Sartorial Misogyny, Feminist Concern Trolling, and the "Little Things" in Science and Everywhere

[Content Note: Misogyny; sexual violence; disablist language.]

So, last week, during the Philae landing, European Space Agency scientist Dr. Matt Taylor wore a shirt covered in half-naked, provocatively-posed women, seen all over the world during his interview on the live broadcast.

image of Taylor, a thin white tattooed man giving the thumbs-up during the broadcast while wearing the inappropriate shirt

This was before I tuned in; by the time I saw him talking about the landing in terms of a date, and saying that Philae was moving in for a kiss, he had already changed into an ESA shirt.

There was a lot of criticism of Taylor, made by people who give a fuck that misogynist clothing was donned in a professional environment by someone who has an enormous amount of privilege in a field where there continues to be pervasive discrimination against women.

STEM Women has a terrific post, "Astronomical Sexism: Rosetta #ShirtStorm and Everyday Sexism in STEM," which I highly recommend you read as background on the entire thing, and why the criticism of Taylor matters.

Naturally, there was an outpouring of hostility toward women (and men) who took issue with Taylor's sartorial choice.

Some of it was at least honest enough to just be the usual gross misogynist silencing, shouting at feminists with the brazen venom that proves the point.

Others took a more embarrassing tack, trying to approximate some sort of principled defense of Taylor. London Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, accused Taylor's critics of being "abusive" and "humiliating" him "at the moment of his supreme professional triumph." Taylor, naturally, bears no accountability for humiliating himself by being a rank sexist on an international broadcast.

And then, of course, there were the feminist concern trolls, who came out in droves in order to declare feminism irrelevant or dead, because to criticize a sexist shirt is proof of our small-minded prudish pettiness.

Naturally, King of the Feminist Concern Trolls, Richard Dawkins, who loves nothing more than to pretend he gives a fuck about feminist issues in order to shit all over feminists, weighed in thus:

screen cap of tweet authored by Dawkins reading: 'Do not blame feminism for the pompous idiots whining about a Rosetta scientist's shirt. True feminism is bigger and better than that.'

"True feminism." Of course. As defined by men who believe women should let men get away with wearing misogynist clothes in a professional environment, because there are "bigger things" about which we should be worrying.

Things other men are doing. Somewhere else.

Always, that should be the focus of "true feminism." To focus exclusively on other men who are doing worse things.

Which is not only a neat little deflection of personal accountability, and preemptive shaming for any woman who considers scrutinizing them, but is also advice fundamentally incompatible with the basic work of feminist activism, because it is the pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable little things that create the foundation of a sexist culture on which the big stuff is dependent for its survival. It's the little things, the constant drumbeat of inequality and objectification, that inure us to increasingly horrible acts and attitudes toward women.

Feminists who focus on the "little stuff" do it because that's Itthat's the stuff, that's the fertile soil in which everything else takes root and from whence everything else springs, that's the way that the fundamental idea that women are not equal to men is conveyed over and over and over again.

When feminist concern trolls like Dawkins whine about the misuse of feminism, talking about feminism like it's meant to be kept under glass, broken only in case of a "real" and "serious" emergency, they're deliberately ignoring how culture works. The "little things" don't happen in a vacuum, but are part of a spectrum of expressed misogyny that forms a systemic oppression of women.

The "little things" and the "big things" are interwoven strands of the same rope, which Dawkins et. al. constantly want to unravel, in order to claim that only some of the strands (the ones belonging to other sorts of men, in other sorts of places) are really deserving of feminists' attentions.

They want to play a feminist ranking game, in which there is a hierarchy of concerns with which "true feminists" will busy themselves. But as soon as one begins to judge the worthiness of feminists' attention on a sliding scale, even generally-regarded "big things" like equal pay are dwarfed by global concerns like government-sanctioned use of rape as a weapon of war. And, for women in those war zones, on any given day clean water may be the even more pressing need. The fact is, it doesn't have to be one or the other—feminists can multi-task.

Because feminism by design functions to address all manner of issues, big and small. That women can (and do) utilize the tenets of feminism in every aspect of their lives does not undermine the history of the feminist movement, but instead does it a great honor. Feminism was never meant to be restricted to suffrage and genital cutting, held in reserve like a finite quantity in danger of depletion if it's used for "the little things." Feminism is a renewable resource.

All of which is to say nothing of the fact that it's not really such a "little thing," that shirt. A shirt that sexually objectifies women, worn in a professional space, for an international broadcast, by one of the most privileged members of a profession in which many women struggle to achieve the same levels of opportunity and recognition. A shirt that clearly none of the other men around Dr. Taylor suggested would be inappropriate.

It's not just the shirt. It's what the shirt communicates to women, not just about one man, but about his field, and women's place in it.

That's not a little thing. But maybe it takes a "true feminist" to understand that.

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