And the sexist T-shirt hits keep on coming — but in a way I never expected.
Sure, every once in awhile some stupid T-shirt comes out and people go bonkers for a spell, practically convulsing with outrage. Maybe the shirt says girls can't do home work or they suck at math, or that girlfriends can be identified by breed, like horses, or that guys can get a little rapeyish sometimes, but only because someone made them.
Bad ideas all. And the Internet quickly swings into action, sometimes forcing the retailer to pull the item, offer an apology and then ... go back to making really crappy T-shirts months later.
To be honest, I was excited about the recent outrages we've seen over T-shirts, starting with JCPenney's "I'm too pretty to do homework" debacle. As someone who has had incredible difficulty shopping for non-sexist shirts for my daughter, I thought we might have reached a watershed moment when it comes to equality in children's fashion.
Maybe, I thought, just maybe all this noise will compel companies to rethink their offerings and start giving girls the same kick ass options as boys.
Then Forever 21 went and ruined my little Mr. Smith Goes to Project Runway moment. And then Topman's rape-y t-shirts for guys...et tu, Brute? And don't even get me started on the even more rapey shirts we came across yesterday.
A few weeks after the T-shirt tempests showed both the idiocy of companies and the awesomeness of the Internet — thanks to the well-deserved shitstorm, these shirts were pulled within hours — things have apparently returned to what amounts to "normal" in Clothing Land.
Out of curiosity, I went back to JCPenney and started flipping through its t-shirt offerings for boys and girls, just to see if the "too pretty" shirt or something like it had returned. What I found wasn't some horrifying example of sexism, some open-shut case of the morons have taken charge of the silk screener again; what I found, I would argue, goes beyond a simple piece of clothing. What I found seems much worse: a systematic, sly form of sexism that pervades young girl's fashion not only at Penney's but at seemingly every major retailer.
Over the past few weeks, I've heard people say, "Geez, lighten up, it's clothing." Or, "It's just a shirt!" OK, fine. For the sake of argument, I'll give you that one bad shirt is just that: a stupid shirt. But at what point does "just a shirt" become a problem that needs serious attention?
I think we're well beyond that point.
Here's an entirely unscientific breakdown of a decidedly non-Woodward and Bernstein investigation:
For girls at JCPenney, 14 t-shirts mentioned or alluded to appearance — from the blunt, "Cutie Pie," to the vague, "Fame, Fashion, Friends."
For boys, guess how many alluded to appearance?
That's fourteen "I make this shirt look cutes" or "Fairy Glams" for girls, and one "So cute it's a crime" shirt for boys.
No big deal, you say?
Fourteen to one is not sooo bad?
OK, let's take a look at what I call "action" shirts — shirts that focus on doing things as opposed to standing around waiting for "Justin Beaver" (yes, that's a real t-shirt).
Boys had 26 of these action shirts — shirts featuring either sports equipment or racing cars or merely allusions to getting dirty.
Girls had six.
It should be noted here that the girls T-shirt collection stretched over 20 web pages, while the boys had 14. So with far more options available, girls had far fewer action shirts to buy. And I think I'm being generous with girls action shirts, counting "Girls rock," "I Love music" and "I'm the rock star" in this category.
But you know, that's not all. I think it gets even worse, or at the very least ... creepier.
While I was flipping through all those shirt pages, something began to nag me. On the boys side, I kept seeing all these college-logo type shirts and dozens of sports-jersey-esque shirts. But I couldn't remember seeing any of those for girls.
I went back and recounted, and sure enough, girls who shop at JCPenney apparently don't like sports or the idea of going to college. (Confirmed by Forever 21, perhaps?)
Boys had literally dozens of sports or college-logo type shirts. For girls, there were zero.
There were plenty of cupcakes, ice cream cones, perfume bottles, peace signs, butterflies and flower prints. But not one shirt featuring a ball. Not one college logo-esque offering. Zero "varsity" style shirts. Nothing sporty really at all.
Wait. I take that back. There was one sport shirt for girls. It said "Athletic Department" on top…and then "Believe in peace" in the middle. At this point, I thought JCP was just messing me, personally, and I stopped looking.
Just to be fair to JCPenney, and not to pick on it so much that it goes and cries into its "I, like, totally hate ur public outrage — BFFs Forever!" T-shirt, I briefly looked around at Sears and Wal-Mart web sites, noticing pretty much the same patterns. I didn't keep any stats for those stores but did notice tons of "I'm cute" type shirts for girls and dozens of sporty shirts for boys. If someone were to keep a count, I'd bet the results would be similar: sports and action shirts for boys, and notes about cuteness and endless cupcakes and peace signs for girls. (I'll give Target credit here for offering some awesome running outfits for girls [see photo at left]. One major retailer out of four's not bad, right?)
I had really hoped somewhere deep inside that we might have reached a tipping point when it comes to shirts and that these companies might start thinking more critically about the offerings for boys and girls, but weeks later it's almost stupefying that not one — not one! — T-shirt for girls at a major retailer would even show a ball, let alone mention playing sports.
Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe no one really gives a shit — after all, these companies are selling this crap because people are buying it. But it just drives me so crazy to think that this if how the official business-minded world thinks about little girls and little boys. It drives me crazy to think that all these kids are turning into miniature billboards for this bold but almost invisible type of sexism, probably often because their parents think it's adorable or innocent or who knows, really? But how many of these tiny, almost subliminal messages have to get through before young girls start thinking, "Maybe I should focus on looking fabulous," rather than what that one boy shirt says: "Practice for victory." (Why isn't that message on a shirt for girls? Put the letters in pink if you have to, but at least offer it to both sexes for god's sake.)
Weeks later, and I still find myself getting annoyed. I wish parents would tell one another to stop. Stop. Just stop. By buying this crap, you're hurting our daughters and giving ours boys the idea that girls should just stand around and look cute while boys go off and play. And I wish parents would say "stop" to clothing stores for selling this crap. It is, after all, easy to make an alternative. Take a look at the skirt above. It took me about an hour to make and includes a simple word, "escuela." (The kid goes to a Spanish-speaking school and freaking loves homework.) And then look at the Target T-shirts. Why can't every store carry at least one of these?
Most of all, I wish people would keep hounding the clothing executives who make the final call on these shirts and what goes on display — if not for the good of our culture then at least for the executives' own selfish, self-serving interests. Somehow, despite all these messages that say appearance and fashion are the keys to life, girls are, oddly, outpacing boys when it comes to getting college degrees. One day all these "I'm so cute" little girls will be your boss, executives, and I can't wait for the day they walk into the office wearing a shirt that says, "You're fired, you sexist asshole."
Mike Adamick writes at Cry It Out! His basement is full of soap boxes.