On November 12th, the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet for the first time in human history. It was an incredible feat of human ingenuity. The announcement, however, was marred by the fashion choices of one of its lead scientists, Matt Taylor. A furious response followed condemning the garish pinups adorning Taylor’s shirt. He tearfully apologised, and a swift backlash ensued.
The issue of Matt Taylor’s shirt is an interesting mix of fashion, politics, and science. While the usual suspects have rallied against any kind of social progress, a lot of well-meaning people have been caught in the middle. How can something so innocuous, at the moment of one of humanity’s great accomplishments, cause such controversy? How can we defend women’s right to wear what they want, and yet make such a riot over someone else’s fashion choices?
Here is the problem: fashion choice affect people. Saying “women being able to wear revealing clothes means men should be able to wear sexist imagery,” is dangerous, because the reasons why it is good that a woman can wear revealing clothes are not compatible with men wearing sexist things. Women being told to cover their bodies is always done with the threat of sexual violence: cover up because men might target you otherwise. So we support women dressing as they choose because they shouldn’t have to live under threat of attack. It is not because of their right to self-expression. It is because their right to bodily safety is undermined by a society which blames them for being assaulted, and seeks to control their behaviour through intimidation.
Men’s self-expression through sexist imagery is part of that intimidation. One of the defences of Taylor’s shirt is that the suggestive depictions should be considered art and protected as artistic expression, but that ignores the ways art is created and displayed. Objectification is not a superfluous concept, it is tangible and observable. Julie Peters made an excellent guide to figuring it out, Subjectify Me (warning: contains nudity). Matt Taylor’s shirt is just classic objectification, using all the absurd poses and tropes that comic book art has been so widely criticised for. Female bodies are used as decoration for men’s bodies, and depicted for male gratification. It’s not art, it’s exploitation, and that’s why it’s sexist. It’s also why it is completely incompatible with accepting the clothing choices of women. It is impossible to accept objectification and advocate for women’s safety, because dehumanisation permits so much of the issues surrounding their safety.
Context matters too. In science this is not just an incident, it’s part of a broader problem. Women have been systematically excluded from STEM fields. Aggressive initiatives to increase participation have dramatically reduced the gender gap, but it’s not gone. Not even close, as the ESA’s promo materials demonstrate. In part that’s due to a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it’s a prominent scientist being overtly sexist, but much of the hostility is the kind of blundering Matt Taylor did when he wore that shirt to represent his organisation. Science is often treated like a boy’s social club, a work environment of accepted, casual misogyny. Having such casual misogyny from men in leadership positions is unacceptable, even if it was unintentional. Special attention needs to be paid to how men interact with women in that environment. It doesn’t mean he needs to be punished, but it does mean he needed to apologise, and I’m glad he did. It being an important milestone for science doesn’t excuse his shirt either. Doing something amazing doesn’t reduce your responsibilities as a human being. No one, regardless of their celebrity, should get a carte blanche for bad behaviour.
A concerning demographic in the backlash are those claiming,“I am a feminist, and I don’t find it objectionable.” Not all personal experiences are equal. We do not privilege the voices of the affected because they possess objective truth through experience, but because the effect needs to be addressed. The claim of being unaffected doesn’t possess that urgency. So being a feminist who didn’t care doesn’t mean the women who did care are wrong because of your experience. Identity is not meant to be a weapon, but a means of getting people to listen to those who have been hurt. There is a danger in the reactionary response: the claim of personal experience of no effect against those who are affected. It’s an old, cleverly disguised trope: “these women are hysterical.” These women over here are irrational and emotional. It’s the troubling, girl-eat-girl narrative of those seeking to be the ‘Good One’ who assuages men’s guilt (“it’s not sexist, because Jane agrees with us”) in exchange for acceptance. It needs to stop.
Being progressive is not easy. Respecting the feelings of strangers is hard, especially when they run against all our preconceptions. We will have to fight elusive, bewildering, and sometimes absurd battles that subvert things we conceive of as good. Matt Taylor’s shirt highlighted that in surprising clarity. The casual misogyny that undermines female STEM participation unwittingly stumbled into the limelight, at a time of great pomp and celebrity. It wasn’t the vitriolic hatred of dedicated misogynists, it was the casual disregard of a place where women still aren’t expected. There was no deliberate ill will, and that’s a harder act to identify and fight against. I’m glad we did. It highlights why it’s not enough to be a humanist, why feminism and all its branches are necessary. We are not all the same; the liberty of the default individual is not always the liberty of those most in need of it.
Banner courtesy of Wanderer Photography Editor Antony Ta. Banner photography courtesy of European Space Agency Flickr.