Sometimes a shirt is not just a shirt…

Years and years and many more years ago… Sesame Street used to have a running bit about how Big Bird would have an fun encounter with his new friend Snuffleupagus, just the two of them. But when any of the adults from the Street came by, Snuffy had disappeared from sight. Poor Big Bird! All the kids knew that he was telling the truth but those silly grownups thought he was making it up.

Sesame Street’s content and storylines are assessed by children’s psychologists and educational specialists to make sure that the show is giving children a safe world to experience. It was soon suggested that although it seemed amusing to have only Big Bird see Snuffy—supporting a child’s fantasy world—the message kids were really getting was that the adults only believe what they see in front of them. That grownups need proof of the strange, the unbelievable, the different. And in a world where there were kids struggling to talk about the abuse they suffered from some grownups, this seemed a bad and dangerous message. Very quickly, Snuffleupagus became a highly visible member of Sesame Street, interacting with all the other people and muppets who lived there.

Every day, women deal with their own version of Snuffy…but instead of a silly oversized furry monster, it’s this overwhelming insidious one called misogyny…sexism. It seems to always be around somewhere, and yet when we point it out, it turns out that we are the only ones who can see this mystery monster. Occasionally, we luck out and the monster leaves behind highly visible evidence that no one can deny—death and rape threats on the internet, for example. The doubters proclaim their horror at this evidence, they announce their solidarity with women, they denounce the big horrible monster of misogyny; and they settle back content that they’ve slain the monster and there’s no more work to do.

Sometimes, women dare to continue discussing that set of evidence—but there is always a point at which the backlash begins, “Are we STILL talking about this?” Because although it is possible to discuss the finer nuances of Star Trek and Star Wars for decades, it only takes a good Twitter user an hour or so to solve sexism. They say, “Hey men—don’t do this. We don’t like it.” And it is all fixed. It’s time for a new conversation.

Then, some women will point out the next set of evidence. If it’s as equally shocking as death and rape threats, there’s a good chance that it will generate an equal sense of outrage and an equal amount of conversation. But if it’s something like a group of women being targeted and shot, if it’s an article about the latest missing and/or murdered aboriginal woman, there will be no clear consensus. There will be much discussion about how it’s just outrage journalism, women choosing to be upset, women trying to make things about their gender when it’s really just about the victim—one woman, NotAllWomen.

And, if the evidence the women cite is just another example of everyday plain ol’ sexism—then the group who is able to understand see the monster is very small indeed.

This week, the story that gripped the internet was of a lander which successfully landed on a comet and is sending data back to earth. It’s a fascinating story which gripped the attention of many who rarely pay attention to science stories unless they’re accompanied by a gif set on I Fucking Love Science.

This was big news and as such, there was a televised press conference at which Dr. Matt Taylor was interviewed wearing an extraordinary shirt. In a room full of people in plain polos or dress shirts or sports jackets or blazers, Taylor had chosen to wear a shirt emblazoned with images of pin up girls in pvc corsets and bikini bottoms, all with heavy makeup and serious come-hither looks.

If Taylor had chosen to wear a tshirt emblazoned with some inappropriate saying (“FBI—Female Body Inspector”), no matter how much anyone wanted to discuss the mission, they would have still managed a comment about his shirt, and probably added a snarky joke. If he had chosen to wear a hockey jersey, perhaps fans of the particular team might have made approving comments, but many would have felt the need to comment that it seemed a little casual and inappropriate to wear to the workplace. But when women felt the need to comment that Taylor’s ability to wear a shirt covered with pinup girls to work, and for a televised interview seemed woefully out of place they were quickly countered with every possible version of the sexism monster: from sneers about their shallowness, snide remarks about “trying to make everythign about sexism” all the way to the Big Bads of death and rape threats. And, in reality, many of those criticising are angrier than might be expected because they saw the shirt and they knew that it would generate comments. They felt that strange instinctive anger that men, and some women, get when women talk about the invisible monster—and they set their shoulders and squared their jaw waiting for the fight. They were waiting for “those women, those feminists” to “choose” to be upset.

Those sneering are very clear that they consider criticism of the shirt as ‘taking away’ from this moment in science, and world history. It’s been sullied by the complaints of the women and men who found the shirt demeaning and sexist. The complaints have ruined the sneer-ers’ enjoyment of this moment. And that is not as important as women tuning in to hear about this great moment, wanting to find out about this mission and seeing that one of the main men responsible, a working intelligent scientist felt that it was completely acceptable to wear that shirt to work, to wear it on the air, to talk to a woman journalist, to have it broadcast around the world for women and girls everywhere to see.

Every single day we encounter sexism…every day. Even if we don’t leave our homes. It’s in the ads on our televisions, it’s in the magazines we read, it’s on the sites on the internet. It’s in the internet commenters…for some, when they turn on their game console and go online to play. And we don’t mention it every single time—we can’t, because it would actually be all that we would have to say, all that we would talk about.

But when we are told that this is one of the great moments in human history—that humans have put a lander onto a comet after a ten year journey, imagine what it’s like for women and girls to turn on the news conference and to see very clear evidence that this is a great moment in man’s history. That mendid it—and that this one man felt that this moment was so incredible that it deserved to be commemorated with a shirt covered with pinup girls.

So continue with your demands that we be silent—that we stop talking about the shirt, that we not interrupt your continued belief that you are better human beings than we are. After all, you have the ability to reblog articles about this great moment…clearly, that shows your superior humanity and intelligence. You are dreaming of space…we’re only thinking of what life is like for us, as we continue to live down here on the planet with those of you who think we should be quiet and not bother you with stories of monsters you can’t see.

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2 thoughts on “Sometimes a shirt is not just a shirt…

    • Awww, sarcasm!

      Because, after all–it’s okay for him to wear the shirt, but really, it’s just so wrong for anyone to comment on it, isn’t it? The problem isn’t actually the culture at NASA that somehow was too oblivious to mention to him that the shirt was not appropriate…it’s that women “chose” to be upset by it.

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