Month: November 2014

Subcultural Capital and the Shirt That Broke Science

The last fortnight has been a truly testing time for 21st-century feminism, a turbulent spell amongst an ongoing storm of renegotiated social identities and complicated practical applications of theoretical truths. It’s been two weeks of amazing scientific firsts and tawdry details, of the political clout of clicktivists and the overt rejection of some truly repugnant individuals. It’s also been a fortnight – another one? – of condemning the efforts of men and women alike to create safe and welcoming spaces on our streets, in our clubs, in our universities, and in our astronavigation labs. We should be used to it by now, realistically, but like a dripping tap, the predictable white noise of ill-informed dissent is no less annoying when you expect it. We publicly demonstrated our opposition to rape jokes by unseating Daniel O’Reilly, and efforts to prevent appearances of Julien Blanc’s sexual assault circus have been successful in more than one country. But when it came to what could have been the most relaxed and easily-addressed issue – Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt – the civilised discussion so many surely hoped for seemed only to crash and burn.

To confirm, and to guard against misunderstanding, he’s plainly highly intelligent, very skilled, and good at his job. His professional achievements mark a high point in human endeavour, and we should respect his work – but, unlike the lander he controlled, he does not exist in a vacuum. He made an unwise and unprofessional choice at a time when he knew he’d be in the public eye, representing an industry with known issues surrounding gender representation and equal access, and this needs to be commented upon. That’s all. A discussion needs to take place, calmly and without Boris Johnson comparing the incident to Stalinist purges. Some scientists and STEM industry insiders, men and women alike, passed reasonable and justified comment on a poor choice he made. It’s regrettable that he made it in such a high-profile way, but if the initial objections hadn’t been blown out of all proportion, we could have had meaningful discussion about an important issue and maybe changed a few minds. That was all anyone wanted. No-one called for his head on a silver salver. He apologised promptly and without grudging.

In certain forums, though, the discussion has taken on an entirely unexpected character, coloured by elements rarely seen in conventional gender relations. The owner of The Shirt That Broke Science was defended in discussions due to his perceived membership of an alternative subculture. Plainly in the minds of those who argued this point, this not only meant he could do little wrong in their eyes, but also that he’d shunned all traditional societal conventions and had a perfect right to create an unwelcoming environment so long as he was upholding the noble traditions and referencing the accepted iconography of his chosen social group. He’s in a video getting a tattoo! He’s pictured in a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt! He landed a piece of kit we don’t understand on a comet we didn’t know he was aiming for until two days ago! There’s something about harpoons too – OMG, so metal!

It’s not particularly that the metal community is overtly sexist (and my goodness, but it is!) – it’s more the implication that membership of this privileged group, this happy few, confers complete absolution from having to follow normal social conventions. It’s the subculture’s best-kept secret: that owning metal albums renders one immune to equality and diversity legislation. To have defied convention and abandoned the mainstream is seemingly to occupy a metaspace where women are welcomed only if they have arrived dressed as the strippers from a Mötley Crüe video, and people of other races and sexual preferences are seldom welcome at all. Take, for instance, the twin female uniforms of the UK alternative scene over the last ten or fifteen years: tight-laced corsets, fishnets, leather and lace, high boots and ultra-feminine long hair for some, and band t-shirts and nondescript jeans or combat trousers (like the lads!) for others. This is what the scene permits; unlike the early hand-sewn days of punk or the art-school adventures of the Blitz kids, deviation or experimentation is frowned upon. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we wear and what we listen to. Don’t like it? Go somewhere else.

It’s beginning to feel like the relentless emotional exploration of nu-metal (dismissed as “whining” upon its downfall) and the slight, passive, anti-macho aesthetic of emo (attacked with homophobic language even at its height) has caused a hyper-masculine, testosterone-soaked backlash: bands full of rugged woodsman-types who look equally at home with a literal or a metaphorical axe. A full beard holds more cultural capital and fetishistic weight at a metal club than at any bear bar one could visit, and the bear bar is likely to be a less judgmental space. The struggle for female artists to achieve recognition and success is real and well-documented, and a hyper-masculine backlash will surely only make the journey more arduous. What can we tell them? “Sounding great, girls, but come back in seven or eight years when they’ll be slightly more ready for you”?

Accordingly, the faithful adherents of the “fuck-you-I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me” crowd are heartily endorsing the shirt, the beard, the tattoos, and all the other associated icons of alternative masculinity on display. From a few inflammatory articles courtesy of agit-prop mainstream journalists, the neutral space of Facebook has been colonised by the kind of wilful ignorance I’d imagined only the religious right and Republicans were capable of. It’s only more worrying when we consider the political and religious leanings of the community involved: it includes atheists, fierce critics of party politics, advocates for marijuana legalisation, mistrustful of the criminal justice system. When men who call themselves free-thinkers wilfully misuse feminist rhetoric to misrepresent our resistance and refuse to even visit the websites they imagine they criticise, instead choosing to rely on the bitter hearsay of the mainstream press, have they any right to the title? Is this really the best this community can do? After the decades of relentless anti-authoritarian sentiment, isn’t is more appropriate for the scene to reject traditional notions of “a woman’s place” and “ladylike” ventures and encourage their female compatriots to expand to fill the spaces now available to them? And when those spaces are contested or defended, isn’t it more subversive to storm the barricades, kick the doors down, and demand inclusion?

If the alternative scene is genuinely about defying convention, the proud men of the subculture should be our allies, not our enemies. That’s the difference, after all, between a subculture and a counterculture: one exists alongside mainstream culture, in opposition but peaceable, while the other endeavours to force change. Does rebellion only reach so far? Do we reject Simon Cowell’s once-a-year pop-music prodigies, but not the significant wrongs that affect us every day? Is there anything sadder than a conservative sailing under false colours, a Tory MP in a Slayer shirt? The alternative scene shares a rebellious worldview and a resilient spirit with campaign groups the world over; does it lack real power, or simply not know how best to direct it? To borrow an appropriate metaphor, have we delivered only a toothless Cerberus, slobbering vainly at the gates of the Underworld but unable to instil any real terror into even the most damned of souls?

There is no gender block on understanding science and technology; instead, there are school science teachers who expect less or nothing at all from girls, careers advisors stuck in the 1950s, PhD boards who won’t award funding, workplaces that are deliberately unwelcoming. There is no gender block on listening to, creating, or knowing about music; instead, there is dismissal and investigative prodding from “real fans”, constantly examining to see if the girls know their stuff. There are phrases like “not bad for a girl”, and grudging approval when we get something right. There are sales assistants that will talk about pickups and floating bridges with the guys for hours and assume that the girl standing next to them is a long-suffering girlfriend. No-one plays guitar with their genitals; the strings are like cheese-wire*. No-one builds a space shuttle or a car or an artificial heart with their genitals either, even if it can accommodate the handle of a screwdriver. If it really needs explaining, let’s explain it one last time: women are good at stuff. We’re not prepared to beg for space and chances; we’re studying, we’re working, we’re creating, we’re making it happen. We’re too good to just let it go; what we can do will move humankind forward at the pace we’ve come to expect. You can provide room for us at the table, or you can expect the same argument a thousand times over.

*I’m willing to stand corrected on this. What else is the comments section for?