If anyone has missed the Great T-shirt event of 2011, here is the ten-second background:
J.C. Penney was selling a shirt for girls that said, "I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” My full-of-awesome friend and colleague, Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals, was furious about the many stereotypes embedded in the shirt.
Since Pigtail Pals makes empowering apparel for girls, Wardy countered by creating a T-shirt of her own called “Pretty Has Nothing to Do with It.”
The Pigtail Pals T-shirt ignited a feverish response among consumers, who launched such vehement protests about the shirt that J.C. Penney is no longer selling it. And Wardy can barely keep up with viral orders for her own girl-empowering T-shirt.
But for all the thousands of supporters of the Pigtail Pals message, there are equal numbers of people who think all the fuss is ludicrous. Some people have called Wardy at home late at night to tell her they disagree with her. Others have joined the Pigtail Pals Facebook page in order to tell the community of fans that there was nothing wrong with the J.C. Penney shirt, that they would buy it for their own daughters.
Really? I wondered. You think it is funny to put your daughter in a shirt that says she is stupid? That equates prettiness with an inability to be smart or hard-working?
And then it dawned on me. The very fact that so many people can’t begin to fathom what all the outcry is about shows how widely people subscribe to stereotypes about women. And it isn’t just the men doing it. A huge number of people criticizing Wardy’s response to the J.C. Penney T-shirt are women. Women who think it is cute and funny to buy their daughter a shirt proclaiming her too pretty to do homework.
It is this same line of thinking that has created a market for Halloween costumes that transform four-year-old girls into sexy versions of every possible princess, character, animal and doll.
It is this same line of thinking that has created an audience for shows like Toddlers & Tiaras, where the mother of a three-year-old recently dressed her daughter up as a prostitute.
It is this same line of thinking that leads to the bullying of those who don’t conform to rigid gender stereotypes.
Lest you think the J.C. Penney shirt was an anomaly, consider the fact that Forever 21 sells a shirt for girls that says “Allergic to Algebra.” Same message, same market, same stereotypes.
For those who think a T-shirt is just a T-shirt, I offer this thought: Fifteen years ago, I was at a major league baseball game and was shocked to see a Cubs fan wearing a t-shirt that said, “Silly faggot. Dicks are for chicks.” (a cruel play on the popular commercial slogan for the Trix cereal: “Silly Rabbit: Trix are for kids”)
What most disturbed me was that nobody seemed to blink an eye at the antigay shirt, that others even seemed to think it was funny. A lot has changed. Today, I think it would be highly unlikely that someone could wear a shirt like that to a Cubs game without getting called out on it, especially now that the Cubs were one of the first professional sports team to upload a message of support to the It Gets Better website.
A T-shirt sold by mass retailers is more than just a shirt. It is a barometer for cultural attitudes. Fifteen years from now, I’d like to think that everyone who wonders what the fuss is about will look back and say, I can’t believe we thought those shirts from J.C. Penney and Forever 21 were funny. As they proudly watch their daughters receive graduate degrees.