Yesterday I found myself sucked into a little drama around a t-shirt on sale at JC Penney. Maybe you’ve heard about it?
It’s not the first sexist t-shirt that’s bummed me out and no doubt it won’t be the last. But I’m not one to shut up when I see something that pisses me off.
Clearly I was in the majority on this one, but not everywhere. Not at all. A few times, I found myself the single person on a blog trying to explain to a bunch of other moms why no, it’s not “funny,” and that while of course a t-shirt is not the end of the world, it’s worth speaking up about it.
On one blog where I commented, my line of thinking boiled down to this:
We live in a world right now that makes it harder and harder for girls to want to succeed. Snooki is getting more air time than the First Lady, and there’s a pervasive culture of sexuality that children are getting sucked into far before they should.
As a mother of two girls, I find it something I have to battle every day. I have to work so so hard to make sure they know that the messages in the media are not always right. I have to explain away t-shirts that say things like “future gold digger.” Soon, I will have to explain why song lyrics refer to women as bitches and hos.
After that, I will have to explain why it’s not okay to perform sexual acts on a boy just so he will like you. Because that’s the kind of thing girls do, when they believe their only value is how attractive they are.
So is a stupid little t-shirt (promoting everything I find deplorable) the end of the world? Of course not. But it’s symptomatic of a larger problem that only stops when we stand up and say something. And if giant retailers can become part of the solution, promoting more positive messages for girls, our job as moms becomes a whole lot easier. And I think, the world becomes a better place.
We should never stop fighting for the things we believe it. Even if the things you believe in are different than mine.
(Why yes, I have been reading Peggy Orenstein. Funny you should ask.)
The argument always falls on deaf ears, of course, with rebuttals falling predictably into one of four camps:
1) It’s just a joke and you’ve lost your sense of humor.
2) Shouldn’t you be focusing on more important issues?
3) It’s a publicity stunt.
4) You have too much time on your hands.
The one thing these arguments have in comment is they aim to discredit the person on the other side of the debate. They never actually make a case for why the shirt should be sold; just why you’re an idiot so shut up already.
At least the one guy on twitter who referenced the free market attempted to say something vaguely original.
You know, I sometimes wonder if people would make the same arguments if the shirt read, oh, say…. I’m Jewish so I don’t have to do homework. My parents are buying my way in.
Or, I’m Black so I don’t have to do homework. I can play basketball!
Some people would say yep. Still funny. And by the way, it’s a publicity stunt and you have too much time on your hands and shouldn’t we be talking about world hunger instead?
Sexism is pervasive. It creeps into our daughter’s lives in stealthy ways, before they’re able to identify it and refute it. Before they’re able to understand irony. Before they’re able to separate out the messages we tell them at home from the ones they see on t-shirts or posters on the subway. Man, if only they were one and the same.
I guess that’s all I’m going for here.
For those women who still ask why we need feminism (or equality, if you don’t like the f word) forget the t-shirt and skip right to any number of posts I discovered yesterday alone.
-The one from Jason Sperber that described beautifully what it means to be a man–having nothing to do with love of sports or beer or engine parts.
-The one defending an ad glamorizing domestic violence. (Because nothing says sexy like a man beating up a woman. Rowr!)
-The one about the guy at an improv show who described a date rape that he had committed as if it were a comedy monologue.
Sheesh, how did I come across all these posts in one day? It was like a giant gender-issue laden meteorite, barreling toward my RSS feed.
I don’t know how to fix it, besides continuing to talk about it and explaining that no, I don’t have other things I should be focusing on right now. This one is just fine, thanks so much for asking.
I do know one thing we can do though: understanding that idiocy knows no gender.
This is not a men versus women thing, although I saw that meme repeated continually yesterday. One time, disturbingly, it came from from the Women’s Media Center twitter stream. Yes, that Women’s Media Center. (I know!)
It started with a series of tweets about sexism in advertising (yeah yeah, ads can be sexist, same as t-shirts, music videos, and Congresswomen from Minnesota). And then, thanks to my friend Susan, I saw this:
Are you kidding me?
Yeah, if only I could get a shot at writing some real copy! Me and the other girls in the steno pool. Then maybe we could put on our pillbox hats and a fancy tweed suit, crash a meeting of men, click our heels three times, and change all sexism in advertising. From the inside, see? Or wait, maybe I’m just not trying hard enough.That’s it. I’ve been given this huge opportunity to personally save the ad world from the evils of sexism, and I’ve squandered it by spending my lunch hour on Facebook instead of slipping copies of Ms. Magazine under the doors of my superiors.
This is 2011, folks. Advertising is not sexist because men are writing ads. The same way t-shirts are not sexist because men are designing them.
Messages are sexist because people are sexist.
Messages are sexist because people are lazy. They fall back on stereotypes because it’s easy to get a laugh, easy to get an idea approved, easy to move onto the next thing on your to-do list.
I know because I’ve done it.
Hey, it’s easy to make a joke about men who love cats or White Zinfandel or Alanis Morrisette, sometimes all at once.
Or sometimes the people creating the messages are simply not that insightful. Or sometimes they’re just not that smart. It’s not a man bad, woman good thing, and if we think it is then we’re falling into stereotypical traps that are just as bad as the one we’re supposedly fighting.
The reason brands like Nike and Dove and Ikea have traditionally done such strong advertising is because very very smart, insightful people, work very hard to come up with good ideas, and then very smart, insightful clients work very hard to champion them and ram them through the system.
I have had male clients who fought tooth and nail to promote progressive values in their ads. I have had female clients who believe only 19 year-old anorexic blondes can represent their products.
But here’s the big secret that no one ever wants to say out loud.
Know where good ideas die?
You ask, why is it always women doing the shopping in ads? Why is it always the women doing the laundry and straightening the kids’ rooms?
I’ll tell you why:
Because consumers like it that way.
There have been times that I have fought hard for ads that promote progressive, contemporary views of women and family, gotten it through some dubious marketers, and remarkably, into a focus group of consumers.
That’s when the pain begins, on the other side of the two-way mirror.
If you put an ad featuring a man grocery shopping into a focus group, the first thing that happens is the women roll their eyes. Then they talk about how their husbands rarely do the shopping. Then they talk about how when their husbands do go shopping, they get the wrong things. Then they all laugh and high five and dig into the bowl of MnM’s and we move onto the next ad while my client thinks, told you so. We move onto the storyboard featuring the mother shopping, maybe while her kids whine a little or pull things off the shelf when she’s not looking.
That’s the one that elicits the smiles, and the response, oh yes. I can relate to that.
And there’s your ad, ladies.
Maybe that JC Penney tshirt was created the same way. By a bunch of women who scribbled a line down, laughed, and thought I can relate to that.
So where does sexism end? When we all say we’re not buying it. We’re not buying the t-shirt, we’re not buying the stupid ad, we’re not buying the message that our girls should only be valued for their looks, their kindness, and their housekeeping skills.
When there’s no buyer, there is no seller.
And so yesterday, I spoke up.