T-Shirt Guy is, depending on who you ask, either someone unfairly bullied by hordes of humourless feminazis, or a guy whose questionable, unprofessional clothing choices are a symptom of a far bigger problem of exclusion and sexualisation of women. I’m with Greta on this one, with just one thing to add: while I’m firmly in the latter camp, there definitely is one thing that I am in agreement with people in the former on. I wish that we didn’t have to spend so much time talking about this crap. We (that is, humanity) just landed a robot on a goddamn comet, and we’re stuck talking about t-shirts and misogyny. What a colossal pain in the ass. And what a crushing indictment of our collective sexism, when we can fuck up robots on comets. Actual robots. On actual comets. Right now.
Right now there is a robot on a comet and okay it is asleep but we put it there and instead of getting to be gobsmacked about that we are stuck talking about fucking sexism. There are two ways that we can make that not happen again. Either we can stick our fingers in our ears and pretend sexism isn’t happening (although, of course, our society will then continue to be hopelessly stunted and we will never achieve the happiness and well-being that we could), or we can start rooting out sexism wherever we find it, so that the next time we do something gobsmacking with science all we have to do is say “woooooah” and “holy shit did you see what humans did” and high-five each other.
Enough of that, though. This isn’t about T-Shirt Guy- who has apologised, so we’re cool- so much as the people defending him. Because I’ve seen a lot of people justifying TSG’s choice of shirts by saying that it must be okay, because a woman gave him the shirt.
Feminists can’t complain if a woman did a thing, right?
…Are you kidding me?
There’s a lot wrong with that statement, but let’s just break it down into the major element of Wrong, shall we?
Women aren’t a monolith.
Here’s a thing that antifeminists don’t seem to get. It turns out that women- as well as any other marginalised group on the planet- are not, in fact, a hivemind. I am aware that this contradicts every article you’ve ever read about What Women Want, What Women Really Mean When They Say That, or even Ten Christmas Presents That Special Woman In Your Life Will Love. It turns out that despite what you’ve read about empathy and language ability and spatial reasoning and red berries, the only thing you know about a person when you find out that she’s a woman is that she is a woman. Probably. I mean, unless she tells you otherwise, in which case you didn’t know that because you were wrong.
Women aren’t a feminist monolith. Everything that a woman does is not by definition feminist. We don’t live in a world of sexist men and feminist women fighting each other in some kind of epic boss battle, where everyone knows precisely what side they’re on and nobody gets confused over what precisely the other meant by privilege anyway. It turns out that sexism isn’t simply a thing that men do to women. Sexism is a thing that we as a society do to all of us that unfairly privileges men (and masculinity, which is separate but conflated and yes the patriarchy does harm non gender conforming men too, holy shit it does) over women (and femininity).
If sexism and patriarchy are things that society- that is, you and me and everyone you’ve ever met- does to itself, then women and non binary gender people are as capable of sexist actions as men are. If our culture is largely created and recreated through our actions, which are themselves often the result of biases that we mightn’t even be aware of, then we can perform sexist acts without even knowing that is what we’re doing. And if the very idea of what is sexist can be contested- which it often can be, because culture is hella complex and we’ve got more shades of grey here than you can imagine- then I can think that something is sexist and you can think it’s empowering and we can both be wrong and we can also both be right. Particularly when we’re talking about representation and symbols and meaning and the giant can of thoroughly tangled worms that opens.
Which is, by the way, why the Some Of My Best Friends Are InsertOppressedGroupHere and the My InsertOppressedGroupHere Friend Thinks It’s Fine When I Do That arguments are so painfully embarrassing. They don’t just show that you like to use your friends as bargaining chips when you’re arguing against people actually treating those same friends with a bit of dignity. They also show that you don’t actually see those friends of yours- no matter how much you say that they just happen to be InsertOppressedGroupHere- as individuals.
If we see people who aren’t bastions of overwhelming privilege as individuals, then we’ve got to acknowledge that sometimes those individuals do things we disagree with. And we’ve got to deal with the fact that being a member of an oppressed group doesn’t actually mean you come out of the womb with a comprehensive knowledge of the social forces that will act upon you, the wherewithal to get when the things dressed up as positive are actually sneakily working against you, and the fundamental correctness to agree with me in absolutely everything I say forever.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that being a member of an oppressed group gives you absolutely no insights into you oppression and that we should all sit back and let the cishet white guys get their mansplain on so we don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about things. Being marginalised absolutely helps when it comes to understanding marginalisation, particularly your own! But it’s a leg-up, not a get-out-of-learning-free card.
In short: I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if a woman gave a man a shirt, or if she thought it would be a cool shirt to wear on TV. It was a terrible idea.
Men are grown-ups
So, a woman might have given a man a shirt and said to him that it would be cool if he wore it on TV. Y’know something? He still decided to wear the damn thing. And his colleagues and supervisors still didn’t see any problem with that.
One of the things that we do to women, you see, is that we get pushed into being caretakers of men all the damn time. Regardless of how well-suited we are to the role, and I would know because it’s 4pm and I’m still in my PJs and I just ate a half a packet of mochi for lunch despite the fact that I’m turning 32 next month and seriously, whoever put me in charge of someone else’s well-being should be immediately charged with whatever kind of gross negligence you can pin on them. Women are expected to mind men, to keep them in line and respectable. We’re supposed to be the sensible ones who know better, while men get to charge around the place having adventures and shooting rockets onto rocks hurtling through space and drinking beer and playing video games or football or whatever. But y’know what? Men are as perfectly capable of matching their own damn socks and picking out their own damn wardrobes as everyone else is. Which is to say that some of them have perfectly ironed underpants and some of them keep all their socks in a bucket and pick out whatever two were at the top, patterns be damned, just like everyone else. And sometimes men make questionable choices, just like everyone else, and those choices sometimes lead to conversations and accusations and apologies.
Maybe TSG and his friend are right now sinking back a massive crate of beers and facepalming over that thing that he did, that she thought he should totally do, backfired in the worst possible way. And then over the fact that they’re saying “backfired” when talking about a situation related to a robot-on-a-goddamn-comet that had some unfortunate issues with bouncing into the shade and needing a nap, oops. Maybe not. Either way, when we talk about actions that men- or any other privileged group, for that matter- take, then the people taking the actions need to be the ones who take responsibility for those actions. Regardless of whether some other people from more marginalised groups said some words to them.
Oh, and if anyone fancies leaving a comment on this post saying that this is all a storm in a teacup and what does a shirt matter anyway, I’ve got two things to say to you: First, we’re not actually talking about a shirt, or that guy, who apologised and has moved on and that’s fine now. And second, the fact that we’ve this much to say about the situation shows that this is a hell of a lot bigger than any shirt would ever be.
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