Sexism and shirts

The infamous shirt.

The infamous shirt.

I’ve waited a while before posting this because I didn’t want to be caught up in the unholy craziness that surrounded “ShirtGate” when it first happened.

Genital mutilation.
Rape culture.
Religious misogyny.
Unnecessary, invasive, medical procedures.
Wage disparity.
Women treated like chattel.
Irrational body image expectations.
Whole industries devoted to telling women what to be and how to be it….

…and Matt Taylor’s shirt.

One of these things is not like the others.

I’ve looked carefully at several images of Matt Taylor’s shirt. And quite frankly I see little to distinguish it from so many other images. From subway posters and CD cover art to Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein men’s underwear adverts, and the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David, I see these kinds of images everywhere.  But while Taylor’s shirt seems to have started a minor shit storm of outrage in some quarters, I’ve yet to see much fuss being made about the covers of Playboy, or Mark Wahlberg in nothing but his CK’s.

Why is that?

Surely it’s not because Taylor’s shirt fit into the same category of sick and disgusting things such as those that I mentioned at the very start of this post – things that every reasonable person must denounce and act to prevent at every opportunity.

Some have argued, quite parochially, that it simply wasn’t “professional” of Dr. Taylor to wear that shirt. But that presumes that the shirt was unprofessional attire for the venue – and that only begs the question of why it was inappropriate. Moreover, if we’ve learned anything in these last 50-60 years, it’s that conformity of appearance means nothing. You can be just as smart, just as honourable, and just as kind whether you wear rumpled blue jeans or an Armani suit. “Professional” attire is, thankfully, dying fast – and good riddance to it. Let us learn to look beyond the surface, and toward true substance.

Cristina Rad has talked about the notion of appropriateness on her youtube channel. She challenges us to ask where the appropriateness line would be drawn for that context. Her examples are a bit forced: statements of obvious hate speech; the 9/11 disaster; decapitated babies…. Those examples would be troubling in pretty much any context, because they represent acts or events that we know – we absolutely know – are detestable for clear and objective reasons.

Is appropriateness defined only by what the majority decide? What if the majority is a bunch of useless, uneducated, ill-informed prats? No; if “appropriateness” is defined in any way, it must be based on evidence and reason.

Would it have made a difference if Taylor’s shirt had as many scantily clad men as women? Or, as Cristina Rad suggested, hunks from the Spartacus TV show? Why? (Or why not?)

Let’s face it; no matter whether there were images of men, or women, or both, anyone even slightly repressed sexually would find it objectionable. To which I would ask: why must society capitulate to the sexually repressed? Why shouldn’t, instead, the sexually repressed get the help they need to overcome their Victorian era neuroses?

Why is sex inappropriate?

Would it matter if humanity’s history hadn’t been so sexist and patriarchal? This gets us to the notion of “casual sexism.” I have to admit that I have a hard time understanding what “casual sexism” is. Every example I can find of what is claimed to be “casual sexism” seems to me to be anything but “casual.” Indeed, “casual sexism” appears to be some kind of code for utterly detestable culturally ingrained behaviours. If that’s truly the case, then “casual sexism” is entirely the wrong term for it, because culturally ingrained behaviours are horribly difficult to root out – and “casual sexism” certainly carries none of that weight. Clearly, history has been sexist and patriarchal; and that, it seems to me, fully explains why “casual sexism” exists. But history is just the past; there’s nothing stopping us making our present and future better.

There’s a great deal to unpack about “casual sexism,” and I cannot do it here. I mean no disrespect by that. Indeed, it is because of its significance that I wouldn’t want to dwell on it here, where I cannot possibly give it its due. But to categorically denounce “men” as a group solely because of their gender is as sexist as categorically holding beliefs that belittle women solely because of their gender. One may as well discriminate against people based on the colour of their hair. There are social and cultural forces at work that shape our personalities as we grow. Some of us are better able than others to see past those forces, but we cannot a priori condemn someone simply for the circumstances of their life and the mental equipment with which they have been endowed. Conversely, however, this does not entitle those who have the capacity and opportunity to improve themselves, to continue to behave abhorrently. Indeed, it’s up to those of us who can see past the shortcomings of the past, to do everything we can to improve everyone’s lot in the present and future.

The point is that there are no universal rules in this regard. Every case is distinct, and every person is unique in their attributes and experience.

Only in the coarsest and most naive ways can we resort to the kind of broad categorizations that seem to permeate Western culture these days. Yet this is exactly how Dr. Taylor was treated.

Here’s what I say: In every way that really matters, there’s no difference between men and women. Whether it’s intelligence, character, sensitivity, curiosity, or adaptability, variation within a gender is far greater than variation between them. And that tells me that any perceived differences in averages is not meaningful. I say the best information we have tells us that we need to get over ourselves and stop seeing each other as “men” and “women,” but rather as just “people.” And if you are going to compare one person to another, it must be on the merits of the individuals and not at all on any preconceived superficial categorizations.


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