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photos by Lara Shipley


November 4th, 2005 · 5 Comments

Who Needs Brains When You've Got These?
Pandagon, Feministe, and Feministing have all written on a new line of line of Abercrombie and Fitch shirts for women bearing slogans that… well, let’s just say I don’t expect to see Gloria Steinem rocking any of these in the near future. They range from merely snotty to fairly offensive, with some depending a good deal on the attitude of the wearer. “Do I make you look fat?” is pretty awful in any context, but “Who Needs Brains When You’ve Got These?” (pictured here) or “Available for Parties” (with the lettering in the same place) depend more on how they’re worn—I can imagine them conveying a kind of shallow desperate-to-please message on one person, a more wry or ironic or tongue-in-cheek message on another.

It was actually one line in this Chicago Tribune story about a “girlcott” of Abercrombie and the shirt line that got me thinking about them, though:

“We’re telling [girls] to think about the fact that they’re being degraded,” Emma Blackman-Mathis, the 16-year-old co-chair of the group, told RedEye on Tuesday. “We’re all going to come together in this one effort to fight this message that we’re getting from pop culture.”

Now, think for a moment about some male equivalent of these shirts. “It’s Not a Bald Spot, It’s a Solar Panel for a Sex Machine,” or some shirt with a logo from an eminent college declaring that the students, too, are “well endowed,” or whatever. There’s a sense in which you might plausibly call those shirts “degrading,” but it’s probably not the first word that would leap to mind—”boorish” was my first thought, or “gauche,” but not, at least in the first instance “degrading.”

Now, there are perfectly good historical reasons those different reactions might well be justified, but bracket that for a second. I wonder how much of that difference isn’t bound up in a set of stereotypes about male and female sexuality which, as I noticed at Hit and Run last month, are alive and well as evidenced by recent books on “porn culture.” The idea is that aggressive (I don’t mean violent or anything like that; assertive or out-front) sexuality in men might be crass, but it’s authentic—something men perform for their own sakes, because they’re genuinely highly-sexed. The application of a term like “degrading” more exclusively to the case of women suggests a different picture: The women are debasing themselves for the sake of those genuinely oversexed men, making themselves “tools of the patriarchy,” as one of the bloggers linked above has it. Lying behind that, it seems, is the idea that such behavior must be inauthentic and other directed (performance of sexuality is obviously always other directed in a sense, but you know what I mean) because women are by intrinsically or natrurally, you know,. made of sugar and spice and everything nice whil men have the monopoly on snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.

So let me throw this out as a question rather than a conclusion: Are there contexts in which the use of a concept like “degradation,” very commonly associated with feminist theory, conceals disempowering, even patriarchal, assumptions?

Tags: Sexual Politics



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gabriel Mihalache // Nov 5, 2005 at 6:31 am

    The shirts push people’s buttons because they are true, or at least they express what people really think. If their message was blatantly false then everyone would just disregard them.

    Feminism is just most P.C. … I reserve the “right” to like a woman for her shape, rather than her vast knowledge of feminist literature. If that’s wrong just get me fired, call the thought police and write an Op-Ed piece, but the fact stands. It is also irrelevant to the issue of on what grounds she should like herself.

  • 2 Ted // Nov 5, 2005 at 8:29 am

    Does the fact that these shirts are being mass-marketed at teenagers by people in conferences rooms rather than made by some sarcastic college women for personal use make a difference? It sure seems that way to me which is a little odd.

  • 3 Julian Elson // Nov 6, 2005 at 6:51 am

    Well, it depends on the shirt. “Who needs brains when you have these?” Yes, that’s degrading, I’d say. Not only does it go into historical stuff about women as sex objects considered to be stupider than men, but, if I had that on my boxers, or “Who needs brains when you have this?” I’d feel degraded. “Freshmen 15” on the other hand isn’t degrading. It’s boorish, crude, and boastful, one might argue, but a woman (or man) who takes many sexual partners doesn’t degrade herself unless the nature of her relationships with those partners is itself degrading.

  • 4 Gryph // Nov 6, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    I need one of those shirts! It’d be two or three layers of funny.

  • 5 David Rossie // Nov 10, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    Freshman 15? Hah. I always thought the term meant “15 pounds.”

    Julian, I think your suspicions are valid. From what I understand about gender theory and gender feminism, social constructs rule the day. Supposedly some are not valid, perhaps all of them. What isn’t clear is what fills the void when you start to peel away social constructs. Pure individuality? But what is that based on? Do individuals merely create their own identities or in some manner learn, choose, and alter old patterns? I suspect the latter. My thoughts: patriarchal and “disempowering” assumptions aren’t seperable from other concepts. Perhaps they are layered assumptions; remove one and find another.Perhaps they aren’t as socially constructed as gender theorist claim.