Too pretty for homework?

10 Sep

Last week, J.C. Penney was slammed by bloggers when news of a new t-shirt, aimed at young girls aged 7 to 16, hit the web.

The t-shirt in question was a long-sleeved white affair, with the following message written in alternating block letters and script: “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” Small hearts and flowers looked like they’d been scribbled around the text for artistic effect.

It was on sale for $9.99, and the advertising clip beneath the t-shirt’s image online read: “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.”

Sassy?

To me that sounds more like… just plain stupid.

Bloggers agreed, typing furiously away on mainstream websites like the Huffington Post, and typing their rage into 140 characters or less.

A couple of examples of Tweets on the topic:

– “JC Penny is selling a girls shirt that reads ‘To Pretty to Do Homework.’ I’m gonna wear one that says ‘Too Smart for Penneys.’” [sic]

– “JC Penney girl’s shirt says ‘I’m too pretty to do homework.’ Really, Penney? That’s super lame.”

Lots of people agreed—prompting a petition on the website Change.org, which called for digital signatures to show the department store retailer that signers wouldn’t “shop here until you stop selling merchandise with sexist messaging.”

“In a world where women are fighting for respect and equality, J.C. Penney is promoting a message in the vein of Matel’s [sic] talking Barbie who bemoaned, ‘math is hard, let’s go shopping,’” the petition read. “Here, girls are being told that their brains are not valuable, only their looks, and that being smart is only for boys.”

Nearly 2,000 digital signers agreed that the “disgusting message may have been common in the 1950s, but it is 2011, and times have changed for the better.”

Well, it would seem that times began to change for the better when J.C. Penney took the shirt off the shelves last Friday, agreeing that the shirt “does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale.”

The public relations statement went on to note that J.C. Penney’s merchandise “is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them,” and apologized to customers.

This raises a broader question: Should shirts with these types of messages be banned?

Despite my disgust with the message, the answer is no.

Of course, in a country with freedom of expression, there was, in a way, nothing wrong with the shirt. Theoretically, J.C. Penney—or any other retailer—can sell a shirt with nearly any message on it.

And it did.

And the problem—to big businesses—rarely comes because of a critical issue regarding sexism, racism, or any other –ism. An offensive remark  comment is hardly ever the issue.

The problem, for big businesses, comes when that remark or comment offends—and ends up garnering bad PR for the store, thus making it lose sales rather than gain them with that catchy or sexist message.

In the end, a healthy dose of public outcry is the most effective form of protest, resulting in a sort of self-censorship which could also be labeled as being politically correct—or just trying not to cause yet another negative influence on young girls.

After all, a similar t-shirt with the opposite message (“I’m too cool to do homework, so my sister has to do it for me.”) does not exist.

Maybe the shirt’s designer took a cue from the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, when he announced, just six years ago, that women weren’t cut out for science as a matter of genetics.

And here, to me, lies the real issue: the shirt, though just insensitive or border-line rude in a general market, is completely inappropriate when marketed to a 7-year-old girl.

This was originally published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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