Sunday, November 16, 2014

The spacecraft, the shirt, and the scandal

It was an exciting week in space exploration. Early on Thursday 13th November 2014, Australian time, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a ten year chase.

There were several unexpected problems with the ultimately successful mission, including the failure of the stabilisation thruster and the harpoons, and the lack of sunlight to power the batteries in the final landing position. Perhaps the least expected problem, however, was the encounter between a space scientist, his lurid shirt and a global audience.

Rosetta mission scientist Dr Matt Taylor turned up to do a live-streamed interview wearing a Hawai'ian-style shirt featuring drawings of half-naked blonde women posed raunchily in corsets and leather/latex costumes, some of them delivering 'come hither' looks.  It appeared to be a sort of Goth-BDSM-Hawai'ian fusion aesthetic.

To say it hit the wrong note is an understatement.

Many people were appalled that after so much effort has been put into getting more women into STEM fields, this sent the message that we're not really part of the gang. There was a social media storm of the usual responses, including threats of violence against women who were critical, cries of "It's just a shirt!", and gnashing of teeth over the lengths to which stupid evil feminists will go to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Dr Taylor apologised. That's all good.

But even after so much has been written about it, I think there is a little more to say about the cultural meanings of the shirt and the performance of wearing the shirt in that particular context.

Subjects and objects

I'll start with an anecdote from long before internet times. Many years ago, perhaps in the 1980s, an Australian bank purchased a work of art for the foyer of its Sydney headquarters, in the way that wealthy institutions do. It was a large painting of a naked woman's legs spread apart, so that the viewer looked straight between them. Many people found this problematic. The bank's reaction was to label them prudes who supported censorship and denied the power and beauty of the female body. But they did eventually take the painting down.

So what was wrong with this "picture"?

For women, it was a stark reminder that you could be chopped up and reduced to a single characteristic. That you cannot control who looks at your body. That any man you met in the bank may not be talking to you as a person, but imagining you naked like the woman on the wall. That in the end, you're nothing more than a cunt interchangeable with any other. It was about remembering your place, and staying in it.

Here's something else to think about. Magazine covers generally feature a person, often a celebrity. But who are these people? Do you see men on the covers of women's magazines, and women on the covers of men's magazines? Or women on the covers of women's magazines, and men on the covers of men's magazines? Overwhelmingly, it is women who are featured on BOTH. It's so normalised that few people I've ever mentioned this to have noticed before.

This is the phenomenon of the male gaze, frequently invoked and even more frequently misunderstood. You don't see the person looking - the person behind the camera - you see what it is they look at and the cultural perspective that informs what they focus on. They themselves become invisible and unexamined, while the women are offered up as commodities to be viewed and consumed. The idea is that the gaze reproduces power relationships.

It is so pervasive in the contemporary world that even women are accustomed to adopting this perspective, looking at ourselves from behind the lens. We see it in film and television, on billboards and magazine covers, in literature, in bank foyers, and on shirts. Leading characters in films and books tend to be male (plenty of statistics about this if you're interested), and female consumers must perform an act of mental acrobatics to 'read' themselves into these characters and their perspectives - which we mostly do without even thinking about it, because there's a paucity of choice in this regard. (But imagine if you didn't have to do it). Men are much more rarely in the position where they have to think themselves into a female perspective.

This leads us into subjectivity and objectivity. The male gaze hides the male as the subject structuring the encounter and focuses attention on to the female body as object. This is the same thing that Jackson Katz talks about so cogently in his brilliant TEDx talk on how men get written out as actors in Violence Against Women, Domestic Violence, Intimate Partner Violence. See what I mean, even as I write those terms?

What this means is that men are whole subjects with a single position, while women are forced into becoming split subjects. They see themselves as objects through the male gaze and have to assert themselves as autonomous subjects against this. Their subjectivity is divided, and has to be negotiated on a personal and individual basis. This takes effort, and of course many go with the path of least resistance.

So let's get back to that shirt.

Messages about masculinity in science

The shirt is an illustration meant to be interpreted. It's one choice from a huge range of things that were NOT chosen. It's a cultural choice and a personal choice.

We have the male subject offering to the gaze of the audience an array of sexualised women, who look out from the shirt to meet the eyes of the observer. The women are offered as a way for other men to assess the wearer’s masculinity.

There's a bunch of messages that we could read from this.
  • I'm not a nerdy scientist. I'm a cool one with tattoos and an edgy shirt.
  • I'm not a basement-dwelling space dweeb, I'm a red-blooded male who likes women too, just like you!
  • Space science is sexy and attracts the chicks! (who are not space scientists themselves, unless corsets are standard lab wear).
  • I'm heterosexual.
  • I can totally score and indeed deserve a "10" woman - see them on my shirt.
  • We have mastered the comet just like we have mastered the women who pose for us (here on my shirt).
I'm sure you can think of other statements that the shirt translates into. These are just the ones that occur to me. Taylor’s intentions, insofar as he might be able to articulate them, are irrelevant here. It’s a production of cultural meanings which requires both the conscious act of wearing the shirt, and an audience to participate in reading the message.

But let's not quibble about this - the shirt was primarily meant to appeal to other men. The depictions of women were an exchange between the scientist and the assumed male audience, a confirmation and a performance of masculinity.

Dr Taylor's other faux pas was the statement that the Rosetta mission was “the sexiest mission there’s ever been. She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

The scientist is male, and the spacecraft (like ships, continents, Mother Nature, and the sea) is female. Rosetta is sexy but 'she's' still a 'good girl', not a slutty spacecraft who puts her data out for anyone. Of course she responds to appropriate commands such as Dr Taylor provides — the theme of mastery again.

For women in science, these are all 'othering' devices that reposition us from the whole subject that we know ourselves to be, to the split subject, the object under scrutiny. We're a marked category. We're exchanged between male gazes, but we can't be active participants in the exchange. We pose prettily and passively on the shirt and sadly, in the minds of some, we're supposed to do that in the lab and in the field too.

The deep past of women and science

There's another important factor to add into the mix here. Science, especially 'hard' science, and even more especially mathematics and physics, is meant to be more difficult than the 'soft' humanities. We've seen a spate of opinions in recent times from people (who should know better), who argue that the low numbers of women in STEM fields reflects our natural capabilities. We're supposed to be more comfortable with soft and fuzzy things which involve people and animals, and it's genetic and evolutionary.  (Don’t get me started on that one – as an archaeologist I have strong opinions on how the evidence is used, but that’s for another post).

Ladies, we're just not brainy enough and there's nothing we can do about it.

The view that women aren’t naturally capable of logical or rational thought is far older than Aristotle, but it's worth revisiting the Aristotelian worldview because it basically dominated science, philosophy, theology and politics in Europe from the 4th century BCE to the Medieval period and far beyond. And I'm pretty sure than most of those who complain that women are not seen as inferior today and are just making it up, because feminists are whiny, haven't ever bothered to do any historical research.

Here's a few things Aristotle actually said about women, and he wasn't alone in holding these opinions. His works, however, were used as evidence to confirm this view by later thinkers.

Woman may be said to be an inferior man (Poetics).
The female is, as it were, a mutilated male (Generation of Animals).
Females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency (Generation of Animals).
The female is softer in disposition than the male, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young; the male, on the other hand, is more spirited than the female, more savage, more simple and less cunning. The traces of these differentiated characteristics are more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where character is the more developed, and most of all in man (History of Animals).
Woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment (History of Animals).
I could find countless other examples of this sort of thing dating from the time of the earliest writing (see Gerda Lerner's work for an analysis), but Aristotle will do as a representative. This has been the prevailing view of women for the last few thousand years. It hasn't vanished since women got the vote, or since the 1960s when equality started to be legislated for in many nations. We know that both men and women still tend to construct women as inferior - this has been demonstrated by blind tests such as this one over and over. Put a woman's name on something and it will be judged as lesser than the identical thing with a man's name on it.
The corollary is that when women do things that are held to be the traditional territory of men, like the hard sciences, they compromise their femininity by becoming more masculine. (The reverse is also true). So let’s wear shirts which show the ladies where true femininity lies!
This is what we're up against in science. This is why we really don't need a stupid shirt to remind us that perceptions can affect our ability to act as thinking subjects in the world.

From little things, big things grow

To finish, I feel it's important to point out something that often seems to be missing in these debates: the link between the small things and the big things. Opponents of feminism often make statements like, for example, why are you worrying about a shirt when the real problem is why women don't stay in STEM? (The kind of contrast that Richard Dawkins is fond of making and indeed has already made in relation to the shirt). It makes me want to scream and tear my hair out. Can't they see that the two are connected, that the minor instance is an expression of the same ideology that leads to the big problem? The kinds of analogies that make this easy to understand tend to be unpopular, but it doesn't take much imagination to draw them, so I will leave that up to you.
The underlying view of the world doesn't change until individual people start to act based on a different view. The aggregation of a thousand personal everyday choices, like what shirt you wear on the television, add up to either support or subvert the status quo.
Make no mistake: for women to be treated as equals in STEM, the status quo needs to be subverted.
One shirt at a time, if needs be. MY shirt is going to feature Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether.

(Sleep well, little Philae)

Many thanks to @lynleywallis and @deborahbrian for their helpful comments.
Updated 19/11/2014 to correct minor formatting and style issues.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:14 pm

    This was so well-written, and goes deep to explore why this issue matters. Thank you so much! It means a lot.