Enough with the fashionable gender stereotypes

“Who has time to do homework when there is a new Justin Bieber album out?” That was JCPenney’s product description of a shirt for girls aged 7-16. The shirt read: “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

Then Forever 21 created a shirt for young girls that read “Allergic to Algebra.”

Both shirts triggered such a storm in traditional media and the blogosphere that JCPenney and Forever21 have pulled them from the market. In a statement, JCPenney claimed that the company “agrees that the Too-Pretty T-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message.” Forever 21 apologizes to customers “as the intent was not to discredit education.”

While it is heartening that the online campaigns for the withdrawal of the T-shirts have succeeded, this is not simply an issue of discrediting education or inappropriate messaging. It is an issue of the gender stereotypes that permeate education becoming marketable as made-to-wear items. By tying not doing homework to the current appeal factor of Justin Bieber among teenage girls, JCPenney not only undermines the process of formal education but also creates the impression that beauty and achievement need not go hand-in-hand for young girls. Does beauty preclude the need for effort?

The shirts also have implications for men or, in this case, brothers who are tasked with doing their sisters’ homework when they are distracted by Justin Bieber or their prettiness. Falling under the euphemism of “not delivering an appropriate message”, the shirt creates gendered impressions of achievement in the boys who are recipients of such messaging: Boys do homework that girls cannot or will not or do not wish to do. In the malleable moral universe of youth, such shirts and attitudes can be the basis of stereotypes that affect gender relations and impressions on performance, ability, achievement and success throughout people’s lives.

Gendered messages in clothing exist for adults as well. The latest controversy involves Topman’s shirt that reads: “Nice Girlfriend. What breed is she?” The shirt essentially compares women to dogs or horses or other inhuman beings. The same company has created a shirt with a number of excuses: “I’m so sorry but…

  • You provoked me
  • I was drunk
  • I was having a bad day
  • I hate you
  • I didn’t mean it
  • I couldn’t help it
On Topman’s Facebook page, many have been outraged at how these sound like excuses for mistreatment or even domestic violence.
Topman is withdrawing the shirts and apologizing, once again without a direct mention of the gender implications of their messaging:
“We have received some negative feedback regarding two of our printed T-shirts. Whilst we would like to stress that these T-shirts were meant to be light-hearted and carried no serious meaning, we have made the decision to remove these from store and online as soon as possible. We would like to apologise to those who may have been offended by these designs.”
Reflecting gender stereotypes in products marketed to youth is not the way to motivate young people of all genders to be invested in their education, to eliminate sexism, or to create positive role models for all genders. And even if the intent behind adult shirts with similar messaging is “light-hearted” as Topman would have it, the impact is not light at all because it essentially amounts to a commercialization of sexism.

None of the press releases so far have contained an acknowledgment of the gender implication — or any of the words “gender”, “women”, “girls”, “boys”, or “stereotypes” whatsoever. It is unacceptable that implicit sexism is fashionable to wear, but too taboo to talk about.

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One Comment

  1. Posted September 18, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Great piece! Although obviously, I find the topic…incredibly distressing. These companies must think that they’re catering to the girls who find math difficult, but they’re also encouraging a culture in which that’s expected and completely acceptable. Algebra is not some abstract concept…we do it all the time, even when we don’t realize it. It’s obviously not good practice to scare off girls and young women from becoming accustomed to it.

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