Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When sloppiness signals seriousness

A week or so ago, I ended up in a fairly intense (offline) discussion of too-brilliant-to-bathe, a term I coined, but a concept that others in-and-married-to-academia are also familiar with. For the uninitiated: TBTB is the phenomenon by which a man is able to demonstrate his intellectual superiority through his lack of effort in the grooming realm. A man who's been so busy thinking Great Thoughts that he simply hasn't had time to get a haircut in the last two years, or a new shirt in the last decade. Central to the theory of TBTB is that this laxity is an intentional part of self-presentation. As in, it's partly that men have an easier time getting away with looking sloppy, but it's also that sloppiness signals seriousness. For men. White men, mostly, but not exclusively. The sloppiness will help a man's reputation, help spread the word that he's so very lost in thought that he - unlike his colleagues in crisp new Patagonia or whatever academics who do spend time and money on their clothing might wear - can't spare the moment it would take to not dress in tweedy rags.

A variant of TBTB, however, is the man who's too brilliant to own more than one outfit. These men - whom we're now hearing about because Mark Zuckerberg apparently owns a lot of gray t-shirts - by all accounts make time to bathe, but their sartorial limitations hold the key to their great works. Allison P. Davis quotes Zuckerberg:

"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’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life."
Davis cries sexism, and rightly so. Jess Cartner-Morley also gets it:
Grey marl is a sartorial humblebrag. It’s everyman and yet classy at the same time. (For instance, if you are in a posh hotel gym, the proportion of grey marl T-shirts will be much higher than in a municipal leisure centre. Fact.) Note that when Zuckerberg talks about other men who wear the same clothes every day, the comparisons he draws are Steve Jobs and President Obama. An ego like that has no need of bling.

What's funny to me about all of this is that ... I also wear a gray t-shirt nearly every day. I may shake it up with a white or black t-shirt, but that's about it. Not because there are billions of people requiring my guidance, but because I gravitate to these shirts, and thus seem to have acquired enough of them to last a laundry cycle.

More generally, though, uniform-dressing is plenty common among women as well, at least among women who aren't required to look a particular way for their jobs. (Blogging and dissertating, both very gray-t-shirt-compatible.) Actually, forget that caveat - a moment of internet-research tells me that Joan Rivers was a uniform-dresser. Brad Pitt's ex and current, both also uniform-wearers. Lots of people do this, including men and women, fashion-conscious and not, brilliant and otherwise. It's only held up a mark of genius when a Great Man does it. When a woman does, it's... that she's thrifty, or that she knows what works with her body/her coloring. So it's not quite like TBTB, in that men and women both uniform-dress. The difference is more in the reception.

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