Gender Bias: Alive, Well, and on a T-Shirt
After being blasted with a Change.org petition, JC Penney removed this shirt, intended for girls aged seven to fifteen, from its website, issuing an apology on August 31.
A few days later, Ms. Magazine launched another petition, calling for the removal of this shirt:
This shirt is still available for purchase on JC Penney’s site.
I thought it went without saying that messages portraying girls as superficial and mentally inferior to boys shouldn’t be emblazoned on the chests of America's youth, but I guess I was wrong.
Like many of the other folks who signed this petition, I think that this shirt sends an unsavory and dangerous message. It reinforces a lesson that girls hear too often: their appearance is their most important asset. It also teaches girls that being obsessed with shopping and boys, at the expense of academics, is cool and fashionable. Being smart, studious, or engaged with learning is simply for the guys.
I hope that when JC Penney removes this item from their site, they’ll also consider removing this one:
This shirt, and all of the other “boys drool” paraphernalia out there, is equally as harmful. When we teach girls that it’s okay to dismiss generalities about boys in the “spirit of good fun,” we teach them that they should allow boys to do the same, meaning that a few years later when a boy wears a shirt like this, they’ll be inclined to laugh it off as well. And it's not funny.
We want girls to learn that one’s gender does not determine IQ, talents, or role in life, and we also want girls to understand that everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, appearance, race, and class deserves respect and should not be stereotyped on a cotton-poly blend.
Why do I, as a young working woman with no kids, care?
First, media messages like these are maladaptive for girls as they mature into working adults. How can we expect our girls and boys to enter into healthy, mutually respectful professional relationships with members of the opposite sex if we explicitly show them that gender stereotyping is funny, lighthearted, and marketable? Fifteen years from now, when the eight year-old girls whose parents were delusional enough to buy them these t-shirts enter the workforce, I don't want them to walk into a conference room at my office and think that they can't contribute to financial discussions or that the men in the room are mindless pigs.
Second, as a marketer, I see JC Penney's sale of this shirt as a huge failure in marketing and quality control—one I hope any company I work for will never commit. No business should rely on gender stereotypes or the hackneyed “battle of the sexes” to sell its products. By falling back on this outdated cliché, JC Penney reveals itself as uncreative and lacking innovation.
I hope that, should I ever be in an organization promoting such sexist messages, I have the strength and courage to speak up. I'm thrilled that two out of three of these shirts have been axed—but I have to ask, how did they make it through production or purchasing process? How is it possible that no one at JC Penney paused to think, “Oh, wait a minute, it’s not 1950.”
Or, if some concerned man or woman did express their opinion, why was it silenced? Surely the women in important executive positions at JC Penney (seven women on the executive board), like their Senior Vice President of Brand Marketing Ruby Anik, didn’t earn their prestigious positions by shopping and being cute. (Well, in this case, maybe she did learn a little bit by shopping, but you get my drift).
Furthermore, we should all be aware that a poor business decision can set the Twittersphere aflame, leading to an outright social media firestorm. (Forever 21's ridiculous t-shirt reading “Allergic to Algebra” was removed within an hour of the bloggers sounding the alarms.)
I understand that young girls (and women) are inundated with negative, sexist messages every day: beer commercials featuring oafish men and silent, busty women punctuate our sporting events, and somewhere out there Ke$ha is existing.
But surely if we hold businesses responsible for wrapping messages like these around children, that’s a step in the right direction.
Rikki Rogers is a writer and marketer working outside of our nation’s capitol. When she’s not stuck in traffic, she enjoys writing poetry and running after her son. Since earning her BA from University of Virginia and her MFA from University of Utah, she's served in marketing and communication positions at a number of tech companies in the DC area. You can read more about her obsession with language and culture at www.rikkiwrites.com.More from this Author