​Matt Taylor in the offending shirt. Image: ​ESA livestream

#Shirtgate Was About More Than a Tacky Shirt

Mayor of London Boris Johnson is the latest to weigh in on #ShirtGate, and to miss the point.

Nov 17 2014, 8:00pm

​Matt Taylor in the offending shirt. Image: ​ESA livestream

​Last week, the European Space Agency landed a spacec​raft on a comet. It was an incredible achievement; a spectacular feat of scientific and technological brilliance. This story was accompanied by a sadly less surprising occurrence: a scientist wore a sexist shirt.

Just when everyone thought #ShirtGate had been resolved—after Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor apologis​ed for the offending garment—the very people who decry the fact anyone would dare to raise the issue won't let it go. The latest to stir things up: Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.

In a column publi​shed in the Telegraph, Johnson vehemently attacked critics of Taylor's shirt in a stream of arguments that reveal an absurd hypocrisy and a complete lack of understanding of the problem of misogyny.

Highlights include an apparent inability to recognise the difference between a a sexist shirt and depictions of women in a Rubens painting, a cheap jab at Islam, and a comparison of Taylor's apology with "something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot."

But it's the people who complained about the shirt in the first place who were overreacting, right?

The whole debacle is a striking example of the problem of misogyny in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but not really because of the shirt, which featured images of scantily clad women. It's the subsequent narrative that has highlighted the real depth of the problem.

Even from the very start, the problem was not just the shirt. It's tacky and objectifying (and no, it doesn't make any difference if it was made by a woma​n), but it was only really problematic when considered in context. While wearing the shirt, Taylor was appearing in his professional capacity as a scientist with ESA. Science has long been depressingly male-dominated, with women holding just 15.5 percent​ of STEM jobs in the UK. Against this background, the shirt became another symbol of this gender inequality.

This, by the way, is why it's patently absurd to compare #ShirtGate with a Baroque painting, or a naked Kim Kardashian in a magazine shoot, as Johnson attempts to do. The reaction against Taylor's wardrobe was not simple prudishness; whether an image of a woman is offensive or not doesn't depend just on nipple count. The shirt's detractors are not "a bunch of Islamist maniacs who think any representation of the human form is an offence against God." They are people who find it troubling that the main representation of women during a huge scientific event comes in the form of sexualised cartoons.

Part of "The Three Graces," by Peter Rubens, circa 1635. Image: ​Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

But even if you disagreed with Eveleth on the shirt, the sexist attitudes her comment aimed to address soon made themselves all too visible, just as people exploded that her reaction was unfounded.

Eveleth was bombarded with abuse that makes the "dustcloud of hate" Johnson says Taylor had to deal with pale in comparison. "Jump off a cliff," she was told, and "shut the fuck up," and "fucking retard hope you get ebola." One commenter suggested that while Taylor had landed a spacecraft on a comet, Eveleth probably couldn't even park a car (because women can't drive, geddit?), while others suggested that if women had a problem they should stay out of science (and in the kitchen).

The irony of battling claims of misogyny with more misogyny was clearly lost on Taylor's self-appointed Twitter defenders. In his piece, Johnson takes umbrage at the "rage of the web" directed at Taylor, without stopping to acknowledge that women all too often face an  outpouring of online abuse ju​st for being women. At the time of publication, the mayor's press office had no comment to add.

His attitude suggests Eveleth and those who agree with her aren't entitled to air their opinions on a matter he considers to be of little import in comparison to the scientific feat of landing on a comet—yet he fills a whole newspaper column with his opinion on the very same subject. It's a sentiment echoed by the backlash directed at women who dare speak out about incidents of everyday misogyny: You are not allowed to be outraged at something I deem unworthy of outrage, but I am completely entitled to be outraged by your outrage.

When Taylor  apologised for his ​choice of shirt—unprompted and with what sounded like genuine regret—Evelet​h tweeted, "Glad to hear @mggtTaylor recognized his mistake & apologized (live stream isn't working for me) and we can both move along with our lives."

Sadly, those who claim to support Taylor can't seem to bring themselves to support his decision to apologize.

One of the most bizarre arguments is that complaining about a sexist shirt somehow detracts from the science. In reality, of course, disagreeing with a scientist's choice of clothing does nothing to detract from the incredible feat of his or her achievements. It's possible to have these conversations at the same time. And presumably, those who suggest otherwise think that defending a sexist shirt doesn't have the same mystical power of distraction.

Johnson is right that Matt Taylor should be applauded for his role in sending the Philae lander to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But whether you're a scientist or a politician, just because you excel in your field doesn't make you immune to criticism.

xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.