Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sexist Shirts

I got this email last week with the subject line Tell JC Penney and Forever 21: Stop insulting girls' intelligence. You kind of have to read at least some of it before scrolling down for my comments.

Just this week, retailer Forever 21 began offering for sale a shirt for girls emblazoned with the slogan "Allergic to Algebra." And a few weeks ago, JC Penney offered similar girls' shirts with the slogan "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."
Sexist slogans like these play into and perpetuate the incorrect stereotype that women are innately bad at math or being pretty is more important than being smart. By selling these shirts, the stores give their implicit support of these stereotypes to convince girls that, to be stylish and fit in, they must be bad at math or less interested than boys in academic achievement. Slogans like these are also harmful to boys and reinforce with them the stereotype that they are innately better than girls when it comes to math or that a girl's worth comes only from her looks.
After backlash from outraged customers, both shirts were pulled from the shelves and online stores.1 But how did the sexist shirts get there in the first place? Clearly, something is totally broken within the corporate culture of these retailers. There is no effective review process for the clothing sold at JC Penney and Forever 21 if offensive clothing like this that demeans young girls makes it to their shelves.
These retailers are clearly sensitive to public pressure, as evidenced by how quickly they pulled the shirts after a public backlash arose. But that's not good enough. We must pressure JC Penney and Forever 21 to make the changes necessary at corporate headquarters to ensure sexist shirts like these never even come close to making it to the shelves.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people at JC Penney and Forever 21 encountered these shirts before they were made available to the public. Why didn't employees of these retailers at some point say, "Hey, are we really going to sell shirts to young girls that say 'I'm too pretty for homework' or 'Allergic to Algebra'?"
It's obvious that these shirts perpetuate offensive and harmful stereotypes about the ability of women to achieve academically relative to men. Of course, many studies have confirmed that these stereotypes are baseless, and that women's minds are just as well suited to performing academically as men's.
But, because popular culture is so powerful, many women and girls will conform to negative stereotypes of what a woman is supposed to achieve if they are continually reinforced. Stores like JC Penney and Forever 21 help shape that culture through the clothing they sell.
It's clear that these stores listen to public pressure, but we must pressure JC Penney and Forever 21 to take concrete steps to ensure that clothing this sexist never even comes close to making it onto shelves again.
[end email]

First of all, the girls wearing these shirts are probably not good at math. Maybe they could be if they tried. But I could also be good at caring for children. I just have no desire to do that. "Allergic to bratty little 3 year olds" would be a fine slogan for my shirt.
We could make these shirts for guys too. Would that be a problem? The responsibility falls on the parents buying these shirts or the allowing their kids to buy these shirts. The market will take care of things by making bad designs lose money.

There is plenty of other sexist clothing in stores everywhere. Why don't they routinely carry thongs for men? Is that sexist? I guess it is because they're treating one gender different than the other. BUT it's not a problem and the market hasn't demanded that stores carry man thongs. There are special stores that cater to that market.

The too pretty for homework slogan is offensive, but so is "too rich for homework" or something along those lines, but other flashy displays of wealth and shirking of responsibilities are also encountered in retail stores. What about that app for the iPhone called I'm Rich?? You paid $1,000 for it to display a ruby on your phone. No other features. Just to show that you're rich. Apple did away with that app and they can do whatever they want, but people did buy it.
Even things that you don't like or you think are stupid might not be bad for other people. It's a slippery slope when you start deciding what people can and can't purchase with their own money. Let them decide not to buy the shirts.

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