Landing a Speeding Bullet on a Bigger Speeding Bullet and then… the Shirt

It was an extremely big deal to land a space probe on a comet travelling at 84,000 miles per hour. At that speed, the comet was travelling 40X faster than a bullet.  All that seemed to fall by the wayside after Matt Taylor, the lead scientist of the Rosetta Project led by the European Space Agency wore a bowling shirt depicting scantily clad gunner girls.  The issue has gone viral on Twitter with opinions varying.  Many men don’t think it should be a big issue.  Taylor is a brilliant scientist whose clothing choices should not be up to any kind of scrutiny.  

What a strange power there is in clothing.  ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Of course, many women including many in STEM fields are offended by the sexist shirt.  A lot of women have faced brutal rebuttals including death threats for their concerns. Rude, vulgar and very nasty comments have been common on Twitter feeds.


I asked my boys what they thought about Matt Taylor’s shirt.  My older son in particular is an avid Twitter participant so he had read a lot about the controversy.  His thoughts struck me as both practical and a bit disturbing.  He is only 17, however, so some of the bigger issues escape him as his life experiences in these matters is quite limited.  He felt that the Twitter comments were way out of proportion to the incident.  His opinion was that people will find anything to argue over and rant about on Twitter – both the women reaming him out and the trolls condemning the women for their opinions.  At this point in his life, he could not fathom why anyone including any women would find the shirt offensive – “It’s just a shirt!”  I think I can agree with him somewhat on that point.  I have seen similar behavior on forums where controversial subjects are posted on. Many people cannot voice their opinion and leave it at that.  It usually gets ugly at some point. And so it has transpired on Twitter with Mr. Taylor’s shirt.  Some women have made some pretty gentle disagreements with his choice of dress and have been denigrated and received death threats.  Shirtgate has gotten very ugly, very quickly.  

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” [Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the Voice of America; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, February 26, 1962]” ― John F. Kennedy

We seem to have forgotten about the huge scientific achievement of landing a tiny space craft on an astronomically huge and extremely fast-moving comet and the focus is now on an ill-chosen and yes, sexist shirt.  That science has been trumped by this dumb wardrobe choice is both sad and disturbing.  That people feel swearing, bullying and death threats are a great way to respond to disagreement over their own viewpoint is even more disturbing.


Wearing that Shirt was Dumb

Matt Taylor is probably not a bad guy.  Did he have the free will to wear that shirt?  You betcha. Was it a wise wardrobe choice?  Absolutely not.  There are two very good reasons Matt should have made a better shirt choice.  They are outlined in detail here in a blog post by Matt Shipman. In a nut-shell, these are his two points:

  1. Your clothing choice does communicate a lot about you.  If you wear a bowling shirt with scantily clad women, whether you consciously think so, you are communicating a viewpoint of women as sex objects and you will be making any women on staff or in this case any women viewers uncomfortable.  As well, will you be taken seriously as a scientist wearing such a choice in clothing?  Think about it this way:  Would you want your lawyer, defending you on a murder charge, to be wearing the same shirt.  The jury surely will not be focusing on his final summation on your behalf.  Will he win the case for you?….Perhaps, but the jury is way out on that!
  2. A dedicated professional wants the focus to be on their product or in this case their achievement.  For this reason, lawyers, businessmen and scientists at press conferences wear suitable attire, most often suit and tie but at least generic, non-flashy attire that shifts the focus to the achievement not the person.  By wearing not only a sexist shirt but an extremely flashy one, Matt Taylor brought the focus of the press conference on himself.  If you want the focus to be on your work, you choose your wardrobe carefully when presenting yourself in public.  Perhaps Matt wanted the attention on himself and not on his research?  Perhaps the ESA wanted their research to appear edgy and appealing and so allowed his poor choice?  Regardless, the result was the rampant focus of Twitter and other social media on a shirt rather that on a miraculous scientific achievement.

[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Your opinion of shirtstorm!” bwidth=”6″ bcolor=”FF964A”]What do you think about the Twitter shirtgate?  Was the criticism of Taylor’s shirt overkill?  Did the women scientists who opposed have a valid point of contention?  Add to the Twitter storm and provide your opinion.[/stextbox]


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