Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Confessions of a teenage dirtbag: Thoughts on shirtstorm

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went through a bit of a skater boy/snow bum phase. It was the closest thing I ever got to a teenage rebellion: wearing baggy jeans, big graphic T shirts, skater boy trainers. I went to a rather prim French school in central London, and then to university at Cambridge - a place that for all its charms is the definition of stuffy englishness - so in those middle class settings, my look was enough to raise a few eyebrows.
Picture 1: Snow Bum PaleoGould

Part of my collection,some of my favorite shirts, had 'classic' fifties and sixties pin ups on them. One of them, my favorite T shirt for many years, was a red Von Dutch number with a girl in an 8-ball bra holding a monkey wrench on the back. I still have it. It's faded with the years, and has now been relegated to a gym shirt. And maybe, after today, it won't even be worn as that.
The purpose of this post is not to whine that Matt Taylor of the European Space Agency has ruined forever my ability to wear pin up shirts. It is rather to ask the question about why he, and I, would choose to wear such a garment. Irrespective of your stance on the artistic value of Pin Up art, questions can fairly be asked about wearing what amounts to mild erotica to work.
The truth of the matter is, I always wore those shirts to provoke.  As I mentioned, I went to stuffy environments. And wearing these shirts that skirted lines of decency (and make no mistake, I knew they did), was a form of provocation. I distinctly remember there were times and places I would not were them. Is it not odd that these commercially available garments of mild provocation should use as their weapons women's bodies? Isn't it odd that I would never go to lecture wearing a T shirt with a Tom of Finland image on it? No, it isn't actually odd at all.
When Matt Taylor put on that shirt today, it was not, as has been suggested, that he doesn't care about clothes. It is clear that he has given his aesthetic great thought. He put on that shirt to provoke the stuffy media perceptions of scientist. He put on that shirt to loudly proclaim that he wasn't part of the Establishment. He put on that shirt for the same reason I used to put on my graphic Ts of pin up girls to lectures at Cambridge university. And, in doing so, he abused and belittled women. He probably didn't even realise it. He probably just thought he was being cheeky.
Our aesthetic choices are not free. That applies to subcultures like Rockabilly as much as it does to mainstream preppy campus outfits. The imagery of rockabilly and classic sci-fi, by reaching into the past, necessarily dredges up sexism with it. These images and styles cannot be worn uncritically. You have to interrogate your aesthetic choices. Otherwise you end up wearing a sexist shirt on a world platform, and casting a shadow over a great scientific achievement.

There's another issue I want to address, which I think resonates more in the UK than it does to American audiences. Because there is a class aspect to this too. Americans looking and listening to Matt Taylor hear a white dude with a British accent. Brits hear someone who's from a social background that doesn't normally get to speak for British science. People who got to speak for British Science when I was growing looked like this.

Sir Patrick Moore, late astronomer royal

Sir David Attenborough
 Matt Taylor was being presented as a working class hero, and that's important. With Britain the most unequal society in Europe, we need to encourage people from non traditional backgrounds into science, and we need to break the snobbery that makes people think that scientists look and sound, well, like me. But that doesn't mean we get to give Matt Taylor a pass. Today he failed as an ambassador for science. In doing so, he failed not only young women, but young working class children too. The solution is not to gloss over Matt Taylor' mistake. The solution is to find more working class people, men and women, to speak for science in the public eye. The solution is to expect more.

When you stick it to the man, be careful that you don't throw women, or anyone else under the bus in the process. And when you become the head of a major international space project, remember that you are no longer quite the underdog you once were. In fact you have power, and visibility, and a platform. You will be judged on how you make use of them.