This is the first in a series of discussions with Timaree Leigh. Timaree earned a PhD. in human sexuality from Widener University, currently teaches classes, writes a terrific column for Philly Weekly, runs a popular podcast, and runs both an excellent website and a very active facebook page, which quite frankly fosters some of the best debate I’ve ever seen online.
Last week she and I got into a bit of a fracas over Shirtgate, the incident in which a member of the European Space Agency wore a questionable shirt after landing a space probe on a moving comet 310 million miles away. This led to a backlash against the scientist, which then led to a backlash against the backlash. Timaree and I continued the debate in a back and forth I thought a few of you might enjoy.
JGT: The European Space agency recently landed a spacecraft the size of a washing machine on a comet that was something like 17 gazillion miles away, a staggering human achievement that is simply awe-inspiring. And yet, sadly, a day later the talk wasn’t about the achivement but about a shirt that one of the men most responsible for this modern miracle wore. It apparently caused quite a stir in some feminist circles, and a day later the scientist in question, Matt Taylor, tearfully apologized for that shirt because he had received so much angry feedback on it. Don’t you feel that it was absurd that feminists stole this man’s moment of triumph by harassing him over a freaking shirt?
Timaree: What happened was that a guy who is probably a perfectly nice guy knew he was going to be on TV, representing himself, his agency and in many ways science itself to the world. How often do we see real scientists on TV? And he decided to wear a cool shirt his friend made him. He didn’t think about how the images on the shirt were sexually objectifying. In and of itself, the shirt isn’t a big deal and I think pretty much all the feminists have been clear on that. Had he worn it to the after party, no one would have said a thing. If he wore it on the street, there’s really little chance anyone would have an issue. The problem is context.
There’s nothing wrong with images of female bodies. There’s nothing wrong with nudity. There’s nothing wrong with sex, masturbation or porn. But that doesn’t mean they all belong everywhere all the time or that all images are the same.
Objectification is complex because we all want to be objectified some of the time- by our partners, at least. Some of us enjoy it more than others and really like exhibiting our sexuality and our bodies. It’s all good, as long as everyone can consent. But what happens with objectification of women is that it never turns off. The underlying sexism of culture says that women are objects first and people second. That once a woman is viewed as sexual, that will always be the first thing that springs to mind. That a woman’s appearance is open for public critique and discussion.
So in this situation, this guy is making a major announcement of real significance and it never even occurs to him that objectification of female bodies might not be appropriate in this exact time and space. He didn’t mean any harm, I don’t think, but that’s because casual objectification is EVERYWHERE. It’s so omnipresent that we become immune to it. It’s hard to walk around without seeing advertising where some thin, light skinned female body part is being used to sell something.
The STEM fields are notoriously an old boys club. Lots of research shows that women are institutionally and casually held back in the sciences all the time, more likely to be put as second author, read as less competent despite standardized scores being equal, that kind of thing. So now we see a scientist on TV for the first time in a while and the implicit message is: here at Rosetta we’re cool with chicks if they’re hot. That’s not the worst type of sexism, but it’s a little alienating to realize you’re in a space where you’re your gender first and a scientist second.
I love porn (not all of it, obviously) but wouldn’t be super comfortable to walk into an all-male room with porn plastered on the walls. Not that I would be afraid for my safety, but it would make it clear that I was “other.
And feminists went to point this out. And the internet exploded because people who never pay attention to feminists normally were ecstatic for something so tiny so they could finally yell “f**k feminism” like they wanted to all along.
The story is only huge because of the backlash and people saying, “look at these crazy emotional women.”
JGT: Well, I disagree with your final point. The shirt became a story immediately because women at several well-read online magazines wrote about it and then it just took off. Matt Taylor obviously caught a ton of heat for it, enough so that he felt the need to apologize for it. None of that was due to backlash. That’s what created the backlash. The more pressing problem to me is how oppressive our PC society has become. At the end of the day, it was a shirt. It was a shirt he wore to honor a female friend who actually made the shirt. Aren’t there other FAR more objective depictions of women in our culture, on our TV screens, our computer screens, heck, even in our art museums? Isn’t there a concern that we’re creating a homogenized culture, where everyone will wear khakis and polo shirts because they’re fearful that anything else that they wear can be seen as a symbol of something else that offends someone?