As Tough As Long Division? Is Lands' End the New Mattel?

5 years ago

Twenty years after Mattel debuted the ill-fated Teen Talk Barbie, Lands' End continues to tell girls that math is hard... for girls.

Teen Talk Barbie, you may recall, is the talking Barbie who said, among other things, "Math class is tough!" Backlash led Mattel to essentially recall the dolls a mere four months after they hit the market.

In 2011, J.C. Penney came out with a shirt that said, "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."

That same year, Forever 21 came out with a shirt that said, "Allergic to Algebra" (which they purportedly pulled from their site after Gawker ran a piece on it).

Why is this a problem?

From the AAUW Dialog blog of the American Association of University Women, an organization devoted to advancing "equity for woman and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research":

As AAUW’s research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics discusses, when men and women were told that men were better at a fictitious skill, women assessed their abilities at that skill lower than men did. In other words, the more we tell girls that they are bad at something, the more they believe it. That is why products like these shirts are so dangerous for girls’ self-esteem and well-being.

So why is Lands' End perpetuating the message to girls that math is hard?

In their latest Lands' End Kids catalog -- the back-to-school catalog -- there's a line of backpacks and messenger bags called FeatherLights. Like all kid stuff in this country, they're divided into boys' gear and girls' gear. The page of boys' FeatherLights bags has the headline: "super light, super hero tough." The headline on the girls' FeatherLights page? "light as a feather, tough as long division."

Because numbers are SO hard. *giggle*

"Tough as long division?"

Because superheros are the toughest game in town.

Hell, let's not limit it to math. Homework -- or just using our brains in general -- is tough.

He's a boy, see, and obviously a lazy, careless Neanderthal.

Though I did well in high school honors algebra and aced an accelerated calculus class in college, math has never been my strongest subject. I certainly don't think it's because I am female. I have women friends who are engineers and absolute math whizzes. I also have male friends who are beautifully poetic and great with cooking and houseplants but terrible when it comes to numbers.

But message such as these from Lands' End, Mattel, and other companies certainly don't help us get away from the stereotypes.

So why not send these "Allergic to Algebra" and "tough as long division" messages to both boys and girls? Or, you know, if you're going to make things pink to market them to girls, why not produce blue shirts for boys, with slogans such as "English Class is for Sissies" and "I don't need to be smart; I'm good at sports" or "Future Frat Boy"? Would those be acceptable?

Or -- better yet -- why not let go of these stereotypes entirely?

At least with Land's End the message is in the catalog, not on the products themselves, but still... it's like they're sending the message to parents. That's almost more insidious. I'm sure it was total oversight on the part of the copy team, instead of a deliberate message such as Mattel and the others were sending, but still.

I know I'm not alone in expecting better from Lands' End. How did such a headline get through their marketing team without a single person saying, "Hey, why are we saying "tough as long division" for the girls' backpacks?


Julia Magnusson


Twitter: @notlikeacat

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