Patriarchy and Sexist T-Shirts

It seems J.C. Penny recently caused a small controversy with a rather ill-conceived t-shirt design.  The shirt, apparently targeted at schoolgirls, reads “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.”   Their website attached the following blurb to their product:  “Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out? She’ll love this tee that’s just as cute and sassy as she is.”  Quite understandably, cries of sexism were raised.  Why the shirt is inappropriate should be obvious, so I instead found myself asking why J.C. Penny thought it would be a good idea to sell this shirt.  The trite but true answer is because they think there would be sufficient demand for it among young girls (and, by extension, the parents who pay for it).  This, however, raises a far more interesting question:  where does such demand come from?

The usual explanation for sexism in society is leftover structures and attitudes from a less civilized age.  We are told that human society used to devalue women as a matter of course because it was patriarchal;  and although we have come a long way, there are still many remnants of this patriarchal system that need to be rooted out.  However, the more I thought about it, the less sense this explanation made.  I tried to imagine the kind of tween girls in America who would wear this, and certain groups were conspicuously absent.  I could not, for example, picture a traditional Muslim family buying this shirt for their daughter.  I could not imagine a Mormon family doing so.  I could not imagine a highly conservative evangelical family doing so.  In short, the most patriarchal segments of American society were among the last I could imagine wanting to pay for a shirt like this.  Wherever the desire for this shirt comes from, it is most certainly not the patriarchy.

I could be wrong, but I very much doubt  that many parents of any stripe really want their daughter to express this kind of attitude.  If they own the shirt then, it is probably because the parents are more-or-less absentee on such choices–they tend to see their job as trying to provide what their children want rather than shaping what they want.  It’s a pretty common attitude nowadays for parents to want to be an affirming friend rather than a loving authority.

So where does this attitude come from?  Well, probably a lot of places, but one of them strikes me as being the most ironic:  feminism.  As Gloria Steinam put it in recent HBO documentary, “Feminism starts out being very simple. It starts out being the instinct of a little child who says ‘it’s not fair’ and ‘you are not the boss of me,’ and it ends up being a worldview that questions hierarchy altogether.”  Like most of Critical Theory’s bastard offspring, feminism has severe issues with authority–something the aforementioned conservative segments of society are quite comfortable with.  In short, Steinam described a very childish attitude, and childish attitudes aren’t particularly useful in helping children grown into something more.

One advantage the patriarchal have is a worldview in which it is their duty to tell their daughters that some things aren’t good for them–exercised authority is a normal part of everyday family life.  On the other hand, if there’s no way women are/aren’t supposed to be or no one who has the authority to help describe that way for a young child, then parents have little recourse beyond trying to tell their daughters what they supposedly really want.  Supposed wants, of course, are a flimsy justification for denying wants that are actually being experienced, and any child knows this.  Perhaps the market for shirts like this can be partially explained as a more day-to-day expression of the same dynamic that caused more radical parents to want to raise their child without a gender.  There too, radical gender theory lead parents to impoverish their child by refusing to take a deliberate role in a key part in his upbringing.  The parents do their best to impose nothing and whatever the child wants becomes king.  In those terms, then, it’s not altogether cryptic why a child would prefer pretty much anything–including looking pretty–to doing homework.

Whatever social & psychological dynamics lead tween girls to want to wear shirts like this in the first place, Steinam’s brand of feminism leaves our daughters defenseless against them.  Patriarchy does not.  But wouldn’t a patriarchal upbringing reduce young women to objects whose only place in society is to look pretty and breed?  Obviously not, otherwise the patriarchal segments of society would love this shirt–and yet they seem to be very much among the sort who wouldn’t buy it.  It may be that patriarchy is prone to certain problems and mistakes, but it may also be that in the end, feminism is worse for women than patriarchy.

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