Sexist T-Shirts are a Sign of a Healthy Culture

The latest brouhaha on the Interwebs is about the fact that retailers are selling t-shirts and onesies for children that are >>gasp<< sexist in nature.

Let’s start right out with the most offensive of them, the pajamas that Target has for sale at one of their stores up in Canada:

sexist onesies from Target

They’re not really for rocket scientists — or their children — I’d think, but really, it’s not a horrible thing to have a sense of humor. Oh, and in case people haven’t figured it out, you don’t have to buy these clothes if you don’t like them.

But you’d think that these being for sale was tantamount to saying “let’s let Satan take over!” based on the comments in major media:

Etc., etc., etc. It’s even made it to USA Today as part of a story about how ‘Sexist’ superhero shirts spark outrage. And on Facebook, Twitter, etc? You can easily imagine the outrage and horror, the rending of the clothes, etc.

In the case of the USA Today article, however, they’re talking about this T-Shirt for sale at Walmart, not the PJs from Target:

training to be batman's wife

Now I’m not going to go too far down the “it’s just a joke, have a sense of humor” path because that’s not the point. I want to point out instead that when I go to the local Walmart or Target all I ever see are t-shirts and other girls clothes that are all about empowerment, emblazoned with “Girl Power!” and “Girls Do It Better!” and similar messages, a litany that ends up highlighting the rather dull messaging on the boys clothing. But girls besting boys? That’s okay with the quick-to-react online community.

Indeed, that’s the challenge of our modern times: If a company has 90% — or 99% — positive messages and decides to have a bit of fun with a slightly more wry, snarky or sexist message, they’re destined to have some small subset of their customers get upset and share their upset with the online world. But in a democracy — and certainly in a capitalist society — we vote with our behaviors, with our purses and wallets, much more than we do at the ballot.

Don’t like a store? Don’t like a foodstuff? Don’t want to endorse a message on a pair of PJs that you don’t like? Don’t buy ’em. Easy enough.

superman scoresAnd don’t forget, this is the same culture where women wear necklaces that tell everyone they’re a “Bitch” and (one expects in an ironic spirit) buy t-shirts for their male friends that say “cool story girl, now make me a sandwich” or similar. Just do a search for “rude t-shirt” and you’ll see thousands of shirts with offensive messages. That people actually buy.

And it’s okay.

If we indeed live in a free society, then that means we also have the right to wear clothes that are stupid, offensive and rude. There’s no guarantee that the reaction to them won’t be hostile and aggressive, but even as the father of two girls I’m not so self-absorbed to believe that I get to decide what is and isn’t acceptable for the entire world’s population, or even everyone who lives in my home state of Colorado. Nor would I want someone in conservative Colorado Springs dictating what t-shirts the Target store in liberal Boulder Colorado can sell.

The consequence of freedom is offense and disagreement. I can live with that. Indeed, I constantly defend viewpoints and beliefs that differ from my own, because that’s what freedom means. Open minded doesn’t mean “as long as you think like I do”, though most of my fellow Boulder residents would go pale at the idea that they might need to support someone whose views differ.

I worry a lot more about the homogeneity of New Think, of a small group of people believing they have the right or moral obligation to approve everything in our culture.

I’ll take the offensive over that, even while I question the sanity and wisdom of people who would purchase such things.

Who are these people to decide for the rest of us anyway?

7 comments on “Sexist T-Shirts are a Sign of a Healthy Culture

  1. I disagree with the core conceit — that these are a sign of a healthy culture in which free speech is valued, because there’s no reason that these couldn’t also be the product of a culture that diminishes and beltless women and that has unrealistic and frankly vapid expectations of men. What does encourage me is that speech, here, is being met with more speech, and while there are those who would happily silence Target, Wal-Mart, and others, nobody who thinks negatively of these messages are taking it lying down.

    Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from criticism. That these are being criticised — that’s more of a sign of a healthy culture than the shirts themselves.

  2. Lots of unconventional wisdom here, and I like it. Our culture has a sliding scale of what’s offensive today … and what’s not tomorrow. It’s hard to keep track, and it’s wildly inconsistent.

    When did our skins become so insanely thin? That’s the real question here. Can we save some outrage for politicians who brazenly lie about policies that directly impact our lives? Let’s start there.

  3. I like your perspective on this. It is best left ignored, and let sales be the judge, as in any capitalistic, free speech society. A good sense of humor is a spice of life we should all embrace! Thanks.

  4. […] Indeed, that’s the challenge of our modern times: If a company has 90% — or 99% — positive messages and decides to have a bit of fun with a slightly more wry, snarky or sexist message, they’re destined to have some small subset of their customers get upset and share their upset with the online world. But in a democracy — and certainly in a capitalist society — we vote with our behaviors, with our purses and wallets, much more than we do at the ballot. [Dave Taylor, Go Fatherhood] […]

  5. Amen! I draw the line at truly offensive content… and by that, I mean porn or abuse…not snarky comments or cutesy sayings some find funny while others don’t. I don’t like a LOT of what I see on clothing these days, but for the most part, it’s my individual sense of propriety that’s at work. So, I roll my eyes and hope no one in MY family wears whatever it is. If they do, oh well. I will roll my eyes at them. Cause, that’s my form of self-expression, sometimes.

    Seems like the folks making and selling the t-shirts are getting exactly what they hoped for – attention. There you go.

  6. Dave, to offer another reading of the limited sample set included in your post:

    “I only date heroes” –> girlfriend has standards. How is this a bad thing? Dating a hero and being a hero aren’t mutually exclusive. See: Scott and Jean from X-Men.

    “Future man of steel” –> dude has ambition. Again, not a bad thing. Better than being a deadbeat drain on society.

    “Training to be Batman’s Wife” –> Not really my cup of tea (everyone knows you only date B-man, not settle down with him) but feminism is about choice, right? And if that makes you happy, go forth.

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