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?
Timaree: I think the idea of political correctness being oppressive is absolutely laughable. When I hear a person say that, usually they’re white, often they’re male, they tend to be straight and cisgendered, able bodied and middle class. And they’re tired of having to hear about oppression. They’re tired of having to hear marginalized peoples’ problems. But they aren’t thinking about how annoying and exhausting it is to actually be a part of a marginalized group.
There are FAR, FAR, FAR more eggregious examples of sexism and objectification. Certainly. But that doesn’t make it above comment. When I talk about street harassment, I get told “there are bigger fish!” and they mention sex trafficking and rape and war and all sorts of things. And I’m like: how does combatting one problem hurt the cause of another? You don’t think the whole system of oppression is upheld by intersecting blocks of privilege and marginalization? You don’t think that the bigger crimes are held up by the smaller ones, the little interpersonal acts of regressive thinking?
There are more patterns out there for shirts besides women’s body parts. If you think the only option is plaid and khaki or cartoon asses, that’s your lack of creativity.
And there are times and places for that shirt too! But he wouldn’t have worn it to a job interview, probably. Or to a funeral.
JGT: It’s a shirt. It’s not his beliefs. It’s not his politics. It’s a shirt. Are there opportunities to speak out against being objectified? Absolutely. This wasn’t one of them. This came off as trolling. And I find the notion that he should wear that shirt when YOU feel it is appropriate is oppressive. He should be able to wear that shirt any time he wants to. He just landed a washing machine on a comet! Let him live a little!
Timaree: Being sexist is more acceptable than being racist. If that shirt had a little Sambo on it, people might get it more. There’s a legacy of oppression that remains today by personal prejudice and institutional discrimination. It’s just a cartoon. It’s just a shirt. It’s just a tv show. It’s just mass media. It’s just pervading the entirety of culture.
I think that idea, “somebody going nuts about it” is exactly what’s problematic. I didn’t cry about it. I didn’t feel any feelings at all. But I looked at it and went “huh.” And had some thoughts and put them into words. But if you think women are silly, emotional creatures and their concerns are inherently petty and dramatic, then their objections to anything, no matter how sober and rational, will be diminished as being ‘freaking out.”
Nobody tried to have him arrested or make him lose his job. No one called him personally any bad names. He was just told, “Your shirt is sexist and alienating” And the anti-feminists, who perceive feminism as some kind of Orwellian overlord went bananas with strawmen arguments.
He CAN wear that shirt anytime he wants, just as people CAN say anything that comes to their minds. Does that mean no one else gets to reply? No. Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to control reactions or freedom from consequence.
You can put anything you want into a movie and I’ll fight to the death for your right to do so. But that doesn’t mean I won’t show up at the premiere and say “this part was f**ked up for this reason.”
I didn’t read about him getting any death threats or any rape threats, although maybe he just didn’t tell anyone. But it seems unlikely. Women on the internet come to expect those if they are high profile. So I think proportionality is relevant here.
I also want to mention that none of this diminishes his achievement. In fact, I hope that the controversy brings more attention to the story. It’s really sad that it turned into this mess and he’ll always look back on it with some scarring, but I have every hope he’ll be back with more science for us and we can know about his project even when the situation isn’t so magnificent.
JGT: I think a lot of people wonder about the sincerity of the feminist movement when it attacked Matt Taylor. Hollering “racist!” or “sexist!” is a great way to get page views or to get noticed. There are very real examples of racism and sexism in every day life that should be addressed, but they’re not, because these are complex things that require a certain depth of thought and nuance, while hollering “Sexist!” when seeing a shirt you don’t like is so much easier, and let’s face it, will bring more page views. Writing about someone’s freaking shirt is simply grabbing low lying fruit and whining about it.
Timaree: Saying we live in an outrage society is two things; a) Blaming marginalized people for what is actually a result of the 24 hour news cycle and b) Marginalized people finally having a voice. A lot of folks used to go their whole lives without hearing about daily acts of racism, homophobia, etc. Now the possibility for independent media and reaching out to international audiences is possible and voices are being heard that weren’t before. It’s a rude awakening for someone who benefits from structural inequalities to finally have to hear about the problems of other people who don’t benefit.
I’m not calling Dr. Taylor sexist. It’s about addressing behaviors, not people. However, if we let the little things go, it takes waaaay longer for the big things. It’s like how fixing the broken windows and cleaning up litter can reduce crime. You deal with the small stuff because it’s easier to fix now and it also changes the entire atmosphere. You shape culture by the things that you choose to act on and ignore.
And again, it’s also not that I don’t like the shirt. The shirt is…whatever. It’s not the coolest shirt, but I get that he was going for “wild and crazy guy with a bright pattern and sexy ladies” but it’s not really the point. It’s about the inescapable nature of sexist objectification. You literally can’t go anywhere but a church and not see female bodies on display to sell things.
JGT: But this isn’t about social progress. It’s about a freaking shirt. I would not wear that shirt to work. I personally found it a bit tasteless. But who gives a shit what I think? This story wasn’t about me. And it wasn’t about the people who wrote how offended they were. Who the hell are they? This isn’t their moment. It’s his. Let him have it. There will be plenty of legitimate opportunities to point out sexist objectification. Turn on your TV, and you’ll see it in 30 seconds. Why did this guy, whose biggest mistake was wearing a shirt with attractive women on it, have to suddenly become the whipping post for this topic?
Timaree: It’s about a shirt because that’s the way it went down but it’s a controversy because it’s representative of something larger. Again, would you feel like it was ok for him to wear a sambo shirt? It is, after all, just a shirt.
I don’t get why anyone thinks “there are worse ways this problem manifests” is an argument against action. Should I not speak up on small racial comments because it’s not as bad as shooting a person of color? Like I said repeatedly, these are all facets (some big, some tiny) of the same overall structure. And if you don’t want to take the structure down, I can’t make you care or get involved. But if you don’t want to fight a battle, don’t, but it’s not smarter to tell other people which battles to fight when they’re consistently fighting all of them, with or without you.
And I think it’s really hyperbolic and overly dramatic to say he was a whipping post or that he was abused or any number of things. People are allowed to critique things that are done in public.
JGT: People can fight whatever battles they want in a free society. I just think they need to pick better targets if they want their battle cry to be picked up by a larger constituency. They’ll turn off a lot of potential supporters by attacking one remarkable person not because of his beliefs or his politics but because of a shirt he wore that day.
Timaree: They were powerful in the same way that all depictions of women in action movies are: they’re badass in a violent way but more importantly, they have specific bodily proportions. They’re sexual objects who happen to be extra attractive because they are also into stuff that dudes are into.
If someone gets “turned off” from the idea of gender equality because of a couple blog posts they found annoying, they weren’t really all that sold on the idea anyway. If you’re here for feminism because its trendy, ok, whatever. But if you’re someone who legitimately wants to look at systems of power and make the world a more equal place where everyone has access, you’re about feminism regardless of which stories get the most traction in the media.
There are a lot of dudes who posted about this story who don’t post about feminism otherwise. And that speaks volumes about who is really making this a controversy. And that needs to be called out too. More than the original shirt, if we’re triaging.
JGT: There are people who are going to be offended by anything and everything. So why do anything? Eventually, the clothes we wear will all be offensive, the words we say will all be offensive, and the things we do will all be offensive, and we’ll need to carry around a book of non-offensive terms to make sure we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t think you need to be a white heterosexual male to feel a bit suffocated by this.
Timaree: Well, with that attitude, why do anything at all? Why not just wear pajamas all day and never leave a pile of your own feces, because the world is just so fucking effort-requiring.
If people don’t care about inequality or feelings or any of that, I can’t make them. but it doesn’t make their case any better about why I shouldn’t object to something.
JGT: How is going after the guy for his shirt choice different than going after a woman for wearing a revealing shirt? Those are both instances in which some people are trying to pressure someone else into wearing what THEY deem is appropriate, are they not?
Timaree: Both instances are about addressing objectification of women. He’s not objectifying himself, displaying his own skin. Women’s bodies are considered public property, open for critique constantly. They don’t have to be on national TV.
Women wearing little is ascribed a morality, they are assumed to be intentionally inflaming people’s lust, asking for it. Again, the issue is that objectification is inescapable for women when culture views them primarily as sexual, not people. Why we ascribe sexual immodesty to short skirts but not topless men. Why we fret about girls’ clothes distracting boys but not vice versa. These gender roles assume shitty things about boys too: that they’re all mindless robots driven by instinct, incapable of controlling themselves. It’s condescending.
JGT: But the same people who defend women who wear clothes that a certain segment of society deems as “inappropriate” because they should be adhering to THEIR morality, is now demanding that a man not wear a certain shirt because it offends THEIR morality. Isn’t this somewhat hypocritical? Women should be able to wear what they want to wear without men judging them (slutty, immoral, etc.) but men can’t wear what they want to wear because women might judge them as misogynistic?
Timaree: I think you’re confusing who is complaining in these various situations. The people who deem women’s clothes inappropriate are NOT the same ones who are saying “Yep, that shirt is alienating.”
And while i’ve said it at least 3 times in the thread already, I’ll say it again. I’m not calling Dr. Taylor misogynist or sexist or anything at all. I don’t know the man but I admire his career success. That said, a person is capable of sexist, racist, homophobic behaviors even if they are good people who value equality. And a good person who gets called out will apologize. He did, which makes me think he’s probably actually a good dude. He just didn’t realize how he would be read.
JGT: Sorry if my last point was written confusingly. My point was the that the people defending a woman’s right to wear what they want are the ones who are yelling the loudest at Taylor for wearing what he wants.
Timaree: I guess my post a few paragraphs ago wasn’t clear, but in both instances: shaming women for their slutty clothes and wearing clothes that objectify women are the SAME THING. They are both a part of the cultural norm of viewing women as sexual objects first, people second. Objecting to women being slut shamed for not covering enough skin is combating casual sexism that has a basis in moralizing. Objecting to a dude wearing sexualized cartoon women in a professional context is combating casual sexism that has a basis in being immersed in a pornified, sexist culture.
If he were being shamed for showing too much skin, for making himself look to sexy, then it’d be super hypocritical. But that’s not the issue.
The overall feminist argument in both instance is: women are people, not objects. We wear shorts because it’s hot or because we want to, not because we exist to inflame or deter lust in men. This dude’s shirt was just a small part of the everyday imagery that gives people the idea women exist to inflame lust in men.
Look, none of this reeeeeeeeeeeally matters because the planet is dying and eventually it will be swallowed into the sun. In the big picture, none of anybody’s problems are important. But you don’t get to decide the scope of my lens and where I decide is worth my efforts.
JGT: I think the impending destruction of the planet earth is a good place to wrap this up. Join us next week, when Timaree explains why she doesn’t want to have children, and I explain to her why she’s wrong.