Friday, 21 November 2014

On looking at stars and shirts

I love being a human. Most of the time. Yes, that magical spark of consciousness brings out the worst in our wee primate brains, but it also brings out the best. Flatworms aren't evil, but nor are they compassionate. They're just.. flat. 

And recently we had one of those moments of human achievement that strains the imagination of a species that is just an evolutionary quirk away from picking fleas off each other and eating them. We landed on a comet. A comet, guys. A ball of stuff hurtling through space. The lander had been travelling aboard the Rosetta Spacecraft for more than ten years to get there. We can hear the moment it landed on the internet. Up there somewhere is a robot sleeping on a comet, and we put it there. And it found out things we never knew before it fell asleep, because we've never before landed on a comet.

Is there anyone who can remain unimpressed by this? I mean, if Shania Twain had been singing about landing on a comet, surely even she would have to concede 'Oh, yeah, actually I guess that is pretty cool.'

Humans can still get things wrong though, even rocket scientists. And it's my belief that one of the scientists involved with the mission got it wrong when he got dressed on the day of the landing.

In case you've been living on a comet (hi Philae!), the scientist in question wore a shirt patterned with scantily clad ladies. He was essentially walking around with an entire strip club on his chest. Excellent and appropriate imagery for a stag do. Not quite so appropriate for one of the biggest scientific achievements of our century to date.

By no means do I think this guy is a villain. He's just wore a bad shirt. On the day that the entire world's media happened to have him in its gaze. And it is a bad shirt. I don't mean that it's ugly. It's not for me, but I'm wearing a fluffy jumper with a big sequinned bow on the front so who am I to judge? He is entitled to wear whatever he wants on his own time. But when everyone was watching, it wasn't the best idea to wear a shirt which reduced women, en masse, to a background pattern.* Particularly when you're representing an area of professional life where women are woefully under-represented. Little girl, why would you want to be a beardy rocket scientist when you could be a sexy alien chick?! Dream big! 

The gentleman in question has since apologised which I think is a) very gracious of him and b) quite enough. It was a bad shirt, but it's still just a shirt. An apology is all that's needed here. Death threats are certainly not necessary.

Image via

Alas though, it doesn't end there. As is sadly and weirdly common, the rage provoked by feminist voices demonstrates the need for a noisy and persistent feminist movement. 

Many voices have clamoured that this guy should be able to wear whatever he wants. Yup, absolutely. He should not have been wrestled to the ground and stripped naked.** But in a professional context, you will be judged on your appearance. Just think yourself lucky that you don't have to wear make up to be acceptable and you're less likely to be judged on the basis of your weight or how 'groomed' you look. 

Inevitably, memes have sprouted. I look forward to the day when we can communicate entirely in memes. Logic will suffer, but something needs to distract the cats from their plans of world domination. Anyway, the meme below invites comparison between slut-walks and this case. Unfortuntely, although a picture tells a thousand words it doesn't stop those words being rubbish. The purpose of the Slut-Walks was to highlight and protest victim blaming in the case of sexual assault, which was distressingly common in society and in the eyes of the law. The slut walks were saying 'We don't deserve to be raped, no matter what we wear'. This should not be a controversial message. They weren't making a professional presentation in their underwear. This is only appropriate in very specific cases. I don't think even google approves that kind of shenanigan. 

Not only is it a totally false equivalency, but Slut-Walks were about women taking control of their own image. This shirt takes that power away from them by ironing them back into the shape of objects without agency.

Image via Facebook


The voices are really raging now. 

'What if it had been a women? Wearing a shirt with NAKED MEN on it! I bet there would be no outrage then!'

Well, you're probably right. However, I have some big 'buts'*** of my own to add. First of all, it's far less likely that a woman would wear such a shirt. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where a large portion of a woman's value is created by her appearance. Most women are hyper-aware of their appearance as a result. Therefore, a woman is far less likely to choose a day when her image is going to be beamed across the globe to experiment with the wacky end of her wardrobe. 

Moreover, it's not really the shirt in itself that's the offensive bit. It's the context.

Imagine for a moment a company that's traditionally employed Lions. Lambs are not welcome at this company, because it's run by lions and they see lambs just as sources of food. 'Nothing against lambs,' they roar 'some of my best meals have been lambs. But they don't belong in the workplace.' Lots of lambs want to work though, and eventually a few brave lambs trickle in. At first they have to do their damndest to roar with the best of them to fit in, but soon enough lambs are being accepted on their own terms as valid members of the team. Lambs are still under-represented in the work place, and  are told to be more like Lions to get ahead. Occasionally, a Lion will take a bite out of his secretary, and it will go to a messy 'Nutritional Harassment' case. But in general things are good, and are getting better. Now, imagine a high profile  Lion appears on TV wearing a shirt covered with images of Lambs. Not just any Lambs though, Lambs ready for eating. A Lamb suggestively smeared with ketchup. A Lamb coquettishly posing with a parsley garnish. A Lamb cheekily speared upon a kebab. Lamb upon Lamb upon Lamb just waiting to be gobbled up. I mean, it's just a shirt, but is it going to reassure Lambs that business is for them? Now if a Lamb wears a similar shirt but with Lions posing next to side dishes it's a little strange. But it's not as damaging, Lions haven't gone through years of being marginalised and eaten by Lambs. The context matters.

The alert among you may have noticed the above analogy doesn't work. And that's because of the simple fact that we aren't any ordinary animal, we are human. We are aflame with consciousness, awash with intelligence. This is why you hardly ever see a FTSE 100 company run by Lions. We are in control of our behaviour and we very rarely eat each other for fun. We are also capable of looking in a mirror before we go out the door and recognising that our fellow humans are perhaps worth more than a shirt pattern.

*if you claim the shirt for the fashion wasteland of 'humorous clothing', it reduces women to the punchline of a joke, which isn't great either 
**Spoiler: this didn't actually happen.

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