Sexism on sale

Most men ask “Is she pretty?” not is she clever.

This was the tagline for a Palmolive soap ad in 1924.

 I have a soft spot for the old vintage ads of the twenties, not least for the long commentary that frequently features on them. This particular ad does not disappoint in its flamboyant sexism:

“Often we marvel at her – the girl whose only asset is her beauty. She knows so little and says so little; yet serenely attracts everyone to her side. Too often her clever arrival sits in a corner, alone.

Brains or beauty? – but why choose? Combine beauty with cleverness, charm with wisdom. Develop your beauty to bring out the sweetness of your personality. That’s what thousands of girls have done – and found new happiness as a result.”

That’s her; the dream of every man: the doubly-dumb girl who neither thinks nor talks too much. This is the girl men flock to, while the girl with the brains is doomed to solitariness in the corner. But, wait: beauty can bring out intelligence. No, not intelligence (of the clever and wise kind). The smarts of personality will do. Tricksy advertisers.

Here we are, almost ninety years later, and the notion – that a girl should prioritise appearance over intellect – is still alive and well. Today, however, advertisers know better than to aim the notion at women; they are targeting young girls between the ages of 7 and 16, instead.

Just as children are going back to school, JCPenney have marketed a girls’ shirt that celebrates female beauty, carrying the following slogan: “I’m too pretty to do HOMEWORK, so my brother has to do it for me.” What a positive message to give young girls as they prepare for the academic year. The top is on sale, too, so damaging your daughter’s self-esteem and conscientiousness won’t set you back too much money.

And just in case the top needs explaining, it carries the page title, ‘Girls 7-16 Too Pretty to do Homework’. There’s also a nice little elucidation in the product description:

 “Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out?”

According to ABC News, more than 1,600 people signed a petition addressed to JC Penney chairman and CEO Mike Ulman III, which read as follows:

“Under the guise of being ‘cute,’ J.C. Penney is promoting merchandise that encourages girls to value looks over brains; to leave academics to the boys, and to aspire to nothing more than fawning after Justin Bieber.”

The last time a mass retailer marketed a product to girls explicitly associating intelligence with being a boy and beauty with being a girl was probably the launch of Teen Talk Barbie in 1992, who uttered some 270 phrases, one of which was ‘math class is tough’. This led to criticism from The American Association of University Women. Several months later Mattle announced that Teen Talk Barbie would no longer be programmed to say the phrase and that anyone who owned a doll that did use the phrase would be entitled to a return-swap. But why worry about maths homework when you can be pretty? School work is obviously ‘boy stuff’. Those girls who actually enjoy school; those who gain a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem from learning and achieving good test scores; well, chances are they have to do that because they aren’t pretty. So runs the assumption.

Young girls are constantly bombarded with adverts that focus on appearance. JCPenney offers no alternative; they are suggesting that intelligence and being pretty are incompatible (for a woman). The fact that t-shirt did not meet objections at JCPenney would suggest that these intellectually inhibiting notions about the female role are firmly embedded in society. The shirt has been removed from the website, but for any of you parents out there who desire to promote an unhealthy understanding of a girl’s role, there are other options, like ‘The subjects I TOTALLY ROCK at’. In order, these are shopping, boys, music and dancing.

JCPenney has yet to say much on the matter, but they did issue the following comment to the Village Voice:

“J.C. Penney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the “Too pretty” t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.”

Kate Coultas, a spokeswoman for the company, said that the shirt was no longer available in stores or the website. She said the company was looking into finding out how the shirt made its way past a vetting process. Tim Nudd, at Adweek, said that while the shirt was ‘clearly meant as a joke,’ the implication that being smart is neither attractive nor cool is something that ‘won’t fly in this day and age’.

Several months back, David & Goliath produced T-shirts saying, ‘I’m too pretty to do math’ and ‘Future Trophy Wife’. These, too, caused controversy among parents. One blogger, Lylah Alphonse, made the following comment:

“Thanks, major clothing retailers. We struggle to teach our girls that beauty isn’t everything, that they don’t have to play dumb in order to be popular, that women can be both smart and pretty. But, even though studies show that girls are as good at math as boys, even with beautiful movie stars earning Ivy League degrees in between blockbuster hits, the stereotypes persist.”

 Blogging for Think Progress, Rebecca Lefton suggests:

“JCPenney should immediately stop selling such sexist products and donate any sales revenue to a girl’s empowerment organization. And for a moment, let’s take a deeper look into the seemingly harmless attention that is given to girls’ appearance. Sexism is still pervasive and limiting women’s achievement.”

She has a point; in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math) women occupy only a quarter of the jobs and are paid significantly less than their fellow male employees. Telling young girls that academic achievements are irrelevant to them so long as they are pretty will do very little to lessen the gap.

When femininity starts being defined as sexiness, narcissism, and consumerism, there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. These shirts take the focus off women’s intellect and achievements to underscore the ugly gender stereotypes that depends on the primacy of appearance. To put the focus on a girls’ appearance does very little other than restraining her in a box, demarcated by the kind of restrictive pre-ascribed notions and ideals of femininity that were rife in the roaring twenties. Femininity, defined by way of objectification, shouldn’t be glamorized and turned into fashion.



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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Business, People

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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17 Comments on “Sexism on sale”

  1. September 2, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    I respectfully disagree. I think you forget how informed you used to think as a teen. This to me is harmless banter which – very obviously – isn’t to be taken seriously. Those t-shirt prints are just a vain little joke among teen girls who like to gossip and say this sort of stuff about themselves tongue-in-cheek all the time. No offence intended, but I see objecting to the above tees is like yet another example of Jason’s past article on taking feminism too far by addressing trivial issues, to me this is no different to a t-shirt that identifies you as a socially-awkward geek or a gangsta tool. It’s always jokes. As a teen, I’d have enough sense not to learn values by what’s printed on a tee. I don’t really think that girls who wear tshirts such as “Kiss me my boyfriend’s out of town” or “Bitch is the new black” actually think of it as anything less than a laugh.

  2. September 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Several things:

    As well informed as teens might be, I am not sure seven year olds are quite up there with them. This is the reason why so many parents took issue with the shirt.

    The point about whether or not it is a joke is very clear; obviously it was intended as a joke – they have admitted as much. The thing is, such a frivolous dismissal of female intellect is a loaded one in a post-femininist age.

    As for me, I do not forget how informed I was as a teen. As a teen, I was sitting MENSA tests and knocking every guy out of the water with my academic achievements, so the top is hardly something that would have affected me, not that I ever would wear a slogan. Just because I have written an article with a particular slant does not mean my personal inclinations run embedded in them. I doubt I would ever take femininism too far by addressing trivial issues, since I am no femininist. The only reason I took it as an issue was because it created such a stir – just because it is in relation to fashion does not mean that it is trivial.

    There is a crucial point to note here, though; the issue of femininsm blowing small issues out of proportion is quite true. The sad fact is that there is now a certain amount of political correctness associated with gender issues. I doubt I can do much about that!

    • September 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

      Thanks for bringing me home 🙂
      I guess on this one I would take the side that parents who complain about their 7 year old wearing a tee won’t find any harm comes to their child’s psyche if they’re not buying it for them…

  3. September 2, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    I associate myself as a feminist. People tend to link feminism to words like “man haters” and “radicals.” This is very unfortunate. My interpretation of feminism is challenging established gender norms. Questioning authority is how we mold and grow into a more equal society.

    Andrew, while they are just teenage girl’s t-shirts, I think it is very important that we question what capitalism is trying to sell to us. I cannot imagine there would be a shirt for a boy that said “I’m Too Handsome To Do Math.”

    How do you interpret the feminism of today?

  4. September 3, 2011 at 4:36 am #

    For my part, I have nothing against feminism per se, as it first initiated. Equality of the sexes is something that should inherently just be; unfortunately, given history, this has not yet really been seen. If feminism was only about equality, I would then deem myself a feminist; but in so many cases now, feminists are not settling for equality; feminism in practice is not always about equality because it often ignores the rights of men. For example, in the case of domestic abuse: if women have the right not to suffer domestic violence, equality entails that men have the same right. However, in practice feminism has not only ignored a man’s right not to be subjected to violence, but it has actively eroded a man’s right not to suffer domestic violence at the hands of a woman. Then there is the inequality of custody battles, too, which rarely favour a man as a father above a woman as a mother, even though chances are the man may prove the better parent.

    • September 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

      I’ve got a sequel to my “Feminism Must Go” piece in the works at the moment, that focuses squarely on the divisions within feminism. Liberal feminists are, for example, definitely people I want to work with and assist, meanwhile separatist feminists are the lesbian man-hating genocidal (wo)maniacs we all love to hate. I mention this because “feminism” has so many diverse fields under it’s umbrella it’s a meaningless term. There are even feminists who argue that there was no patriarchy and that women had a biologically sanctioned role in society that liberation has jeopardised. I’m sure there are “feminists” out there who think those t-shirts are genuinely empowering to young women.

      Over the last few weeks I’ve had this term echoing through my brain over and over, “self-respect” and it puzzles me why we spend so much time worrying about whether or not our children have self-esteem when what’s perhaps far more important is that they grow up having self-respect.

      (PS: You can just click “Reply” under the portrait to the left of the comment to make a direct reply, this way the person will get a notification that you’ve replied to them)

      • September 6, 2011 at 10:22 am #

        You can not assume that because of feminist woman is a lesbian that she is a “genocidal man hater.” Careful what words you link together.

        • September 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

          You cannot assume because a feminist woman is a lesbian that she is a “genocidal man hater.”

          • September 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

            Too true, one of my best friends is a lesbian, but she’d be upset if someone called her a feminist!

      • September 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

        I hope it’s called “Feminism Must Go II: Feminise This!”

        “separatist feminists” is an interesting distinction from “liberal feminists” or feminists “as a general whole” that I look forward to reading about. And I’m sure you’re spot on: there are “feminists” out there who think those t-shirts are genuinely empowering to young women.


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