter than the general ones. In the scientific culture call someone an asshole is definitely completely not done. It makes any kind of civil discussion impossible.

    We can broaden the circle of cultures considered to get a bit more perspective. Imagine that a documentary with female physicists from Afghanistan. Would these women then also say that the way these Afghan women are dressed is sexist, shows the terrible culture in science and prevents them and their 13-year old daughter from entering science? And then we get as next shitstorm people from non-Western cultures taking offence at how American scientists are dressed.

    We really need more tolerance. I would like to see a diversity is much much broader and would expect that trying to support diversity in general is much more productive. Science should also be welcome to people that are not white Caucasian boring introverts like me. For that we need tolerance. It is an empirical question what has hurt diversity more, the shirt or the reaction to it.

    1. Victor,

      I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. I missed much of this discussion you’re referring to on Twitter. I have trouble keeping up with my Twitter stream these days – I think I follow too many people! But I got snippets of it and that’s how I found out.

      The acceptance of diversity for me is a big part of it too. I went to quite a different state-funded school in that we weren’t required to wear a uniform. Diversity and individualism were also encouraged. People could do weird things with their hair, have tattoos, and pierce their bodies in strange places. It was a very welcoming place and it didn’t matter what you looked like, everyone was accepted.

  3. Rachel, thanks for this and the other post. You hit the nail on the head. I get sick and tired of dogmatic talks about women’s place in society.
    This is a complex issue and some women assume a victim’s position that serves no purpose for the cause.
    I have been in corporate for many years and there you have both: not many women choosing some professions and for that men dominate the hiring, and also men hiring their equals. However what most upset me is that some women on the top behave in the same way and compete in a destructive way with other women when they feel threatened. I have countless examples of it.
    I am not holding the truth and only speak from my experience. From that I learned that it’s been more women that don’t help each other rather than men.

    1. Thanks, Luciledeogodoy. I also find bad behaviour from those on our own side the most upsetting. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s a sense of betrayal there.

      1. I would feel that that is natural. When other feminists misbehave people will also hold us accountable. You see the same with Americans that often complain that Europe is so critical about everything they do (while sure some torture dictatorship in the Middle East is worse). But that is actually because Europeans identify with America and see themselves are being in one cultural circle and probably also because people from the outside also hold us responsible for what America does. It is a sign of closeness, somewhat paradoxically.

  4. Your words are clearly heartfelt and ring true, and I happen to agree. I think there is a tendency in our digital world for instant comments and prescriptions, and I suspect many may now have had second thoughts about dissing a scientist, whose passion, expertise and diligence for science is an inspiration (see The Sky At Night), although may not be matched by great dress sense (but poor dress sense is not to infer misogyny). I get teased about my colourful usually stripped but sometimes flowery shirts (but like you Rachel, I keep my naked ladies for the walls, courtesy of the great masters).

    1. Richard,

      Someone else mentioned The Sky At Night program. I’ll have to look for it.

      I bought my husband a t-shirt with a picture of Star Wars across the front recently. It’s a bit tacky but I’m a Star Wars fan. However after this shirtstorm drama I thought I’d better check to see whether it included a scantily dressed Princess Leia on the front. I couldn’t remember and I wouldn’t want him to be vilified at work for a shirt I chose! Princess Leia is on the shirt but she’s fully clothed 🙂

  5. “There are lots of reasons why women are under-represented in physical science, one of them being that men do most of the hiring, simply because there are more of them, and people tend to hire others like themselves. I think men are also more confident in their abilities and so they are more likely to apply for the top jobs than women are.”

    I would also expect that these points are much more important than a shirt, at least in Europe; in America a women may well refuse to work in a group where people wear such shirts.

    It is important that the group that does the hiring consists of at least one women, if possible half. People have a tendency to think that the way they work and think is best and men may thus very well prefer men because they are more similar. Including women in hiring reduces this effect.

    Almost anyone applying for a professor position must be over confident. There is almost no human alive that can fulfil so many roles to satisfaction.

    Another important factor may be the lack of role models, female scientists that are one or more steps ahead. I am in favour of some positive discrimination to compensate this problem together with pure discrimination and many other and more subtle disadvantages.

    Maybe the situation in the atmospheric sciences is relatively good, but I have the feeling that the main reason why women do not chose to become scientist is that the labour conditions in modern project science make it hard to have a life next to science or to have a family. Much of science, if not almost most in Germany, is project based. This means that you cannot have a bad year and it means that it is likely that you will have to move to another city if a project is not approved, which happens to the best ones, and uproot your children.

    We had many brilliant women PhD students lately, I would expect that they would have had a good possibility to become professor and would have done a better job than most. However, they have opted to go to the weather service, where you can do interesting science, but also have a life outside of your job. Where the administration calls you up if you do too much overtime and force you to take a holiday to compensate. Without a return to normal science, with normal permanent positions for people that are clearly passionate about doing a good job, I am not expecting that we will achieve parity in science.

    Women (and men 🙂 ), do you agree? Did I miss something?

    1. Wow! Yes, you’ve summed it up really well. Having more women on hiring panels is definitely a good start. The work-life balance is definitely a biggie too. Doesn’t Germany have good maternity leave? That’s what we should be fighting for. Maternity leave in my view should be a minimum of 3 years. When I had my babies I wanted to be at home with them for the first three years and I enjoyed every minute of it. But it’s not great if you have to give up a career you love in order to have those 3 years at home. It’s also not very long when you consider our working life as a whole.

      1. Relatively good. It used to be one year and two months longer if the man also stays at home two months. That still leaves a gap of 2 years. I did not follow it that well, but I think the total amount has stayed the same, but you can now use that money more flexibly in the first 6 years. So that you can use it in part time. I do not know about you, but I would not work for 3 years, or even more with more children, I would have lost most of my skills, but I have quite a bad memory. Thus the new option to do this part time is an improvement.

      2. Ok, that’s less than I thought. But the part-time option is really good.

  6. Careful re the ear muffs 🙂

    Wouldn’t it be a cruel irony if a scientist ends up finding the secret of the origin of life on Earth and is only remembered for a Bad Shirt Day prize? Such is the craziness of are unsocial media age.

  7. Would you feel comfortable if your daughter’s science teacher wore this shirt to teach a class? That was the context of this scientist being interviewed and broadcast. A science teacher friend of mine (male) said he didn’t feel he was able to use the Sky at Night programme in his lessons as planned.

    1. Good question. I don’t think I’d be all that bothered to be honest. I would be happy to invite Matt Taylor over for dinner with my family and he could wear that shirt if he wanted to. I find the guns on it more objectionable than the women and I don’t understand why no-one has complained about the guns. I think there’s something seriously wrong with a society that says guns are ok but nudity is not.

      I haven’t seen the Sky at Night programme. Is Matt Taylor wearing that shirt in it? I actually think it might make a good talking point for high school students in that social issues like these could be part of the topic in addition to the science. It could be along the lines of – Was the shirt inappropriate? If so, why? It might help to make students more aware of others and to think about these issues.

  8. There is a lot of evasive movements to be observed here ….

    Lots of strawmen. Except anonymous Twitter robots, I think nobody claimed that Taylor is sexist or misogynist. Yes, there are many and hard to solve reasons for women’s underrepresentation in science that are completely unrelated to shirts. Lest I forget, world-hunger is a much more pressing problem than anything shirt-related. Let’s talk about that. Blablabla.

    I think the man wanted to send a message. Along the lines of: “I frickin’ did it. I am happy. This is how I dress when I am happy! Deal with it you sorry people who think that serious rocket scientists have to look like Wernher von Braun!” Très sympa.

    But apparently he realized that in a dimension he was not aware of, did not check, did not monitor, he fucked up big time. Or how else would you interpret his apology-appearance? Doesn’t really look like a political-I have-to-say-sorry-else-career-consequences type of statement. He comes across sincere. So he learned something. A number of people would look much better too, if they at least acknowledged that other peoples reality might be different from what they think it should be.

    Th main serious accusation, in my perception, was about this: “This appearance on a high-profile super-nerdy, worlwide-broadcast event sends the message: Women are not taken seriously here, where the coolest space science ever happens.” Now I personally can’t see that message. I don’t understand, how you could read this out of MT’s appearance. But a lot of women convincingly state this as a fact. Life experience tells me very loudly that it is quite silly to assume my little idea of what feelings and thoughts arise from a particular situation were true for other people. In particular for other gender people in other cultures. My scientific approach to life tells me that it is idiotic to ignore first-hand data in favour of what I make up myself, just because I don’t understand the first-hand data.

    Now there are a number of ways to disagree with the #shirtstorm fuss in a logical and consistent manner: You can insist that those critics of Taylor’s shirt are just wrong: “The vast majority of women does not feel that way. “You better have a hint at an explanation then: “This is a vocal minority, motivated by excessive desire of self-expression, or perhaps brainwashed into a sheeple-attitude devoid of reality” (Rachel, you kind of hinted towards that in the other thread) or what else? Or you just do not agree with the values: “Maybe many women feel like that, but it is their problem. I value the freedom to wear such shirts on any occasion higher than any effect that this could possibly have on women”.

    But such statements, or any criticism/reference of/to the many lengthy “feminist-side” articles seem not be forthcoming from the “exaggerated reaction” – crowd. So I insist that a lot of people, who find this “totally overblown”, are in denial. Denial about how the reality doesn’t conform to their views about it, or, hopefully not, denial about how they are more sexist than they like to admit.

    1. hwv,

      I think the critics of Taylor’s shirt are a probably a vocal minority although I don’t have any evidence for this and I don’t have time to conduct a survey to find out what the vast majority of women think. But even if the vast majority of women thought the shirt said “Women are not taken seriously here, where the coolest space science ever happens” this doesn’t mean I have to accept that they are right and I am wrong. I disagree that the shirt is sending that message by the way. I have views about lots of things where my views are a minority view. Speciesism for instance. I think eating animals because you like the taste is speciesism but the vast majority of people disagree with me. This doesn’t mean that I’m automatically wrong. Of course I might be wrong and I accept that, but until I see a convincing argument to the contrary then I will continue to see things this way.

      I have not seen a convincing argument that Taylor’s shirt says “Women are not taken seriously here, where the coolest space science ever happens” and as a woman who works in the tech industry I don’t get that message from the shirt. You can say I am in denial, maybe even sexist, but I am basing my judgement on how the shirt makes me feel personally – and I don’t have a problem with it at all – and also on what I’ve read from both sides.

    2. If we are going to play the scientist, the “first-hand data” you have are a few hundred retweers and favourites. All the rest of your comment you “made up myself”. Maybe you are right, but it is interpretation. I have not seen any representative surveys yet.

      You seem to be in denial about Rachel’s feelings. 🙂 Do we really need such words, normally used for the people that behave as if they are mentally challenged.

  9. Just a simple comment that reflects what I’ve been thinking about some feminists for a while now. I agree wholeheartedly with Julie Bindel. Feminism is becoming toxic. If someone wants to wear a gaudy shirt with scantily clad men or women, it’s not a hanging offence and should not be taken to represent one’s views about men or women generally. Some feminists need to stop viewing the world through an accusatory lens. Some humour and tolerance would go a long way.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Bronwyn. I was actually wondering what you thought about this so I’m glad we’re in agreement here. I think many people are afraid to speak out about this for fear of being accused of sexism.

  10. I can think of plenty of examples of what could be called “toxic feminism” but I’m having trouble pinpointing who exactly is freaking out about the shirt. Most of what I’ve seen look more like expressions of discomfort on par with Victor’s, which doesn’t strike me as beyond the pale. The articles that you have linked mostly seem to cite “some people” as being offended but, significantly, provide few links. (I’d also point out that the authors of articles, as I understand it, don’t write the titles, and so Bell didn’t appear to be be “speaking for all women of science”.) I didn’t see much in Victor’s twitter conversations either. In fact, the most vehement position I’ve seen is hvw’s.

    I just followed a level or two down from the links on Phil Plait’s post and even those are largely reactions to rather more crazed backlash to the few original reactions to the shirt….

    What am I missing?

    1. Maybe people provide little links because the women that used this choice language have suffered an enormous amount of abuse already. I also do not feel like sending more trolls to them. Just search on twitter, the shitstorm generator, for “Matt Taylor” and ass, ashhole, sexist, or gross.

      The days after her article, I had the feeling that Alice Bell wrote quite sensible things on twitter. Maybe she took some of the responses at heart and used her cognitive skills. What I am apparently not allowed to do as man. 🙂

    2. Well Phil Plait said in his article that it “upset a lot of people. A lot.” So perhaps a lot of people upset is just a few and that no-one is all that bothered, in which case, this is a good thing. It’s also ethically questionable to provide links to Tweets in which people have abused Matt Taylor as they’ll just get a torrent of abuse themselves and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

  11. This is an interesting post by someone who trains companies in sexual harassment prevention. Look like he is from California, thus from the other side of the Atlantic. Even he as American writes:
    “It’s not sexual harassment, and it doesn’t create a hostile workplace: it’s nowhere near being severe or pervasive enough to change the nature of the workplace. However, it could eventually be cited as one factor in a long list of things that create a hostile work environment. That’s why I’d say it’s a risk, in addition to being — in my opinion — unprofessional.”

    And he stresses how different people’s experiences are. That that does not mean that someone should simply claim that their interpretations is right and everyone else is wrong.

    “The issue is this: if we want to discuss things seriously, we might have to resort to something other than our own experience-based gut reactions.”

    It is a bit long read, but full of good ideas. I think someone motivated to contribute to the above discussion would likely enjoy reading it.

    1. Wow, that’s really good Victor. Thanks for sharing. I’ve only just read through it quickly because I’m tired and I need to go to bed but it looks good.

      It is easy to say the wrong thing of Twitter. I’ve done it. But it’s also easy to correct that wrong thing by apologising and deleting the Tweet if you can.

  12. Elly will happily make anybody a shirt, using Alexander Harvey (rockabilly, pin up collection, designers material)

    Lot’s of choice

    All from Alexander Harvey’s – Pinup collection

    Elly had an interview in her local paper (love the photo of her)

    Essex Chronicle: Chelmsford woman Elly Prizeman hits back over ‘sexist’ scientist shirt and claims they’re more popular than ever


    1. Thanks, Barry. Maybe I should get one made with cowboy on it 🙂

      It seems to me like there’s just a small vocal minority complaining about the shirt and that most of the general population is not bothered which is a good thing. Maybe my reaction to the reaction is disproportionate to the intial reaction if that makes sense. I’m glad to read that Elly’s business is booming as a result.

  13. Rachel, Victor, thanks for seriously discussing that. It seems there is some convergence: Victor quotes ““The issue is this: if we want to discuss things seriously, we might have to resort to something other than our own experience-based gut reactions.”, which is pretty much the essence of my argument. But then you are free, after serious deliberation, to reject that these other peoples’s (however many that are — it is not the point) perception should have an influence on your behaviour, or on societal norms. That I think was Rachel’s focus. I agree with all that. The #shirtstorm just showed that there are untypically strong (for the technical/scientific community) emotions involved, when it comes to that topic. Why this is so is the interesting part, for me now.

  14. Good couple of posts Rachel. When this thing started, I told Mrs Shub and she said the same thing: Meh. I can see why some people are upset but I thought about it several times and I cannot bring myself to be upset. A raised eyebrow yes.

    People’s expectations are complex – ‘place of work’, ‘professionalism’, ‘work attire’, ‘attire befitting the occasion’ etc. I don’t know. The occasion was too momentous – the normal rules don’t apply. When Archimedes hit upon his idea he’s said to have run across the street naked straight from the bath-tub. You can bet the intelligentsia of the local area complained.

    1. Thanks, Shub. Yes, a raised eyebrow. That’s a great way to put it and that was probably my response too. Archimedes dashing across the street naked would have been fine with me too.

  15. A second note: Why was the so-called backlash against the shirt protesters strong, if it were?

    [1] Almost all the of the shirt protesters were journalists. Many of them had substantial following members on Twitter. Nonetheless, *all* speak the same language, which contains such words as: dudebro, manboy, boy, mansplaining, dude, misogynist douchebag, patriarchy, trigger, -cis, gendered, cisgender. Even the ones that don’t use these terms seem to understand them immediately.

    In other words, this is a group of people that speak a certain common insider language, with shared ideas and code. They are then surprised no one else outside gets it.

    [2] At least a few of them wrote about this so-called incident at their newspaper outlets or blogs, disseminating the issue to a wider audience. This combined with the new lazy trend of ‘journalists’ at such websites as Yahoo! calling a bunch of tweets a ‘story’ brought in the wider world in.

    This was then followed by the same journalists and scientists complaining that all they did was express an opinion on Twitter and that they could not understand being vilified for it.

    1. It did feel like there was a large segment of the population objecting to the shirt but perhaps this is just because it was mostly journalists objecting to it as you say. I didn’t read the comments on Phil Plait’s article about it so I’ve no idea what the general feeling was but there are over 2500 comments there!

  16. There is, I think, a certain established pattern being followed:

    1) Individual A does something which
    2) Individual B publicly objects to on feminist grounds, which elicits
    3) A wave of hostile reaction ranging between scorn to threats of violence to doxxing by creeps C.
    4) Group D justly decries 3) but also declares 2) to be beyond critique and 1) to be objectively wrong. Individual A can redeem themself (not necessarily male), maybe, with an adequate public confession and apology. Anybody wishing to discuss the merits of 1) vs 2) may be accused of carrying water for C, either intentionally and in bad faith without the proper disclaimers, or implicitly.

    Twitter of course is a hothouse for both 3) and 4) which is part of why I mostly stay away from it. To be fair in this case most of the blog reactions I’ve seen focus on 3) and have been measured, if insistent, about 1).

    Thanks for the popehat post, that was very thoughtful. I laughed at this comment: “so did a machine land on a comet or not?”

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