Much Ado About A Shirt

A reader writes:

Your take on Matt Taylor is that he was “convicted merely of being a clueless dude, who just happened to have helped land a fricking spacecraft on a comet”. So, why should guys get a pass for being clueless?  Of course, there will always be clueless men (and women), but is that really something we should just wink at and let pass without comment?  And we’re not talking just about him – he can’t have been the only person involved in filming that announcement.  Did no one tell him to change his shirt or put on another layer?  If not, why not??

The next part of this seems to imply that because he did something legitimately impressive (“helped land a fricking spacecraft on a comet”) we shouldn’t worry about the shirt.  I’m sorry, but what he accomplished is irrelevant to this discussion.  Are you saying that people with less impressive CVs can be held to a higher standard?  I assume that isn’t what you wanted to imply.  It sucks that this has overshadowed his accomplishments for a bit, but well, he could have thought about that beforehand.

My point is about the lack of proportion. The hideously inappropriate attire is worthy of a smile or a grimace or a comment – but not of a twittalanche of ideological contempt and outrage. I wonder, for example, what the response would be if a fundamentalist Christian had objected to the shirt on the grounds of sexual immorality and made a big stink out of it. The sins of today are not the sins of yesterday, but the clerisy enforcing proper morals is just as unforgiving.

Another reader reacts at length:

I feel a bit annoyed by your brief comments about Matt Taylor’s apology, and I’m positively flummoxed by Boris Johnson’s column about the incident.

What baffles me is that the shirt is so obviously inappropriate that I’m confounded by the people like you who describe Taylor as merely a clueless dude and Boris who calls Taylor blameless. It’s not some mysterious convention of society that shirts depicting women in leather fetish wear are inappropriate for professional scientists doing press interviews as a part of their job. If Dr. Taylor was unaware of this, he’s not clueless; he’s willfully ignorant.

And he’s willfully ignorant in a way that makes women who are scientists, like Katie Mack, uncomfortable. Mack is the astrophysicist who has been at the center of much of the commentary on Taylor’s shirt, and her name is curiously absent from much of the discussion that seems to focus on the angry, anonymous hordes of people. Except that most of these feminist critics aren’t anonymous. They’re named scientists and science journalists or women in other professional academic fields who are tired of having the “eccentricity” of their male colleagues excused as the price of genius. They don’t care about how many tattoos Taylor has or the fact that he made his apology while wearing a hoodie or that he’s an incompetent driver. But they rightly care about the quality of their workplaces.

As for Boris, what drives me nuts about it is the sheer hypocrisy of the way he charges Taylor’s critics with hypocrisy. He writes:

It’s the hypocrisy of it all that irritates me. Here is Kim Kardashian – a heroine and idol to some members of my family – deciding to bust out all over the place, and good for her. No one seeks to engulf her in a tweetstorm of rage. But why is she held to be noble and pure, while Dr Taylor is attacked for being vulgar and tasteless? I think his critics should go to the National Gallery and look at the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez. Or look at the stuff by Rubens. Are we saying that these glorious images should be torn from the walls?

I think it’s hilarious that Boris, who is emphatically not a space scientist, is here telling all the women scientists who believe that clothing with women in lingerie is inappropriate workplace attire that they are wrong. Also, Boris’s befuddlement about why the shirt is inappropriate is so hard to understand. Does he seriously not understand the difference between Kim Kardashian and Rubens, or that a shirt covered in women in leather fetish wear is inappropriate in a professional setting even if there are no exposed nipples or buttocks?

His choice of Kim Kardashian is especially clueless because she is currently involved in her own storm of unfavorable feminist coverage due to her replication of the racist, heavily sexualized Hottentot Venus. The only reason Johnson is able to charge Taylor’s critics with hypocrisy is that he hasn’t even taken a few moments to see who is talking about his shirt. It doesn’t take long to discover people like Katie Mack or Rose Eveleth, women in serious professional roles who aren’t singing hymns to the glories of the Kardashians while they’re critiquing Taylor’s shirt.

Taylor wasn’t blameless, but he didn’t deserve abuse (nor did the women like Mack who called attention to the shirt’s inappropriateness). Wearing the shirt was a bad idea and sent a bad message to women in the sciences, and he’s apologized for it. Some people overreacted, sure, but the basic criticism was justified.

I guess one solace from this is that Kardashian has run afoul of the culture police as well. It reminds me how the Hollaback video makers got creamed by the femi-left for their racism. Whatever you do, wear or say, there’s an ism you’re now guilty of – and need both confession and absolution from the Twitter mob to recover from.

Here are the key details from that blog post in the tweet embedded above:

Dr. Matt Taylor is an amazing, kind, loving and sensitive person. I never expected him to wear my gift to him for such a big event and was surprised and deeply moved that he did. I made that shirt for his birthday last month as I make clothes just as a hobby and he asked if I would make him one.

The man just obviously hates women, no? Like all the other sinners out there. Now where’s my Tom of Finland t-shirt?