A Tale of Two T-Shirts

A few days ago, Sally Kohn published an article in The New Republic that discussed what she called feminist overreach. Using several recent examples, she argues that many feminists online are too quick to call sexism, thus detracting attention away from real feminist issues like pay equity and reproductive rights. One example she highlights is the criticism Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sustained after he explained why he wears the same, plain t-shirt every day. Zuckerberg responded, “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”

Some, including New York Magazine’s Allison P. Davis and Mic’s Ellie Krupnick, put forth arguments that Zuckerberg’s response was evidence of casual sexism. I agree with some aspects of both of these articles – notably Krupnick’s reminder that women are multi-layered and can care about both fashion and more pressing issues like foreign policy – but in general I prefer Kohn’s analysis that it’s more likely that Zuckerberg was expressing his distaste for fashion, not offering an underhanded criticism of women. I would have no problem hearing an argument that caring about the clothing we wear is not frivolous, but that’s a separate issue that both men and women can engage in. And I also have to ask Zuckerberg’s feminist critics, is it not equally sexist to equate fashion with women? Do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that casual sexism isn’t an important issue because it absolutely is. I’m suggesting that Zuckerberg’s defence of his t-shirt is not obviously casual sexism.

Kohn’s concern is that this kind of feminist overreaction will usher in a “cry wolf” phenomenon that risks de-legitimizing feminist voices. She worries that we may see a “return to the period of the sidelined, shrill feminism” and that the stereotype of the “hypercritical and humorless” feminist only gains credence from such overreactions as the critique of Zuckerberg’s t-shirt response.

When I first read her article days ago, it resonated with me as a proud feminist that is sometimes concerned that we are not always striking the most productive tone. I had planned on writing about Kohn’s article and then the new “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was released and I had to set it aside temporarily to rant about Geldof and African stereotypes. In the meantime, another shirt caused controversy in feminist circles and I suddenly found myself on the other side of my previous argument.

Last Wednesday, a team of scientists landed a robot on a comet. It was a really cool moment that was blighted by the fact that physicist Matt Taylor wore a shirt while addressing the media that featured scantily clad women in suggestive poses. Most of the criticism online focused on two related things. First, that the shirt reinforced the notion that women are unwelcome in STEM fields where they are already underrepresented. Second, that Taylor likely knew he would be addressing the media thus his choice of shirt is deliberately provocative at best and overtly sexist at worst. Kind of makes you wish he shared Zuckerberg’s gray t-shirt philosophy, huh?

Taylor apologized, and I’m inclined to believe him when he says that he made a mistake and he is sorry. Still, I have been reflecting on why it is that I think the criticism over Zuckerberg’s t-shirt comment was overblown but the criticism over Taylor’s shirt was apt. Both criticisms are related to the perceived subtext of the offending shirt decision. Both criticisms pointed to casual sexism as the offense. But only in one case do I think that casual sexism was actually present. It’s just my opinion but I’m sticking with it.

Which brings me to my main point. Trying to define casual sexism is a tricky thing to do. Some instances are overt but many are not. Often it comes down to how an action or statement is perceived which is inherently subjective. As such, constructive feminist dialogue is key and I think we need more of it as we walk this fine line. Sexism is a serious offense and should be perceived as such. For this reason, we feminists have to weigh the charge of sexism carefully before we accuse someone of it. We have to maintain vigilance but also avoid crying wolf. We have to vigorously oppose casual sexism where it exists but we have to be equally vigorous in our determination that it is casual sexism. This is no easy task. Two people can disagree over whether something is sexist and both be feminists. We need to remember this and push the conversation forward with integrity.

One of my favourite conversations regarding the Taylor shirt debacle was written by Connor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. It’s fictional but I would like to think that it’s a good representation of the type of conversations that feminists can have both with each other and with the rest of society. Kohn states in her article, “Feminists have to not just hold society accountable but hold each other accountable to keep mainstream feminism from losing its edge.”

As a feminist mantra, I think it’s a good one.