Picking our battles: The JCPenney truce

Just a few hours ago, skeptics, feminists and human beings won a battle against JCPenney carrying a disgusting, ugly, and sexist shirt declaring that its wearer is “too pretty to do homework”.

It was a pretty sweet victory. I posted the article as I took my first sips of coffee this morning. Before I finished my second cup, JCPenney had already issued an apology and pulled the shirt from their online store.

As the day went on, people started messaging me that they were troubled over this shirt which is still in the store.

My best subjects. Boys, shopping, music, dancing

They seem to think we lost the battle since this ridiculously ugly shirt is still being sold at an offensively overpriced markdown to $4.99. And I debated whether it was worth continuing the fight… and came to the conclusion that it’s not.

Sure, “boys” is a pretty terrible “best subject.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the outrage was maybe misplaced… and maybe a bit elitist. Amy pointed out that music and dance are actual subjects. Legitimate subjects. Things people get degrees in. Try telling the bad asses over at Mad Art Lab that arts aren’t for smart people. Tell MAL blogger Ashley Hamer that she’s an embarrassment to women because she got her Masters in something lame like “music”.

I asked myself if the shirt was offensive if the list was

  • Boys
  • Shopping
  • Math/History/English/Chemistry
  • Dancing

Even a “mindless” subject like “gym” wouldn’t be so bad. It would be a fun shirt, highlighting the complexities of girldom. Not an ideal image, maybe, but certainly not WTFJCPTAKEITDOWNNOW levels of offensiveness.

It’s upsetting because “music” is a “girl subject” (and a “fun” subject.) And dancing isn’t academic enough. And shopping and boys aren’t real subjects! But see, shopping and boys are the jokes… because a shirt that says “My best subjects are math, science, English lit and AP French” is a shitty shirt. No one is buying that shirt. And if they are, they are wearing at risk of looking like a hopeless bore at best.

Yes, shopping and boys are tired stereotypes, but is it really a department store’s job to dissuade young girls from shopping? And is it bad for girls to admit they like boys? Even to admit they reeeeeeally like boys?  There’s more to life than school. There’s more to life than things that are not school. It’s pretty acceptable to have a school/fun balance. And the subject that is circled is a real subject. One taught in school. One that was my own actual real life major in college.

Am I thrilled with the shirt? No. Would I buy it for my daughter? No. Is it stupid? A little. Is it ugly? Very much so.

So no, I’m not demanding more from JCPenney. Let’s celebrate our win… maybe by dancing… to music… with boys…. and some girls.

And tomorrow, we’ll take our skeptical hulk smash powers to another cause that needs smashing.

Thanks for kicking ass today, peeps! You have no idea how proud I am to be a part of this community. We accomplish amazing things when we’re working together. SKEPTIC POWER!


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I was very glad that the original shirt was taken down. Funny enough, when I said said “yay” and explained the situation to the women I work with, they said they wished people would stop trying to legislate things just because they weren’t “politically correct”. It’s sad when people can’t even see the problem.
    As for this other shirt.. We could make them all legitimate subjects.
    Boys= Developmental Physiology of the Adolescent Male (Sounds like a graduate project to me)
    Shopping= Experimental Capitalism
    And as you already said music and dancing are already legitimate subjects.

  2. Considering that a distressingly large percentage of my gender seems to be in a study to see if adolescence can be prolonged until death, “the adolescent male” apears to be a fertile field. So to speak.

  3. Maybe this hypothetical girl enjoys gender studies, studying consumerist culture in late-capitalist society, is a huge fan of Schumann and Benjamin Britten, and loves the choreography of Merce Cunningham? :)

  4. I agree this is an ugly shirt (especially the color) and I wouldn’t choose it for my daughter, however if she were to pick it out I would allow her to wear it.
    Why? Because as you pointed out the message, while not exactly empowering, is about as neutral as stupid kids shirts get. I would like her to wear smarter things but is a Hello Kitty tee really better?
    In my day the joke would have included LUNCH or RECESS so is it really that much worse?

  5. Actually… the more I think about, the shirt can almost be read as having a slightly positive undertone. Given that music is circled, it could even be taken to be a bit of an encouragement to find things in life (and school) that you’re passionate about, interested in, and want to learn about.

    …almost. Maybe. Kind of? *shrug*

    1. I had the same thought when I saw that shirt yesterday while browsing through their online catalog. At first I thought, “Ugh, another one?” But, I saw music circled and had the same thought that you did.

  6. This fight seems a bit overdone to me. Yes, I agree that the original T-shirt is not a good model for girls to follow, but I’m not sure it presents a serious problem. I think such things are clearly tongue in cheek, unless one is too stupid to know the difference. The real problem, if there is one here, is the idea that girls truly believe that looks are so much more important than smarts. And there are clearly girls who do, but calling for a ban on T-shirts isn’t going to change anything.

    My daughter met one such girl, a cheerleader, who didn’t do her homework assignment and wanted to copy the work my daughter had done. She refused, of course. Clearly, girls like this are in need of some better role models. But should a truly smart cheerleader who is pretty and does do her homework be ashamed of wearing a shirt like this one? I don’t think so. Such actions are too blunt and are what others refer to as Politically Correct. I hate that term because it is so derogatory. It represents groups seeking to limit the free expression of others. I’d like to wear my “Christians Suck” T-shirt, but if I do, I know I’ll get my car keyed. So, let people do what they want to do. If it reveals them as idiots, then that’s their loss.

    1. Who is banning anything? Who is telling people they can’t wear stupid tshirts?

      I’m pretty sure a bunch of consumers said they were angry because the shirt sent a terrible message and they didn’t think that girls should celebrate being stupid. JCPenney customers said they were disappointed and expected more from a place they respect. They said they don’t approve of a store that sells the message that pretty girls are dumb. We said, “JCPenney, we don’t like this.”

      And JCPenney responded by saying they agreed. They apologized.

      Why is this so outrageous? And why is “BUT I KNOW STUPID GIRLS! AND THOSE BITCHEZ BE STUPID! AND THEY LIKE STUPID THINGS! LIKE TSHIRTS THAT SAY THEY STUPID BITCHES!” a good reason to not ask JCP to have better standards?

      Are people concerned that if JCP doesn’t carry shirts for teh dumb bitches that teh dumb bitches won’t be able to find another place to declare their stupidity? Because I assure you, they will. And if they don’t, the people they’re with can always get a shirt pointing out that they are, indeed, with stupid.

      1. I’m sure all the religious folk who protested the DFW bus ads felt the exact same way. They expected more out of a company that they respected. “Why should those atheists be able to mock god? That’s sending the wrong message to our impressionable youth”

        So are we happy that they no longer do bus ads?

        Instead of bullying the company into removing it, why not offer them a better design for a shirt, something just as witty (which the original one was probably meant to be) but with a better message.

        1. Do you really think that businesses work that way? That JC Penny’s buyers are just waiting for a well-meaning citizen to present them with a shirt design, that they will then take and spend money creating, marketing, and selling?

          Allow me to tell you: no, they don’t. They make decisions based on how they might increase their earnings and reputation, and they make better decisions by listening to what their consumers want. If their consumers don’t want an atheist t-shirt, they won’t make one. Which is probably why they don’t make atheist t-shirts, and I’m not going to complain about that. Are you?

          1. You’re exactly right. It’s all about the bottom line, as it should be.

            If JCP had only had a few complaints would they have pulled the shirt? Probably not. But when they start seeing hundreds? Yep, they’re going to rethink even though it probably cost them money because they either a) bought hundreds or thousands of these shirts in advance or b) have a contract with the manufactuerer to buy a certain amount. either way, they lost some money.
            As for a box store selling atheist themed shirts, they would if they had enough requests. But then there would probably be some outrage from the “christianist” crowd and they’d end up pulling those as well.

        2. Your argument is that I, the big bad super powerful blogger and my band of thug consumers just beat down a multi-million dollar corporation into submitting to our demand, against their will, leaving them with no option other than to pull all the t-shirts they’ve ever sold?

          Or is your point that consumers should not complain because even though one consumer may be offended, others may not be, and others may be offended if the offending message is removed and corporations sending that message are powerless to decide when to respond to consumer complaints?

          Or is your argument that this, sexist and demeaning tshirt which promotes a serious and detrimental message to girls shouldn’t have been pulled because other people complained about an ad that was empowering to an oppressed and hated minority and that ad was pulled and since bigotry towards atheists is okay then we should also celebrate the tired meme that pretty girls are best for decoration, and if you’re lucky, you get to be that decoration?

          1. Geez, you sure own the hyperbole!

            I’m stating that enough people were rallied by your site that JCP decided it was not worth the bad PR to leave it on their site.

            I’m also stating that you interpret the shirt to be demeaning & detrimental to girls. Some people interpret it as the joke that I believe it to originally have been.

            As for the last point:

            Atheist bus ads went up in DFW. Religious people felt their religion was being attacked and that impressionable youth would be taught the wrong message:


            JCP sells a shirt with a bad joke on it. Some people felt their gender was being attacked and that impressionable youth would be taught the wrong message:

            Doesn’t seem that different to me.

          2. And also, neither are cencorship. The government did not come in and tell anyone that they could not say what they wanted. Pressure was brought to bear and the companies decided that they did not want the bad publicity.
            The bus ad situation is complicated by being on the side of publicly financed tranportation blurring whether there is free speech involved.
            People often make the mistake of thinking that no one is allowed tell them what they can say when the only entity that is prohibited from barring free speech by the constitution is the federal government.
            Telling someone that you don’t like what they have said and that you will take your money elsewhere is not only not illegal, it is how the free-market works.

          3. Mrmisconception – minor nit, under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, it’s not just the federal government, but also the states (and by extension local governments, which derive their powers from the states) that are prohibited from barring free speech.

            But nobody is denying anyone the right to say or write or wear anything. Except the people who claim we don’t have the right to complain to merchants (and kvetch with each other) when we find their products offensive.

          4. Buzz- Yes, yes, of course. I should have just said the government although there is that whole “local standards of decency” thing to contend with.
            But never mind, you are right.

          5. Buzz- Who is telling you that you don’t have the legal right to complain to the company?

            Then again, just because something is legal, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do either.

        3. Your definition of bullying is very different from mine. You seem to include justifiable chastisement and a promise to no longer associate with a business as forms of bullying. I include violence, threats of violence, and intimidation directed at an individual by a gang. As someone who was on the receiving end of this through most of elementary and junior high school, I think I know the difference.

      2. I agree that if you and like-minded others are offended, then sharing your concern with JCP is the right thing to do. But you have to admit it has taken on more a life than that. It’s the suggestion that no sensible girl would be caught dead wearing that shirt, which is just peer pressure toward your POV. I don’t think that’s so right either.

        And no, I’m not concerned about dumb bitches. My concern is the tone this argument is taking. I just think that, for an article of clothing, a joking one at that, this is a little overboard.

    2. “Such actions are too blunt and are what others refer to as Politically Correct.”

      I like that you worded it this way because you KNOW people who use the term “politically correct” are largely idiots and assholes, but wording it that way doesn’t actually change the fact that YOU (not others) just called this “politically correct”. So which are you?

    3. “The real problem, if there is one here, is the idea that girls truly believe that looks are so much more important than smarts. And there are clearly girls who do, but calling for a ban on T-shirts isn’t going to change anything.”

      The message that girls believe “looks” are more important than “smarts” isn’t what’s wrong with the first shirt. Whether intentional or not, it’s the message that she has her brother do her homework for her. If it had said her sister did her homework then we’d only be left with a rebellious, anti-education kids shirt. Which, though tasteless, is to be expected. Asking for it to be removed raises awareness for JC Penney and the public.

      If you don’t understand why the message “Boys are smarter than girls” is destructive, please say so, and I’m sure somebody will happily forward you to some more info.

    1. But my point is that music is not a lesser subject. Arts are not lesser subjects than STEM. Yes, girls need more encouragement in STEM… but some kids are really, genuinely and truly not interested in STEM. Or maybe they are just MORE interested in other subjects. That’s okay. We still want artists. We still want musicians. We still want dancers.

      I’d be happier if it said “Boys, writing, music, dancing”. But again… anyplace that sells shirts has an interest in encouraging shopping. Because, you know, those places are shops.

  7. There is also plenty involved in shopping to make it serious. Look at advertising or a purchasing department. Or store layout.

    It is easy to think of all kinds of hard jobs for intelligent people that are involved in this.

  8. They cover boys when they go over the patriarchy in social studies.

    But seriously, two quick thoughts:

    1) The shirt is potentially ambiguous. I can’t tell a triple star from a circled item. It is ugly and stupid, of course, but I want to avoid a “kids these days” reaction.

    2) Deciding what battles to fight vs. not is the prerogative of those fighting the battles. Getting mad at someone else for making a different decision is probably also valid, but acting on that is an utter waste of time and distracting for everyone, and invalidates the overall effort for sustained and effective activism.

    Not that I see senseless fighting over this issue at all, this is an interesting discussion. It’s just that we usually turn on each other at some point.

  9. I know I’ve already commented twice… I’m sorry for throwing in a third…but I was thinking about this a little more just now and there’s something else that popped up for me.

    And that’s that, really, there’s nothing actually wrong with liking boys and shopping, even. You know what? I love boys and shopping myself! AND music and dancing!

    It kind of bothers me how in certain feminist or queer activist or gender activist circles certain kinds of identities or forms of gender expression end up getting seen as more radical than others. Like, that feminine girls or masculine boys are “upholding binary roles” whereas certain other identities are “challenging the binary and the patriarchy”. I find that that kind of thinking simply reproduces the notion of heirarchies. That certain genders are better than others. And that creeps me out. I mean… probably most feminine women and masculine men are simply doing what feels natural to them, the same way that people who vary from traditional gender roles are simply doing what feels natural to them. It’s just as bad to stigmatize someone for having a traditional gender expression as to stigmatize someone for having a non-traditional one.

    How many times have we heard someone say “I’m not a feminist. I like being a girl!”. I cringe and die a little inside every time I hear that sentiment. I consider myself a feminist, and I LOVE being a girl, and I fought bloody hard and sacrificed a great deal in order to be one. And being a feminist does NOT mean you have to be masculine, misandrist lesbian. It just means you care about how gender effects our lives, how society and culture treats it, and the unequal distribution of power along the lines of gender.

    But at the same time, women who say that might have a bit of a point… they might feel alienated by that tendency for some feminists to dismiss femininity ITSELF as something bad. That enjoying boys and shopping, and proudly declaring that, makes you inherently weak or disempowered. That there’s something necessarily sexist about the simple existence of traditional femininity. And that’s simply not true. Forcing femininity upon people, or teaching people that they’re obliged to stick with a particular, traditional role? That’s bad. But if femininity feels natural and genuine for you, then expressing that is a good thing. That’s just being true to yourself. Femininity can be a very empowering and even radical thing. For instance, femininity as expressed by people assigned-male-at-birth…that’s exactly as radical as the refusal of traditional female roles by those who were assigned them.

    For some people, boys and shopping and stereotypical girliness are who they are, and that’s just as legitimate an identity as math and engineering and being a radical, non-stereotypical girl. There’s room for all kinds of expression and identity and genders and orientations! And personally, I favour an inclusive form of feminism that works for the rights of everyone, not just particular kinds of female identity that seem suitably radical, non-traditional or empowered.

    Girls who like boys, shopping, music and dancing (like I do) can be feminists too! But only if we don’t sneer at their identities or tell them they can’t join our club.

      1. Aw, I love you too! After that we can go dancing and then get some popsicles. And talk about boys (and feminism, skepticism, science and art, too, of course!).

  10. When I think of it, “shopping” is, like Phys Ed, Music and Dance, something you can get a degree in: Supply Management. There is even an Institute for Supply Management, part of the International Federation of Purchasing and Supply Management. So, of the four items on that list, at least three can lead to professional certification.

    (I’d argue “boys” is another one: psychology, paediatrics, etc…)

    Congratulations on getting the other T-shirt out of JC Penny. Their supply management screwed up big time with that one.)

  11. natalie1984, I think it matters (as you say) much less that someone adopts or presents a certain gender identity (feminine female or masculine male, etc.) than when people do those many things … small things and large things … that have the effect of herding people into certain classic rolls.

    1. Sure. Absolutely. Herding people in certain specific gender roles is something that does matter, and that should be questioned. But I think the knee-jerk assumption that interest in boys/shopping/other stereotypically “girly” things is necessarily a result of that herding rather than someone’s genuine personality, or offering products that appeal to people with traditionally “girly” or “manly” interests is necessarily sexist or an attempt to force those roles… I think that can be problematic and alienate a lot of potential allies.

  12. I also interpreted it as a joke. There are lots of joking attire out there in the world and I see no reason for people to be offended by it. What about an “old fart” shirt for a retired man? My point was that by making such a big deal about this, it does get the desired effect of getting the shirt removed, but it also attracts a lot of the wrong kind of attention as well. Many people will interpret this action as a group of people going overboard for something that was not seen as offensive. I think you could just as easily take offense at a shirt that is cut so low that it shows off you breasts or a reaaaally short skirt. This kind of clothing enables stereotypes just as much, more in my opinion. So why not demand that all the stores stop selling such clothing?

    But basically, I wouldn’t disagree with this action if the shirt were more overt. This just seemed like harmless fun to me. Oh, and what might you think if a group of women equaled your complaints with support for the shirts? What if they bought them all out and wore them around town?

  13. Y’know, you’re doing all this heavy thinking about what is & isn’t offensive given this and given that…

    …and you’re still using disability as an insult? [something lame like “music”.]

    Just because I’m not good at walking, doesn’t mean that I am boring, untalented, not worth your time.

    Lame is a disability. It only seems like a good insult to people who think calling a boy “girly” is a good insult… or to people whose thinking is….lacking.

    1. You are right. I apologize.

      “Lame” is a word I only recently came to realize was ableist. It took me a long time to put that together. And my friend Sasha Pixlee recently wrote an article on the word. I should know better. I do know better. Its not a word I’m proud of myself for using. It is a word that slips in from time to time as an old habit. I clearly need to work harder to break that habit.

      As the mother of a special needs child, I really have no excuse. I apologize. And I especially apologize to anyone I offended.

  14. If all you drones are so upset about the J.C. Penney t-shirts, why does this website accept advertising from the Bad Idea T Shirt company. If you follow the company’s link you will see shirt selections for women with the following captions…

    Future Trophy Wife
    I Love Shoes, Booze and Boys with Tattoos
    I Love My Big Fake Tits
    Good Girls Just Never Get Caught
    A Shaved Beaver is a Happy Beaver
    She’s Fat, I’m Drunk, It’s On
    I Have the Pussy, So I Make the Rules
    Fat People are Hard to Kidnap
    W.I.F.E., Washing, Ironing, Fucking, Etc.

    1. We don’t pick the ads. The ads pick you. They’re based on the things your browsing/search history suggests are of interest to you. So my ads are all for JCPenney and discounts on Tijuana donkey shows.

  15. Well, as I’m typing right now, I see a sponsored ad for Bad Idea t-shirts right below me. Is that because I’ve just checked out their website? If so, they’re coming in through the back door of your blog. Just thought I’d mention it. By the way, I’ve never ordered anything from that company and I never buy clothing online.

  16. I’m a composer and music major and I wasn’t that offended by the outrage over this shirt, because I got the sense from this that by “music” and “dance” they meant “listening to music” and “going to school dances,” not “marching band” and “tap lessons.” Just based on the earlier items, where it seemed to be things that don’t require actual work or higher-level thinking. (And I’ve learned that there is an irritating societal double standard that being “into music” for men means actually creating it, whereas for women it means just being a fan.)

    Although thanks for the acknowledgement about how some geekier places on the Internet often demonize people who choose the arts or humanities over the hard sciences and math. I like the sciences, but the arts just interest me more. And it’s hardly an indicator of lower intelligence, and any scientist or mathematician who thinks that should have to sit through an advanced post-tonal music theory class.

  17. I’m an undergraduate the the University of Washington. I’m majoring in molecular biology. My minor is in dance. I’m a girl. My schedule for classes next quarter? Three hard science classes (neuroscience, pharmacology, evolution/developmental bio) and one dance course.

    I am going on a TOTAL tangent here, but someone has to defend dance in academia. It’s insulting to keep hearing dancers being dismissed out of hand.

    Dance is an academic subject. You study anatomy and physiology. You study procedural memory. You study the ubiquitous cultural appropriation suffered by minority groups as their dances are taken, “cleaned up,” and turned into a commodity for white audiences while being passed off as authentic (see modern day “samba” practiced in ballrooms and compare that to samba de roda practiced in Brazil). You study the history of capoeira and how it relates to slavery. Dance is an exercise in ethnography and is an academically serious topic.

    I was sitting in my entomology class and for someone’s research project they presented data on knowledge of insects–broken down into boys versus girls. When the data for girls was worse someone said they had to break it down into major because girls majoring in something stupid like, oh, dancing are too stupid to know anything about science.

    More on topic: I think this shirt more closely reflects the general attitude of a lot of kids toward school–it isn’t cool, they don’t want to be there, etc. This is a shirt that reminds me of the time I asked my then 12 year old nephew what his favorite subject in school was and his reply was “recess.”

    Additionally, the other shirt was much worse and, as was pointed out, is perpetuating the false dichotomy between pretty girls and smart girls. My first boyfriend who sat behind me in a college-level astronomy class which I was taking while in 11th grade initially didn’t want to talk to me because I was pretty and therefore stupid.

    Stereotypes are a bitch.

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