Oh J.C. Penney, stop trying to be Forever 21.
This morning, I awoke to the tweeted news that a sweatshirt featuring the slogan “I’m Too Pretty to do Homework” was being marketed at the J.C. Penney website for girls aged seven to twelve -- or the people who shop online for them, if you want to get picky.
There was a circulating Change.org petition asking J.C. Penney to remove the shirt and what the heck, I signed it. The petition asked me to state my reason for signing, so I wrote, “I am signing this petition to bring down the patriarchy, baby.”
Even with my tongue-in-cheek contribution, the petition -- or Twitter itself -- or both -- worked and the company removed the shirt from their site.
Feminists cried victory.
Critics of feminists said -- predictably -- that feminists have no sense of humor. (Anecdotally, all the ones I saw were men.)
Dare I say, the patriarchy is still in fine shape? Dare I say, J.C. Penney, while being a bit embarrassed probably saw more hits to its website than average this morning? Dare I say, no matter how fun some of these are, tee shirts actually don’t matter?
This is only the latest, tiniest symptom of a problem that is ubiquitous world-wide. Forever 21 got in similar trouble for its recent magnet claiming, “I’m too Pretty to do Math.” And surely I’m not the only one who remembers Math-Is-Hard Barbie, mentioned in the introduction to this study about how it is culture, not girls’ inherent ability that makes them lag behind boys and men in math performance world-wide.
So okay, if it’s culture, I suppose tee shirts do sort of matter. But the market that drives the manufacture of those tee shirts matters infinitely more. I have a feeling that moms who take to Change.org to demand tee justice are far outnumbered by others who either don’t have time to worry about it, don’t really care or actually think a shirt like this is cute. After all, problematic slogans on girls’ clothing abound. Look around next time you’re shopping. Complaining about the tee-shirt doesn’t do much to change the cultural attitude the shirt represents. It’s just looked upon as lacking in humor by people who don’t get why it’s a problem in the first place.
And yet, if we can get the shirt removed merely hours after noticing it and contacting J.C. Penney in sufficient numbers, surely we can do something truly productive. We can take that energy and put it into the socio-political sphere.
We can bombard Congress in the same way, about our concerns about education for both boys and girls in this country. We can organize to protest cutbacks to our schools when our state budgets are in trouble. We can insist on bringing music back into the public schools, given its known value to educational goals. We can put a bit of our own kids’ back-to-school budget towards helping a girl across the world get a high school education. In fact, we could even pressure companies like J.C. Penney, Forever 21, Macy’s, Target and others who are in the back-to-school clothing business to share their wealth with girls who can’t go to school without a school uniform.
In these days of instant consumer feedback, the Internet can be a tool that moves us forward in our goals of equality, respect and civic engagement for our daughters. But it can also make us complacent or even smug about actions that amount to fighting red herrings in our limited time, with our thinly-spread energy.
So let’s go ahead and congratulate ourselves for getting our opinion respected -- or at least responded to -- by J.C. Penney. But let’s take that energy a bit further and see what we can accomplish beyond the elimination of one sweatshirt, from one website.
It might be a little harder than protesting a tee-shirt, but not that much harder. And if we can’t do a little homework for the sake of real change, who are we to complain?
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