What #Shirtstorm Teaches Us About Accountability

Why didn’t anyone around Dr. Matt Taylor tell him his shirt was offensive?

Human beings on Earth have landed a rocket on a moving comet. It’s beyond-words amazing, yet some reactionary people would have you believe this historic moment is being diminished because a lot of people disapproved of the clothing choice of one of the scientists involved in the mission.

Following the successful landing of Philae (the lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft to the comet), Dr. Matt Taylor, the project scientist of the Rosetta mission and offending party, was interviewed about the success. Taylor was clad in a gauche bowling shirt printed with images of near-naked women and also used some questionable language in describing the mission, saying, “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

Taylor has since apologized for the comments and shirt, yet #Shirtstorm (as the stumble has been deemed) continues to be discussed. Explanations for why Taylor’s sartorial choice is offensive have been offered elsewhere, and the response to the backlash to those explanations has also been offered. Most of us know that it was poor form for such a historic day.

After becoming aware that a lot of people objected to Taylor’s choice, Taylor apologized. I don’t think he committed either of his trespasses out of malice, and he held himself accountable. Yet while the personal saga of Taylor’s poor shirt choice and questionable comments may have come to a close, the moment still offers an opportunity to question why things like this even happen to begin with.

What puzzles me is that not only did it never occur to Taylor that the shirt might be unpalatable to some of the millions of people who would see him during the Rosetta broadcast, but that no one else in his social circles—family, friends, coworkers, etc.—thought to check in with him to let him know that the shirt probably wasn’t the best choice to wear for the event.

That his shirt didn’t raise any red flags with any of his familiars is the result of living in a culture that normalizes the objectification of women. Few reasonable people would disagree with that, and objectification like that pervades most cultures. Still, the Rosetta landing happened in the same year that Beyoncé emblazoned the word “feminist” at the VMAs just months earlier. How does something like Taylor’s shirt manage to pass by unchecked? Surely everybody knows at least one feminist-minded person to ask about these sorts of things, right?

I expect this obvious rebuke: Everyone was preoccupied with the landing mission and didn’t think to pay attention to somebody’s shirt. Understandable, given the moment’s historic significance. But resting on that counterpoint ignores the fact that people are more than capable of simultaneously juggling multiple thoughts. And yes, it is possible to celebrate the Rosetta landing while also objecting to a component of the event happening tangentially, all without watering down the importance of the landing.

Given the presumed preoccupation with everyone involved with the landing, #Shirtstorm can probably be attributed to a blind spot of Taylor’s and possibly his cohorts. We all have them, especially when those blind spots pertain to people whose experiences aren’t like ours. It happens.

However, recognizing that limitation is also what determines the amount of respect you’re able to give others, which is vital in a world where everyone is not you (except you, of course).

Does that require a little extra effort? Yes. Is that going to occupy all of your time forever? Of course not.

To be clear, by “a little extra effort,” I mean taking a brief moment or two to check in with yourself to ask a simple question: Will this offend anybody? For this to work, it’s imperative that “anybody” be somebody that’s not you (since you obviously weren’t immediately offended by whatever you wanted to do).

This extra effort is also something we can’t always do alone. It takes a village, as the proverb goes. Sometimes, though, it just takes asking one or two people what they think about what you’re about to do.

As I watched #Shirtstorm unfold these past several days, I couldn’t help but think about how all of this was easily avoidable. All it would’ve taken was Taylor or someone close to him to merely ask, “Hey, is that really a good idea?” Within this, I found myself returning to a memory where a blunder like Taylor’s was happily avoided.

I was at a dinner party earlier this year with my partner and several of my friends. Toward the end of the evening, one of my friends asked my partner and I for our opinion on a comic he’d drawn up for the web comic he publishes. He’d specifically asked us what we thought because he was concerned whether the comment would bristle a person’s feminist feathers, and since my partner and I have those in excess, we agreed to be his ad hoc focus group.

The comic in question took a jab at Hollywood culture and its desperate tendency of taking ideas and watering them down with remakes and sequels to the point that they essentially lose all meaning, and all for the cause of bigger profits. The joke in the comic used an imaginary sequel to the “The Vagina Monologues” as an example of Hollywood’s corruption of an otherwise meaningful concept.

My friend asked my partner and I whether the joke came across clearly and if it avoided causing any offense to people who really like “The Vagina Monologues.” My partner gave him some background on the play and its personal significance for some women who are survivors of sexual assault, and then we discussed whether the comic appeared to be making a joke at the play’s expense rather than simply using it as an example for the joke he intended to make.

After talking it over, my friend opted not to publish the unintentionally offensive comic and decided to simply go with a different one. No one can say for sure whether the comic would have been read as offensive or not to everyone who came across it, yet the risk of offending any woman on such a sensitive subject wasn’t worth it for my friend.

I highlight my friend’s dilemma here because I think it’s an excellent example of how small yet infinitely meaningful this type of gesture is. He was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, and was mindful enough to seek out the opinions of other people who could fill him in on some things he may be missing. (I only wish other cartoonists kept a similar code of ethics.)

Being respectful and being accountable don’t take a lot of effort, but the effort of acting according to these two concepts goes quite a ways. Feminism doesn’t expect everybody to know everything automatically. It’d be unfair and unrealistic to expect that.

But when you don’t know everything, you may save yourself some embarrassment and scorn by checking in with a feminist before you embark into the public. Even if you are sure you know everything, still ask a feminist. Hell, ask two feminists, because even if they have the same answer or opinion as you, at least then you can have some peace of mind that you’re (hopefully) not about to show off your blind spots to the world and unwittingly offend a ton of people.

Drew Bowling is a soon-to-be social worker who writes about gender, race, and other intersecting issues. His writing has appeared on Role Reboot, Everyday Feminism, the Good Men Project, as well as at his oft-neglected but much-adored blog, Reading Without MenTwitter is also a thing he does.

Related Links: