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?