Feminism and the Brewing Shirt Storm

In what is sadly overshadowing the most recent accomplishment of the human species, European Space Agency physicist Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt has become a flash point for another public spectacle involving feminism. Also worthy of somber consideration is the likelihood that by the time the public moves on to the next cause célèbre, the people actually harmed in all of this will have been a class of moderate feminists themselves.

An emerging sentiment seems to consist of public backlash against feminism et al. Making that case is an online poll by Time from November 12, the same day that Taylor wore his much-maligned shirt in a televised interview, where readers were asked which of fifteen different words or phrases would they want banned from public use in 2015. “Feminist” came in at first place with nearly half of total votes, spurring Time to issue an apology for the inclusion of the word.

Perhaps, it is representative of the part of today’s multifaceted feminism with which the public is becoming disillusioned, that Time basically felt the need to apologize for its readers’ treatment of the word. The public visage of feminism has incrementally become a brooding and disapproving one via standing over people’s shoulders to point out “oppression” where the public fails to notice it.

People have an emotional need for positivity. They like to read the story where an underdog overcomes enormous odds, or where the results of an endeavor exceed expectations. Dr. Taylor certainly fit the profile of an underdog, with his tattoos and spectacularly unscientific shirt (which a female friend had made for him) challenging long-standing assumptions of what a scientist should look or dress like. By finding fault with his shirt, some self-appointed representatives of feminism have driven the movement into negative territory. They are attacking a popularly sympathetic figure on the uncertain grounds that his choice of attire represented a significant impediment to women’s success in STEM fields.

The overall direction has not gone without notice. Articles appearing in Vice, The Telegraph, USA Today, and countless other online publication broke ranks with the standard institutional feminism this week, including Paris Lees’ impassioned defense of sexual freedom, There’s a New Prudishness in Feminism and I Hate It. In her article, Lees excoriates an element of feminism “that takes ‘We know what’s best for you’ as its starting point.”

Ultimately, there is no membership fee for feminism and no official rules for participation. By default, it is a cultural identity where participation is user-defined. Many of those users are becoming frustrated with what they see as the darkening of a movement that was long known for positivity, advocacy, and equality. There are many women who identify as feminist that feel as though feminism is becoming too polarized and politically demanding to be truly inclusive. The Twitter hashtag #NotYourShield was created, in part, to represent women who felt that the media was exploiting them in portraying GamerGate as an embodiment of misogyny. Many others are uncomfortable with implicit encouragement towards misandrist behavior and attitudes.

There is a fundamental difficulty with “isms,” in that an individual has little flexibility to define their personal beliefs within an establishment. Oftentimes, the individuality of participants eventually precipitates a battle over the direction of a movement. As that battle looms over the horizon, it is pertinent to ask oneself what their end goal is–whether they seek a world of equality where people find love and mutual respect, or one where they find vindication to punish their “enemies.”

Opinion By Brian Whittemore

USA Today
The Telegraph
Header Photo by Edward M. Fincke – flickr license