I’ve been trying to stay out of the Matt Taylor #shirtstorm debates. (For those who remain blissfully unaware of the incident, here’s a recap.)
It’s a complicated situation and I’m not entirely sure where my opinion lies. I also think the Internet latches onto stories and sensationalizes them unnecessarily. This article by The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf explains why that happens in general, and in this particular case, more eloquently than I can.
Yet, when something goes (and stays) viral, it says something about our culture and the debates people are interested in having. That’s worth analyzing.
What really gets my goat (and leads to OP-EDs) is people sharing memes like this on Facebook. Somehow, this situation has been turned into an argument about how feminism is awful. I absolutely disagree.
Go look at the meme if you haven’t already; next up is my analysis.
The top photograph is from Slut Walk, an event started in 2011 to raise awareness about harassment and sexual assault, especially since a woman’s clothing is used as an excuse for why she “deserved it” (which is blatantly false as I explain in this article about street harrassment.)
The individual who created this meme argues that if feminists say women can wear whatever they like free from harassment, they cannot prevent men from exercising the same rights.
That might sound like an okay theory on the surface. But go back and take a look at what those women are wearing. One is wearing a bra and shorts or a short skirt with garters. Another is wearing a corset. Many are just wearing “normal” clothes.
Rose Eveleth’s tweet was an albeit snarky response about the status of women in STEM. It was a critique of scientist Matt Taylor’s choice to wear a shirt featuring depictions of scantily-clad women on air for an audience of millions, during a professional interview.
Right away, people jumped in to defend Taylor’s right to wear this shirt, especially since it was a gift. But I don’t think anyone is arguing that he should never, ever wear it, or that the shirt is offensive in general.
Context, however, is everything. As this New York Times article points out, Taylor probably didn’t think about the implications of wearing that shirt at that particular moment. And he did apologize.
It is not insignificant, however, that Taylor just probably didn’t think about it. As a man, he is privileged enough to not have to think about it. No woman in our culture could say the same. In fact, a woman would have been questioned about her attire on the air, instead of social media.
The meme in question is comparing apples to oranges. Feminists argue women shouldn’t be subject to violence for merely existing in the world. Eveleth argued Taylor’s choice to wear that shirt in a particular social context was problematic. Taylor was not threatened with violence, and Eveleth’s tweet cannot be convincingly construed as harassment.
Even Taylor could see the error of his ways when it was brought to his attention. Taylor’s apology would have been the end of this, if not for those arguing he had nothing to apologize for in the first place.
How did we get to the point where there is a petition to get Eveleth fired for daring to suggest Taylor’s shirt contributes to an atmosphere which makes female scientists feel less than their male counterparts?
Eveleth didn’t call for Taylor to get fired. She didn’t threaten him or his family. But the backlash on the Internet against her has been severe. Because in our culture, women are threatened with rape not only for what they choose to wear on the street, but for daring to voice an unpopular opinion on the Internet.
Slate‘s Phil Plait chalks the entire situation up to casual sexism. We are inundated with pictures of scantily-clad women, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal to wear a shirt covered with them. Maybe you think, “Professionalism be damned – that’s a great shirt, and he should be able to wear it whenever he wants.”
To plenty of women, Taylor’s choice wasn’t a big deal. But to some women (and men), it was. The fact that we can’t even have a reasonable conversation about this is proof of why we need feminism – not why it needs to go away.
Cis, white, straight men have privilege. It allows them to get dressed without thinking too much or at all about how others might interpret their choices. It causes their choices and opinions to be defended instead of attacked. It allows them to be the face of scientific achievement in the world. Until we can talk about that privilege and what it means in a rational and non-misogynistic way, nothing will change.
This OP-ED was originally published by The Horn on 11/24/2014.