Last Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a space probe on a 2.5-mile long comet over 300 million miles away. Let that extraordinary human achievement sink in for a moment. Now let this sink in: the bulk of the media attention for this historic event is centered on a garish bowling shirt worn by one of the scientists, which has become the target of feminist anger about pervasive misogyny in the scientific profession.
Matt Taylor, part of the team of scientists that landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, was interviewed briefly prior to the event. He seemed like an articulate, amiable guy who was passionate about his exciting work. Unfortunately, he was wearing something that resembled the side of a 1970s van: a retro Hawaiian shirt adorned with an illustrated bevy of provocatively dressed women posed amid sunbursts and ocean waves. It was made for him by a rockabilly model whose husband did Taylor’s sleeve tattoos.
So, instead of marveling at the fact that humans have landed a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away, some zeroed in on Taylor’s shirt as evidence that the world of science is hostile to women. The Guardian, for example, huffed, “ESA can land their robot on a comet... But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses.” Verge’s unintentionally self-parodying headline was “I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing.” The writers of that article asserted that
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... This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.
ESA has nothing to apologize for, but Taylor was so bowled over by the negative online response that he later humiliated himself by tearfully apologizing on camera – because no unintended, imagined slight is complete today without a groveling public apology to an internet full of total strangers. “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this,” he managed, sniffling. Too late; he’s forever branded as a misogynist who wants to boot women out of the old boys’ club of science – you know, macho sexists like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Was his shirt appropriate for a television broadcast? That depends on how uptight you are. It was initially distracting, but so what? Perhaps he didn’t know he was going to be on TV. Maybe he did know but thought the look would be a refreshing, colorful change from a lab coat and pocket protector. It’s not known whether his colleagues bothered to suggest a more media-friendly change of clothing; if they didn’t, perhaps it was because they were busy landing a space probe on a comet over 300 million miles away.
The real “casual sexism” here is not that Matt Taylor wore a shirt decorated with kitschy cartoons; at most he might be guilty of a crime of fashion, which is no one else’s business and no cause for a public apology (otherwise most of us would be apologizing daily). One gaudy, bawdy bowling shirt does not create a hostile work environment. The real sexism is the assumption that career-driven women are so sensitive that they must be shielded from an article of clothing which might intimidate them out of pursuing their chosen scientific or technical endeavor.
We have become a culture so obsessed with the hyper-sensitivity of officially designated victim classes that we police behavior to a degree verging on totalitarianism. We claim to be waging a war against bullying, but we bully public apologies out of people who don’t even know us and never intended offense. We are so threatened by heterosexual masculinity that we automatically equate it with misogyny. As a culture, let’s grow a sense of humor and put our energy toward something truly important, like boldly going where no man – or woman – has gone before.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/17/14)