Well this week certainly started off with a bang in the back-to-school clothing world -- The Children's Place, purveyor of popular yet affordable clothes for kids, experienced a huge wave of backlash as news spread across the 'net that they were selling a girls' shirt that may as well have said, "Math is haaaaaard." Watching the indignation unfold on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs was equal parts entertainment and "please stop the planet, I want to get off." There was something else, too. There was a little... deja vu. Haven't we already been through this?
Oh, that's right! We have! Just a few years ago, J.C. Penney pulled the same stunt, essentially, with a shirt that allowed the wearer to proclaim that she was too pretty to do homework. Both retailers followed a similar trajectory, too: The shirt is released, the public is outraged, petitions are started, the company hastily apologizes, pulls the shirts, and reassures everyone that they never meant to offend. (In this most recent mea culpa, Children's Place reminds us that many of their shirts contain positive and affirmative messages, so y'all should probably just forgive this lapse in judgment.) It's not that I doubt their sincerity; of course they didn't mean to offend people. Companies who sell things don't want to offend their customers, they want to appeal to them so that they, in turn, buy their stuff. And both J.C. Penny (back then) and Children's Place (this week) released these articles of clothing after, one assumes, said clothing has passed through multiple departments within the company and been designed, developed, produced, and seen by multiple sets of eyes and deemed a good investment. These shirts were seen as harmless and likely to appeal to girls and their parents.
Instead, both companies ended up with a PR nightmare. If only there was some way for children's clothing retailers to avoid this sort of thing. Hmmmmm.
See, I see people like hisfeministmama making a reasonable case about the deeper implications of why this sort of thing is problematic:
Both The Children’s Place and Gymboree (in conjunction with a massive slew of other societal, environmental and pop culture factors) are helping girls internalize the false assumption that girls don’t perform as well as boys in maths and science. By internalizing this socially constructed notion, born in the same bed as ideas that women should be the ones to raise children and women can’t possibly be doctors, girls are less likely to seek out STEM opportunities that do exist in their educational environments. Still a catch-22 for so many female children.
She's right, of course. But I can't help feeling like we latch on to the most egregious examples of "stuff that makes our kids think unhelpful things" to band together and raise our pitchforks about, when really, these messages are everywhere and most of the time we turn a blind eye. No, I don't want my daughter wearing a shirt that's all "Teehee! Being dumb is sexy!" But I never wanted my infant son wearing a onesie decorated with sports equipment, either, because I think it's ridiculous to pigeon-hole gender that way (and that's aside from the fact that I've yet to see an infant tossing a football). I didn't buy those onesies, and I would never buy these shirts for my daughters, either. It never occurred to me to protest about the proliferation of sports-themed clothes for boys -- they're everywhere, and I doubt it would make a difference -- I just... didn't buy them.
I'm not saying people shouldn't protest if they feel moved to do so -- certainly these two very public examples from major retailers are a great demonstration of how a company can screw up, listen to their customers, make a change, and move on -- but how do we decide what's worthy of protest and what's simply a, "Yeah, that's not for my family," cast-a-vote-with-your-dollars sort of situation? There's tons of things about children's clothing in this country that drive me bonkers, from the gendered artwork (because everyone knows boys are tough and girls are delicate princesses) and color choices to some of the written messages to the fit and cut of many items. In general, companies produce what people buy. That's how they stay in business. I long ago accepted the reality that many children's items I consider tacky and/or offensive are going to continue being commercially available because not everyone parents the way that I do and/or holds the same values. That's reality.
I guess what I'm saying is: I'm torn. I'm glad that Children's Place pulled the shirt; I agree that it was insipid at best and insulting at worst. But where's the line? Do we only hold companies accountable every now and then? Do we believe we can institute real change or do we go with the status quo until something seems "really bad" and then rise up? I don't know the answers. Also, I mostly buy my kids' clothes secondhand, so maybe I'm the wrong person to even be asking these questions. I really don't know.
BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir Kamin is relieved that her teenagers mostly like to wear shirts that make obscure nerd jokes. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.
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