Friday, September 2, 2011

JCPenney and Insidious Sexism

On Wednesday, social media was alight with this ghastly long-sleeve tee from JCPenney:

If you can't read it, it says, "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me."
The product description says, "Who has time for homework when there's a new Justin Bieber album out?"

Mom bloggers, dad bloggers, as well as many people with significantly larger brains than the marketing folks at JCPenney were quick to flood them with requests to remove the shirt, and to their credit, they did indeed take it down. (Of course, this gem is still available. *sigh*)

My initial response to this was rage. Who the hell approved this hot mess? I mean, really, who? Because I'd like to smack them.

Later, a group of us tried some humor and wisdom with the hashtag #PutThatOnATShirtJCPenney. These are some of my favorites (and yes, I totally included one of my own):

There were a number of additional suggestions, including quotes from Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tina Fey, and Anne Frank, among others. It was a good time and I recommend giving it a look-see.

In the midst of this conversation, my friend Preston Yancey pointed out this delight, a stripper pole for kids (yeah, you probably don't wanna' click on the link). Now don't get me wrong. This is appalling. It's gross and 100% inappropriate. 

But it doesn't bother me like the t-shirt.

See, that's easy sexism to spot. I see "kiddie stripper pole" and say, "Hey daughters, don't let your highest aspiration be stripperdom." Brush the hands and we're done. Certainly there are more nuanced discussions about it to have, but at face value, everyone can point to that and say, "Sexist and inappropriate."

The t-shirt is a bit more tricky.

After all, being pretty isn't a bad thing. I can't very well point to the t-shirt and say, "Don't be pretty!" That's silly. My daughters ARE pretty.

And so girls see this and while it might stir something "off" in them, they can't place their finger on it. As a result, they sit quietly by or laugh at it and let its message wash over them. The message that looks matter more than brains. The message that boys are smarter than girls. The message that intellect and appearance are inextricably linked (and that if one rises, the other falls). The message that boys are just here to be manipulated. The message that your sexuality is what will get you ahead.

These messages and hundreds just like them attack my children every day. Sometimes they're boulders hurling at them in an avalanche and they can see them coming, but more often, they're small little erosive events that wear away at their self-worth, leaving them feeling less than the person they should be.

And when we stay silent, we let it happen. When we feel as though we're obligated to choose between one kind of exploitation of women and another, we let it happen. When we make excuses or suggest that it's no big deal, we let it happen.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal. There are far worse ways that women are exploited all the time. But I cannot stand by and watch my children's ability to see their value be worn away by the erosion of insidious sexism.

I'm too pretty and smart to let that happen.


What examples of sexism have you seen recently that you were tempted to brush off? How do you teach your kids or yourself to recognize it when you see it?


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