Thursday, November 20, 2014

The shirt from #ShirtGate is not just ‘little stuff’

Sexism and misogyny is a systemic problem present in multiple cultures throughout the world. Bad behavior that dismisses and extinguishes the accomplishments of women is so prevalent that it’s atmospheric across every strata of Western society from the home, to the street, to the workplace. So when the European Space Agency landed a space probe on a comet (an amazing event in of itself you should read about) and scientist Dr. Matt Taylor wore a shirt covered in pin-up women in provocative poses it wasn’t an act that represented the ‘little stuff.’

The reason why Taylor’s shirt is a problem arises not only because it was grossly inappropriate to wear during a broadcast about a scientific accomplishment, nobody should have been wearing that shirt in a professional environment where women are already commonly treated as objects. That shirt was already the reification of how women’s accomplishments in science are often boiled down to their bodies and appearance.

The shirt was already bad before it appeared on TV. When it appeared on TV it became the perfect example of why it’s unacceptable.

To his credit, Taylor apologized for wearing the shirt. And, while certainly he’s socially accountable for choosing to wear the ambient misogyny of his profession literally on his sleeve, he and the European Space Agency staff have done the best they can do in the aftermath of their insensitivity to a problem they were only making worse.

Social media made the problem obvious

To answer foolish responses and silencing people who were not happy about the shirt: “You misunderstand what ‘little stuff’ is if you think people shouldn’t talk about it.”

The “little stuff” is aggregate. Little stuff is the pebbles moving in the avalanche; little stuff is the droplets of water battering down in the tsunami. When you are buried beneath “little stuff” it’s organized together into “big stuff.”

Every little act that makes me feel like less of a person in any space where I should be welcome as a person adds up to an atmosphere of ill will. That ramps from little stuff such as making jokes about women’s sexuality in the workplace all the way up to dismissing their accomplishments. A group of people who spend their time thinking about, talking about, and treating women like they exist only as abstract “things” have the foundation that makes ignoring their deeds an afterthought.

Don’t do this people

Finally, if you responded to people who had a problem with the shirt with an image that says anything like: “Ask me what I was wearing.” (A thinly veiled wink towards how rape victims are often asked what they were wearing when they were attacked.)

You are a bad person and you should feel bad.

Taylor is not a victim in the reaction his shirt generated. Wearing that shirt demonstrably adds to an environment that is already harmful to women and by wearing that shirt on TV he simply managed to make it obvious there was a problem.

He is most certainly not a rape victim (re: the shirt) and borrowing the language used against rape victims is profoundly contemptible.

Taylor was called-out for his choice of expression because it communicates, reinforces, and buttresses a massive, recognizable problem.

In the end, Taylor is also much more adult than many of the people outraged that he was called-out for the shirt: he acknowledged the problem and apologized. People who use rape-language to comment on the reaction to the shirt belittle Taylor’s own autonomy and dignity by acting as if he is not a moral agent who can make choices.