Comet-Shmomet, Why We Still Need Feminism: A Debate About “ShirtStorm”

For one frozen instant, many of us on our gleaming blue jewel of a planet stood transfixed: enraptured and awestruck by a scrawny piece of machinery hurtling millions of miles from terra firma.

It was the little engine that could, only this time for real.

On Monday morning, November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” mission landed its tiny Philae probe on the surface of Comet 67P (also known as Churyumov–Gerasimenko). If patience is a virtue, then Rosetta was virtuous in spades. The spaceship was launched on March 2, 2004, and traveled more than 6.4 billion kilometers before arriving at the comet.

But then we crashed back to Earth. Within days of the landing, the world learned of a purported onslaught against women and gender equality that – some have said – dwarfed in importance the accomplishments of the Rosetta journey. Others, however, disagreed and contended that the “onslaught” was an example of faux feminists magnifying the trivial, and, in the process, demeaning feminism, women, and the cause of equality. In this post, I will stake no explicit position; I will serve instead as a brooding omnipresence in the sky and leave it to you, my legion of readers, to think about and confront the issues raised by the protagonists.

Position I

A) The Sexist, Salacious Comet Shirt – The “ShirtStorm” Controversy Is Born

Dr. Matt Taylor, a tattooed, geeky rocket scientist chiefly responsible for Rosetta’s successful landing, appeared at a press conference wearing a shirt that a female friend designed for him as a gift. The shirt featured scantily clad women – scanty in the 1940s sense of the word – holding modernistic, Sci-Fi-looking weapons.

Shirtstorm Sanford Heisler Kimpel

Outrage exploded. Christopher Plante of Verge started the ball rolling against Taylor. “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” Other feminists soon joined the campaign. They claimed that Taylor’s shirt was exclusionary and could discourage women from entering certain scientific fields.

These reactions produced results. Dr. Taylor held a post-shirt press conference and, in tears, apologized for his allegedly women-hostile sartorial selection. One obstacle blocking women from the STEM professions has now been removed.

B) The Mark Zuckerberg Shirt

Several days before the Taylor imbroglio, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was asked why he always wears plain gray t-shirts. Zuckerberg responded, “I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life”.

Once again, the response was fast and furious. A number of feminists accused Zuckerberg of sounding “pretty sexist,” because his remarks implied that male CEOs (as opposed to females) are too important to care about something as frivolous as dressing professionally. But the uproar did not sway Mark Zuckerberg; no apology, tearful or otherwise, was forthcoming.

C) Time Magazine – “Let’s Ban the Word ‘Feminist’”

In November 2014, Time Magazine ran its annual list of words to ban. Included were: ‘turnt,’ ‘bossy,’ ‘basic,’ ‘kale,’ ‘bae,’ but also – stupefyingly – ‘feminist’! The vote was not close.  45 percent of responders elected to deep-six ‘feminist’. (‘Bae’ was a distant runner-up with 13 percent.) But this time, there was no replay of the Zuckerberg fiasco.  After Planned Parenthood and feminist organizations protested, Time issued an abject apology and expunged ‘feminist’ from its hit parade of ban-suitable words. The poll results were “disappeared” and consigned to the dustbin of journalistic memory.

Position II

D) The Reasonable [or Reactionary] Rejoinder

Many writers lamented that the attacks on Dr. Taylor’s female-decorated shirt and Mark Zuckerberg’s unadorned gray garment exposed modern feminism as a movement concerned more with the trivial than the significant and thus ultimately damaging to women’s rights. See Reynolds, “One small shirt for a man, one giant leap backward for women”.

Feminists were derided as “bullies,” “a lynch mob,” “hypocrites,” and “the attacks on scientist Matt Taylor are crazy”.  London mayor Boris Johnson described viewing Dr. Taylor’s tearful apology.  “It was like watching something from the show trials of Stalin or the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-Sung before they were taken away and shot.”

The critics were equally harsh on the feminist wave that forced Time magazine to delete ‘feminism’ from its list of ban-worthy words. One blogger noted that only about 20 percent of the U.S. population identifies as a feminist, and opined that this was understandable because the putatively irrational reaction to Dr. Taylor, Mark Zuckerberg, and Time’s contest epitomized the entire feminist enterprise.

From the critics’ perspectives, feminists come across as humorless, haranguing harridans focused on the inconsequential and always eager to don the privileged mantle of the oppressed

Surprisingly, some of those flinging the sharpest darts against feminists and feminism are women. This phenomenon can perhaps be explained by the concept of “false consciousness.” It is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome whereby members of an oppressed group incorporate the oppressor’s mental geography and cannot recognize the inequality and exploitation that plague their daily lives. Or, maybe, just maybe, we should take the dart throwers at their word. They are exercising common sense because they realize that if every micro-slight gets blown up beyond reason into a crime against humanity, feminism will be reduced to a hospitality tent for thin-skinned cranks and perpetual malcontents. As one female commentator noted: “The message of ‘ShirtStorm’… is that aspiring female scientists can be undone by some sexy pictures on a shirt – and that women’s presence in science requires men to walk on eggshells, [and] curb any goofy humor that offends the sensitive”

Conclusion

The contretemps revolving around Dr. Taylor’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s hurtful shirts and Time Magazine’s attempt to exorcise “feminism” from the rhetorical spectrum suggest – possibly – that more needs to be done before gender equality becomes a reality. The anti-women opinions generated during the debates discussed here provide vivid examples of how unconscious biases may impede women’s quest for fair treatment in the workplace. Feminism, it seems, still has much heavy lifting to do, come comet or high water.

Or, perhaps not. What do you think, readers? Don’t be shy. Volunteer your thoughts.

N.B. To end on an irrelevant note: women comprised an important part of the Rosetta team. Kathrin Allweg of the University of Bern in Switzerland was one of the project’s lead researchers. Claudia Alexander was NASA’s Rosetta Project scientist. But virtually no one crows about this because the ShirtStorm furor has so completely swallowed up the subject of gender relations and the Rosetta Project.

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