The European Space Agency’s probe managed to land on a hurtling comet millions of miles away to collect scientific data, and has begun sending images from the surface of the body, known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. However, Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the Rosetta probe mission found himself at the center of a feminist uprising after he appeared on television earlier this week….because of his choice of shirts.
Here’s a good view:
Taylor, who appears to superficially fit the template of clueless scientific geniuses presented in the hit comedy “Big Bang Theory,” appeared live wearing a garish Hawaiian-style shirt with a design made up of Heavy Metal comic book images of busty women in various states of undress, carrying guns and generally enacting the fantasies of 14-year-old boys. This somehow managed to overwhelm the astounding scientific achievement he has been part of, and angry feminists attacked:
“No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt,” tweeted Atlantic journalist Rose Eveleth. Astrophysicist Katie Mack said, “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in science.”
So furious was the reaction of some feminists and others on social media and elsewhere that Taylor felt constrained to apologize, which he did during another televised update regarding the mission, saying, as he choked back tears, “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this.”
Then came the backlash from the men.
“Could America have won World War II if the Army Air Force had to waste time dealing with a left throwing hissy fits over all of the provocatively dressed women being painted onto B-17s and B-29s as nose art?” wrote blogger Ed Driscoll. Prof. Glenn Reynolds was more direct:
“Just to be clear, Rose Eveleth of The Atlantic is a horrible person, who took what should have been one of the best days of a man’s life, a day of doing something no human beings had ever done before, and ruined it in order to feel important. She should be apologizing, not taking Twitter victory laps.”..
“Landing on a comet is a big deal. Complaining about men isn’t. Also, we’ve been told that it’s always sexist and inappropriate for men to comment on women’s choice of attire, so why should women be allowed to criticize what men wear? This is just another sad effort on the part of losers to inject themselves into matters that are actually relevant, but in which they are unqualified to take part.”
What’s going on here?
Let me try to sort all of this out.
1. The shirt is not appropriate for the workplace. It would constitute per se sexual harassment in a U.S. office if women were employed there, regardless of what the wearer’s intent was. That kind of portrayal of women creates a hostile work environment.
2. It is also an inappropriate shirt to wear on television (whether one “cares about women in science” or not), regardless of the reason and purpose of the broadcast. As several critics pointed out, apparently none of Taylor’s team were alert to this, or at least no one convinced him to wear something that was not offensive, or so likely to offend.
3. Does this mean that Taylor is himself sexist, or that his working environment is anti-woman? No.
4. Does it mean he and the culture in which he works has no sensitivity to this at all? Yes.
5. The shifting of attention from the scientific achievement to the cultural hostility to women in the sciences was unfortunate, and making Taylor the hapless symbol of the sexism of scientists was unfair to Taylor, who merely wore the wrong shirt at the wrong time. It is true that a tasteless—OK, idiotic–choice of public dress is of less import than the scientific advance he was part of. However, addressing and eliminating gender bias in the workplace and the sciences in particular is as important as landing a probe on a comet. It is too bad the two events clashed, but feminists cannot be blamed for that. Thus..
6. Feminists and other critics were 100% correct to raise objections to Taylor’s shirt, and the implicit message it sent.
7. Taylor, unfortunately, received all the criticism for what is a culture-wide phenomenon, and that is unfair. In this case, however, the injustice was necessary. Symbols generally choose themselves.
8. The attacks on Taylor’s critics are wrong-headed. The shirt is symbolic, and was properly flagged. The prominence of the event, the comet mission, made calling attention to Taylor’s shirt essential. It was an opportunity. I would suggest that most of the critics really don’t think gender bias in the sciences is all that important. They are mistaken.
9. It is too bad that Taylor’s experience in what should have been a lifetime moment of triumph and pride was marred. However, his lack of professional awareness—no sane plaintiff would appear in a courtroom is such a shirt; no student would wear it to class; no one but a clod would wear it on a date; no one would dare wear it to a job interview, or on an airplane, or to the opera, and this guy thinks it’s the perfect attire to appear on work-wide television wearing?—is astounding.
10. It is true that everything shouldn’t be politicized, and the landing of the Rosetta probe didn’t have to be. It was the shirt, however, not the shirt’s critics that politicized this event.
Score this a well-earned victory for gender bias awareness.