The Guardian, Monday 17 November 2014 14.19 GMT
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Dr Matt Taylor and that shirt: not his greatest moment after all. Photograph: European Space Agency/PA
What should a scientist wear during a comet landing?
Eve Rybody, Everywhere, World
Well, Ms Rybody, it’s funny that you should ask this for, truly, this has become the biggest fashion question – possibly even the only fashion question – in not just the world, but the entire cosmos. For anyone who might have missed it, last week there was some dinky story about a probe landing on a comet for the first time ever. I know what you’re thinking: “Probe, schmobe, get to the real issue here – what was one of the scientists wearing?!?!?!?” Glad to be of service! The project scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, appeared on TV wearing a shirt patterned with images of semi-clothed women that I assume (not being an expert in either of these fields) reference video games and heavy metal albums. Cue internet rage! Everything that followed was utterly predictable, but not especially edifying. The story went through the five cycles of internet rage: initial amusement; astonishment; outrage; backlash to the outrage; humiliated apology. First, our attention was drawn to the shirt via some sniggering tweets; this was swiftly followed by shock and its usual accompaniment, outrage, with some women suggesting the shirt reflected a sexism at the heart of the science community. As generally happens when a subject takes a feminist turn on the internet, the idiots then turned up, with various lowlifes telling the women who expressed displeasure at the shirt to go kill themselves. (This is not an exaggeration, and there is no need to give these toerags further attention in today’s discussion.)
Just as a simple error on the part of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver led to the start of the first world war, so this stupid shirt sparked the beginning of World War Shirt. The scientist knew he had to respond and so, during what I am told by youngsters is called a “Google Hangout”, Dr Smith issued a tearful apology for his shirt. Rumours that the offending shirt, stiff with dried salty tears, has been spotted in Dr Smith’s local charity shop have yet to be confirmed.
Look, I didn’t especially like his shirt, but I also don’t think one can expect much more of a heavily inked dude with a well-established penchant for bad T-shirts. As a cursory search on Google Images (hard research here, people!) proves, this one, while not in the best of taste, was clearly part of that tendency. Yes, it’s an embarrassing shirt and yes, it was a stupid shirt to wear on international TV. But the man is – classic batty scientist cliche – so absentminded that, according to his sister, he regularly loses his car in car parks. So if Taylor committed any crime, it was a crime of bad taste and stupidity rather than burn-him-at-the-stake sexism.
Outrage is an emotion that is vented too frequently in this era. As Jon Ronson details in his excellent upcoming book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there is a kind of collective thrill to be had in publicly shaming an individual on social media, whether it be Justine Sacco, the PR who made a bad joke on Twitter and promptly saw her life destroyed, or Taylor, whose moment of comet triumph has since been overtaken by fashion shame.
I totally understand why some women were offended by Taylor’s shirt, and I especially understand the frustration felt by female scientists who feel marginalised enough in their profession without high-profile men wearing shirts featuring half-naked women. But I can’t help but feel that outrage would be better spent on complaining about how few women were present in the control room for the probe landing. There are so many signifiers of sexism in the world and – I believe (again, not an expert in this field) – the science world that to attack a man for his shirt feels a little bit like fussing at a leaky tap when the whole house is under a tidal wave. Some people online have suggested that Taylor’s shirt proves he is a misogynist, or that he sees women purely as sex objects, or that he revels in marginalising them. Personally, if I saw a male colleague wearing that shirt, my reaction would be amazement that a grown man has the fashion taste of a 13-year-old. There is a difference – and I concede, the difference may be fuzzy in some cases – between enjoying the weird fantasy-world depiction of women, and seeing actual women as sex objects. Taylor has the right to wear whatever pig-ugly shirt he likes, and people have the right to be outraged by it. But when that outrage leads to a grown man weeping on TV, perhaps we all need to ask if this outrage is proportionate. My God, I’m a fashion bitch and even I don’t want to make anyone cry over my comments about their clothes.
Dr Emmett Brown: the ultimate role model for the scientific community. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
But let’s move forward. What should Dr Taylor wear for his next great science triumph? Well, I think he should play it safe and look how we all expect scientists to look: crazy-haired and with some kind of scientific contraption on his head, like the most brilliant scientist in all history, Dr Emmett Brown. No one could complain about that! In the meantime, my advice to Taylor would be: next time you appear on TV, feel free to wear whatever shirt you like. But put on a lab coat and keep it buttoned.
Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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