It’s Not Just A Shirt: What The Logic of The Responses to Critiquing A Sexist Shirt Tell Us

Small note:  I used for linking to the sexist crap, but as always, watch out for the comments on those sites.

Originally, I didn’t think there was anything I could add to the discussion over Matt Taylor’s shirt. 

But there’s three particular rhetorical tactics that I keep seeing that are widespread in this case, and widespread enough that I’ve seen them recently in a situation where I do have some impact.

Backgrounder:  Scientist wears the above shirt when leading a live webcast of the historical event of a space probe landing on a comet.  The scientist later apologizes, says the shirt was made by a female friend.  As the Verge pointed out:

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “bitches” while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far.

But it’s the response to the criticism that is really kind of jacked up.  Here’s three.

Lauding accomplishments of the individual doing the sexist thing.

From The Daily Caller:

That’s what this tool of the patriarchy gets for wearing an item of clothing that did not meet with your exacting standards, girls. Sure, he landed a goddamn space probe on a freaking comet, but in doing so, he angered you even more than usual. How dare he?

This type of response is especially toxic… because it minimizes everyone involved. It tries to make you choose between a sexist act and the rest of the person. People are complex, and often contradictory.  Yes, it’s awesome the probe landed on the comet. It’s also kind of crappy he chose to wear that shirt.  Both things can be true at the same time.

Oh – and as you’ll see in the rest of these as well, suddenly the rest of the ESA team who worked on this lander completely disappear.  To hear these folks tell it, Taylor was using an old-school Atari 2600 joystick to land it personally.

Complaining that a good thing was ruined by those upset by the sexist action

From Legal Insurrection

What should’ve been the happiest day of this man’s life for doing something no human being has ever in the history of our entire species done, turned into a tearful apology because of his choice of SHIRT.

But seriously, “feminists” took a groundbreaking scientific advancement and managed to make it all about themselves and their own insecurities.

Welcome to real life, where your crappy choices can have consequences. And when you know you will be on camera in front of millions, the consequences of your actions will be amplified a thousandfold.

Those actions might just tarnish the reputation of the thing you achieved.

The person acting is the person responsible, not the people complaining.

In this case, the action was “putting on a shirt”.

If you don’t yet see why the “logic” here is problematic, let me try these (unfortunately real-life) examples:

“The people complaining about harassment are ruining the convention.”

How about “The people harassing others are ruining the convention”.

“The people accusing Woody Allen/Bill Cosby/Bob Barker/[insert long list here] of sexually harassing and assaulting women are tarnishing those guy’s reputations!”

How about “Those guys should stop sexually harassing and assaulting women.”

Special bonus: Taking “hey, that shirt was a bad call” and now being so fragile that they claim “TEH SCIENCEZ IS RUINED!!!1!!!”.

Focusing on who made the shirt or the “why” of the action

I got a shirt with the “Sin like you mean it” logo for my girlfriend at a convention a while back (you can buy it here).

It’s a multi-layered joke – some of her friends shorten her name to Cyn, so… yes, I like puns.  And her.

Anyway, it’s a cute shirt.  She liked it.  And she almost only wears it when it’s an extremely casual event where there are a few close friends there.

Because she knows it’s only appropriate in those situations.

Heck, I think Taylor’s shirt is pretty cool.  I wouldn’t wear it at a public presentation of any kind.

It doesn’t matter who got (or made) the shirt; it’s about the context in those situations. 

Special bonus:  Claiming that wanting birth control covered by medical insurance means that guys can wear any shirt they want.  No, seriously.


Most – no, all – guys do some pretty stupid – and sexist – things in the course of everyday life.  It’s usually because they have no clue

It’s a testament to the deep pervasiveness of institutional sexism that men can do sexist acts without having any clue that they’re sexist. But that doesn’t mean you get a pass on being held accountable for your actions.

This is the key:  What you do after you learn that you did something sexist.

Taylor apologized for wearing the shirt, and that’s great. Hopefully he’s taken some time to think about the impact he has on people, and how he can help make his field better.

But then there are responses like this (cursing throughout):

If you don’t want to click through, the exchange there that prompted me to write this today:

…Someone at the place should’ve told him to change because he’s also representing his team and the mission and THAT is what he decided was appropriate.  Again no sympathy.

Are you saying he deserved it because of what he was wearing? Gosh, that sounds awfully familiar.

Before you say it:  It’s not just that one guy – the imgur screencap with that as the “punchline” is currently overwhelmingly upvoted.

A culture where getting flak for wearing a shirt is compared to getting raped is one where rape culture is alive and well, in ways small and large.

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  1. November 15, 2014

    Well said.

    On a related note, I really think I have to stop reading comments just about everywhere. It does nothing but raise my blood pressure and lower my view of humanity.

  2. Virginia Herrick
    November 16, 2014

    Thank you for this sane and intelligent post. It's too bad that your explanations and clarity are so needed, but apparently they are.

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