It's Not Funny to Call Your Daughter Stupid

It's Not Funny to Call Your Daughter Stupid

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.

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  • Alas, I don't think that will happen. I think the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. I look at my 18 yo niece and her peers and shudder at how they are willing to objectify themselves. School and education is not on the radar. Life is right now, the future is something they don't have a relationship with. Sigh. Great post.

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    In reply to Mary Tyler Mom:

    I'm a substitute teacher and so I see a lot of the 'stupid sayings' t-shirts that children wear (I'm in middle school classrooms). Just yesterday I was flabbergast at a t-shirt a boy was wearing that had a picture of a rubix cube on it with the colored pieces peeled off. It said 'Once a cheater, always a cheater'. I would never allow my child to wear a shirt that cast them in the light of a cheater and I don't know what kind of parent would. Not only does it put a pre-conception in the mind of the teacher, but it teaches the child that being a cheater is ok because it's funny.

    My point is that I think the issue of degrading t-shirts pans the genders, it's not just about calling our girls stupid.

  • Nina's 12 year old half-sister is absolutely in love with the "Bella" character from the Twilight series (which I have not read/watched). She thinks Bella getting married and becoming pregnant with "vampire baby" at 19 is so romantic. Girls are becoming too precocious, too young these days - and encouraging them to use their brains does not seem to be a widespread priority among the adults. The information and messages we as a society are sending out prioritize sexiness and sexuality for girls over all else - and this not just true for toddler pageants.

    I feel extremely fortunate to have had parents who encouraged (actually really pushed!) us to use our brains and to respect ourselves. Never did I feel that looks would provide me the ticket to success in life. Ultimately, even for those in the fashion or entertainment industries, it is the brains leading to innovation that people respect and I am grateful to my parents for giving me that message.

    My father had a way of making learning and even homework a whole lot of fun. It never seemed like a chore and this is perhaps why I didn't feel that I was missing out on being one of the popular sexy girls in school. Hopefully, my husband and I can do the same for Nina and Lenny and help them resist societal pressure to follow such destructive stereotypes

  • It is all too easy to see little girls and tell them how adorable and beautiful they are. It's something in the pink and purple fluff that gets me to gush over them sometimes. But I made a decision a while ago that I would not gush to them how darling they were; instead I try to go out of my way to compliment them on something not related to appearance. Telling little girls that they are smart and kind and polite and strong are more important in forming a well-rounded self-esteem then just telling them how darn cute they are.
    Beautiful inside before outside is what needs to be pointed out to little girls so they never limit themselves to only being another pretty face.

  • In reply to elle418:

    Well said, Elle! I gush too - this gives me food for thought. My 4 year old foster daughter is constantly being told by others how beautiful she is (and I do it too sometimes, I admit). Next time there is a discussion of her good looks I will remember to point out how sweet, kind and gentle she also is - and very good at math too!

  • I am a new reader! Thank you for sharing so much wonderfulness. I am a waiting adoptive parent and a mom to a biological 5 year old little girl. This post really connected with me as I continue to be outraged by the messages being sent to our children, especially our little girls. It is getting harder and harder to find appropriate clothing...yes at 5! And, even harder to confront the constant stereotypes and inappropriate messages being thrown at our children.
    My daughter asked for a spider-man backpack for school...she is in kindergarten. She has never seen a spider-man show and only knows that it is very cool that he shoots webs from his wrist :) Just yesterday, when I picked her up, she told me that a boy in her class told her that spider-man was for boys. I asked her what she said. She said, "No he is not". I supported her and told her that spider-man is for anyone who likes spider-man. I wondered if this would be the beginning of her starting to try to fit into social norms...would she hesitate to take the backpack to school. On the way to school this morning she asked me, "Can I be Spider-man for Halloween?" My mind yelled a big "Yahoo!"...they haven't gotten to her yet :) May our girls grow to be stronger and smarter...and keep proving those against them wrong.

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    Great article. I couldn't agree more with this statement: "A T-shirt sold by mass retailers is more than just a shirt. It is a barometer for cultural attitudes." And O.M.G. on that anti-gay shirt. I can only shake my head. :(

  • Yuck. I cannot believe anyone would actually buy that t-shirt or support the idea/statement that their daughter is not capable of something. We much prefer shirts shouting, "You WISH you could kick like a girl," around here. I like your friend's t-shirt and am thinking of buying it.

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