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Sexism and Consumerism

I have written previously about the atrocious consumer products that some companies insist on producing. From “ghettopoly,” a monopoly-style game featuring ridiculously offensive stereotypical black characters (a pimp, ho, gun, and marijuana leaf, for instance) to Legos designed specifically (read: only) for boys or girls, some corporations seem to have zero social conscience when it comes to the groups they will exploit to make a sale.  Sexism in particular is rampant, and these sexist products have increasingly been marketed to young children.

Most recently, the Children’s Place, a seemingly wholesome company that provides clothing for kids, pulled some t-shirts after customers complained about the way they reinforced negative stereotypes about women and girls. One shirt for girls read “Born to wear diamonds” while another showed a list of “My best subjects” that included boys, shopping and dancing. Of course, math remained unchecked.

Before this most recent controversy, JC Penney pulled sexist t-shirts that read “Too pretty to do homework” while Gymboree, another supposedly family-friendly company featured shirts for girls saying “Pretty like mommy” while shirts for boys read “Smart like daddy.”  Disney has made shirts for boys that say “Be a hero,” while the comparable shirt for girls says “I need a hero.”

While these examples are repulsive because they are marketed to young girls, shirts marketed to older demographics are even more disgusting. A quick google search revealed shirts reading “Allergic to Algebra” (sold at the popular teen store Forever 21), “Too pretty to do math,” and “Gold digging” (replete with a symbol much like the Nike swoosh).  On the more risqué side, there’s “Never trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.” Then there’s the classy “Don’t be sexist, Bitches hate that.” Amazingly, someone even thought to market a onesie for baby girls with faux black-tassled pasties.

Another genre of t-shirt stupidity features pro-rape and abuse messages. One shirt shows a checklist of reasons why he is “sorry,” including “you provoked me” and “I was drunk.”  Topman released a shirt in 2011 that reads, “Why do I abuse you? Let me count the ways” with the same list of “reasons.” In May 2013, Amazon removed from sale t-shirts that read “Keep calm and rape a lot.”

Wow. Just writing this makes me sick. As a sociologist, I am keenly aware of the many ways we are all impacted by media and marketing. As the mother of a ten-year-old girl, I can’t believe any company would be so depraved as to think these products were their pathway to success. Reviewing them triggers my gag reflex.

So, what do we do? That’s easy, really. While we cannot stop someone from making and marketing these products, we can refuse to buy them. Although boycotts are not always the best way to eradicate social injustices, they surely are effective for this type of change. Parents must refuse to buy these shirts for their kids. And, in doing so, they must explain to their children—and the store manager, if you are feeling professorial—precisely why the messages are so problematic. What began as yet another example of irresponsible corporate activity can result in a teachable moment that might resonate for a lifetime.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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