That Infamous Shirt

The Internet is throwing one of its childish tantrums again.

The rocket scientist Matt Taylor, who had just made the remarkable achievement of landing a spacecraft on a comet, did a TV interview while wearing a Hawaiian shirt decorated by 1950s-style pinups that a female friend had made for him as birthday present.

Yes, the shirt could be seen as sexist in a workplace context, though I’d doubt most people would have batted an eyelid had he worn it to a rockabilly gig. But the outrage that followed blew things up out of all proportion, and showed the internet at its worst. It started with a nasty mean-spirited article on a clickbait website I won’t link to, and it was followed with the usual pattern of a Twitter mob gathering up torches and pitchforks. It resulted in the man making a tearful apology on TV. But the resulting backlash shows no signs of dying down.

Sorry, but I’m not seeing this as a successful calling out of sexism and misogyny in science. I’m seeing a brilliant but socially awkward man set upon by a pack of bullies over a social faux-pas. And from what I can tell, that’s how a lot of people outside the social-justice bubble see things as well. You are left with the impression they’ve gone for him because he makes an easy soft target who won’t fight back, and forcing a humiliating apology gives them a nice glow of moral righteousness. But there are far worse things than an inappropriate shirt, and cheap victories are often hollow ones.

There are real problems with structural sexism in the worlds of science and technology, but they’re not going to be solved by this sort of knee-jerk public shaming. Remarkable scientific achievements are often the work of people who don’t spend precious brain cycles on things like fashion sense. A scientific world that has no room for socially awkward people with a few rough edges who have difficulty navigating complex and constantly-changing rules of etiquette is a scientific world that will be less able to do things like land spacecraft on comets.

By all means call out blatant sexism. But always retain a sense of proportion, and never forget that there are real human beings at the other end of the invective. As I said about the Requires Hate saga, we must always put empathy before ideology.

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13 Responses to Shirtstorm

  1. My current take is if you land on a comet, you’re entitled to wear any shirt you like. Also, my wife made me a shirt remarkably like that one.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I can see both sides here; in retrospect it was probably a mistake to wear that shirt when giving TV interviews. But the outrage has been out of all proportion.

    It’s also not for me, as a man, to say whether or not the shirt is offensive to women.

  3. Nick says:

    He’s certainly guilty of not thinking through the consequences of his choice of attire, and others are perfectly entitled to reference this when discussing reasons why women continue to be underrepresented in science & tech.

    Having said that, I’m troubled by the self-amplifying chain reaction of outrage that this triggered. It was an unnecessary distraction from the achievements of the mission – which is not to say that the issue is unimportant (because it clearly is), but rather that it could (and should) have been more cleanly separated out from what was happening on the day.

    I supposed ‘rage amplification’ is one of the unintended consequences of social media. The danger is that ‘anger in 140 characters or less’ becomes a substitute for intelligent and more nuanced commentary. I’m not saying that anger is an inappropriate response, by the way. I can quite understand why people would feel angry about it. But Twitter is not the best channel for expressing that, as it allows the emotion to snowball rather than the underlying rational argument.

    In another world, pre-Facebook-and pre-Twitter, this could have all gone down differently. Matt Taylor could have been taken quietly to one side by someone who could have explained the inappropriateness of his shirt to him, and he could have apologised in subsequent interviews in a less fraught way. He’s probably a nice bloke overall, who demonstrated some thoughtlessness and made a mistake. He should be called out on that – most definitely – but he shouldn’t be crucified and suffer permanent damage to his reputation for it.

  4. Tim Hall says:

    Yep, “rage amplification” (I’m stealing that term!) is a huge problem, and I recognise that I’ve contributed to it myself at times.

    Not sure what to do about it except encouraging people to step back and think before posting hasty comments on something. Twitter is really at its best for light-hearted humourous stuff. It’s at its worst for emotive issues where all nuance gets lost.

  5. I wouldn’t have worn that shirt at the time, but I’m a bit conservative in my clothes. The notion that scientists should all wear suits and ties seems silly to me, but apparently that’s where contemporary feminism wants to go. As I’ve said elsewhere, this does nothing to dispel the notion that women are shallow creatures who’re obsessed with clothes. And someone else pointed out that the rationalization for the mobbing is that he deserved it because of the way he was dressed. I consider to find it revealing that to modern feminists, the women on his shirt are more important than the women on his team.

    “Rage amplification” is a decent way of describing how every mob has worked since the first ape attacked another one for failing to conform.

  6. I’m probably sounding more dismissive of this than I mean to be. Was the shirt choice a bit tacky? Yes, but let those who have never been sartorially imperfect cast the first stone. Does the shirt oppress women? Only if you think respect for women is proportional to the amount of skin covered, so women in burkas are the most respected of all. The guy helped humanity land on a comet, and his accomplishment will always be colored in his mind by people who threw a hissyfit over his shirt.

  7. John P. says:

    I expect when he got up that morning, the shirt was simply the first one on the pile and he would have had far more important things on his mind than the impact it would have on others. Especially if he wasn’t expecting to be called on to give a TV interview. I say well done to everyone at the ESA for what they’ve achieved with Rosetta & Philae and remember that there are more important things in life than the opinions of the Tit-verse.

  8. Tim Hall says:

    Yet again the internet is polarised between “There is no way that shirt can possibly be sexist” and “Dogpiling and bullying for making an innocent mistake is perfectly OK”. I despair of humanity sometimes.

    Even Boris bloody Johnson has weighed in now….

  9. One of the questions that should be asked is whether cartoony women’s flesh is sexist, and if so, why. The argument of conservative religious people is the depiction of flesh is wrong, and the depiction of women’s flesh is more wrong, so in their solution, the question can’t arise. For people who like decorum, of course the guy should’ve been more conservatively dressed. Some people would’ve complained had he worn a T-shirt. Has anyone asked any of the women he works with whether he seems sexist?

  10. Cat says:

    Wow. You’re hearing a lot from people who think wearing a shirt that is all about how women are only valued for sex is okay.

    Let me just be the lone voice that says if you’d be embarrassed to have your mother and your high school science teacher see your shirt, you should probably wear something different to work. Duh.

    There are images you don’t wear to work. Pin-ups is one of them. I wouldn’t wear a Chippendales shirt to work; that would make my male co-workers uncomfortable. And I wouldn’t care if a man had made or bought the shirt for me.

    It’s a common sense thing.

    That said, he’s apologized and hopefully learned not to wear pin-up shirts to work, so I’m willing to let it go. What I’m less willing to let go is the number of men who have taken it on themselves to ‘splain to me that pin-up shirts really should be okay with me.

  11. Cat, did you mis the part where a female friend gave him that shirt? Do you think she thought it meant women are “only valued for sex”? My wife made me a shirt that’s very similar. I can assure you, she does not think the idea of women being only valued for sex is okay.

    Out of curiosity, why is it okay for you ‘splain that pin-up shirts shouldn’t be okay with others?

  12. John Hunt says:

    Wasn’t Amy Winehouse covered in tattoos of scantily clad women? No one seemed to complain too much about that. Well, I didn’t, but then I was a huge fan of hers, going off topic a bit.

  13. Michael Orton says:

    Should he have worn a white lab coat?

    What was he supposed to wear? Why?

    This whole thing is absurd. It seems to me that people who are more interested in his shirt than his achievement are people who’s opinions are not of great interest to me.