When Is A Shirt Not A Cigar?

When is a shirt more than a fashion statement?

Sigmund Freud – that lovable psychoanalyst who denied that his female patients’ close relatives (fathers, brothers, uncles) were sexually abusing them in the early 20th century, thus setting their sanity and the health and well-being of millions of women back about a hundred years –said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. An object to put in one’s mouth in order to inhale pre-vape fumes.

Maybe. Maybe not. But what if that cigar were wrapped in demeaning illustrations of women? What would it be then?

No longer just a cigar, I bet.

Matt Taylor, a British scientist who is, I’m sure, perfectly competent at his work at the European Space Agency, was less than competent to decide what to wear – and say – during a televised interview about the camera probe he and his colleagues managed to land on a comet (the  mission was named Rosetta). I mean, hey, the guy only has a PhD in space physics.

He wore the above shirt, one which displayed what a source termed “provocatively dressed women”. Translation: women wearing very little clothing. And then Taylor said of the Rosetta mission, “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy”.

Amazingly (caution: sarcasm at play), people grew rather angry at him.

To his credit, when Taylor was apprised of what rapidly became known as “Shirtstorm”, he issued a rapid and apparently genuine apology.

Then the trolls emerged from their solitary holes under lonely basements – er, bridges – and proceeded to sneer at and threaten the mostly female people who had the temerity to be appalled that an educated (PhD, remember?) man would parade such lurid and derisive images, such casual sexism. Even BoJo (Boris Johnson, London’s wild-haired mayor and no stranger to hyperbole) weighed in to declare that objections to Taylor’s choice of shirt and words resembled “a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution”.

Which is why I love the title of this male-authored article on Slate: “Shirtstorm: Casual Sexism and the Inevitable Horrid Backlash When It’s Called Out”.

Called out and, let’s add, correctly identified, named and shamed.

From the article: “To be clear, I don’t think Taylor is a raging misogynist or anything like that; I think he was just clueless about how his words might sound and his shirt might be interpreted. We all live in an atmosphere steeped in sexism, and we hardly notice it; a fish doesn’t notice the water in which it swims. I’ve lived in that environment my whole life, and I was well into adulthood before I started becoming aware of it and figuring out how to counter it. I’m still learning.”

The author, Phil Plait, goes on to say, “If you think [the shirt and words] isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum.” He also mentions that it wasn’t only women who complained to and about Taylor’s choices, it was male scientists, as well.

Phil Plait sounds like the antidote to BoJo. The calm after the storm. The reasonable, informed voice. Really, Boris, Mao’s cultural revolution? – the ten-year one in which educated people were denounced as traitors, had their property stolen by the Chinese goverment, and then were banished to the countryside for “re-education” and/or murder? You’re comparing Shirtstorm to that?

I like best, though, Plait’s ending. It takes up space but is not long. Rather like the comet itself, its tail streaking across the sky:

So yeah, it’s just a shirt.

And it’s just an ad.

It’s just a saying.

It’s just a TV show.

It’s just the Internet.

Yes, but you almost make as much as a man does.

It’s just a catcall.

It’s a compliment!

It’s just that boys will be boys.

It’s just that she’s a slut.

It’s just that your dress is too short.

It’s just that we want to know what you were wearing at the time, ma’am.

It’s just it’s just it’s just.

It’s just a death by a thousand cuts. No one cut does the deed. In the end, they all do.

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