Portia Munson’s “Pink Project” (1994)
Just a few short weeks ago, the maxipad company Always brought me to tears with their video #LikeAGirl. I was crying for the young me who struggled to find herself amidst a sea of gender-based societal expectations I thought were bullshit. I was crying for my mother who was told she ought to be a teacher rather than a physician. And I cried for my daughters, for whom I hope the path to self-discovery is less tumultuous.
And then my cousin Lisa – a computer programmer, maker, and homeschooler – wrote a letter to the Land’s End clothing company that went viral. Here’s an excerpt:
My nine year old daughter loves science…So you can imagine her reaction when she saw your company’s science-themed t-shirt designs for boys featured on page 26 of your latest catalog…We immediately flipped forward in your catalog to find the equivalent shirts in girls’ sizes… instead of science-themed art, we were treated to sparkly tees with rhinestones, non-realistic looking stars, and a design featuring a dog dressed like a princess and wearing a tutu.
My first response was, of course, “How totally cool! My cousin made the Huffington Post!” I shared the link with my students, particularly a few whom I specifically recalled were interested in gender issues in visual culture and art education. I used Lisa as an example of how one person, speaking out online, can make an impact on others. We spend so much time in our program asking students to post their work on their professional websites and share their ideas via social media but it isn’t always easy for them to see the impact of those actions. Here was an example. And one relevant to those in our field who believe that part of our job involves educating people to critically interpret and respond to the material culture that surrounds us. The letter was met with applause all around.
Today I visited the Huffington Post’s facebook page link to the article about Lisa’s letter. While only 25 people commented on the website itself, there were 185 comments on Facebook. (A conversation for another time, perhaps: Where are getting our news these days?). I was amazed to see how many people thought she should have kept her mouth shut and that her opinion was frivolous:
This is not news worthy; if your daughters like science then buy the science shirt. Not everything we buy & sale needs to be steeped in controversy.
Others thought her ignorant of how commercial marketing operates. (If only they knew she was the daughter of a true Madison Avenue ad man.)
Another idiot who doesn’t understand business. Are there girls who like science? Yes. But who is more likely to want a t shirt with planets on it? Boys. A company isn’t going to make a whole line of clothes that only 1% of the customer segment will want. Simple business, all these gender rights radicals need to go to a remote island where there’s no economy to worry about.
Neither of these commenters seems aware at all that women are still fighting, every single day, for equal pay for equal work or that some of still feel the need to explain, as adults, when we don’t adhere to gender stereotypes. Sure, Lisa can just buy her daughter the shirts she likes from the boys’ section of the catalogue, but kids are very brand conscious and they can be mean. All it would take was one kids saying, “Hey, that’s a boy’s shirt!” to make even the most grounded girl question herself. And it starts earlier and earlier.
For anyone who doesn’t see the connections between gender-based marketed and children’s psychosocial development, I highly recommend Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011). See also the artist Portia Munson’s Pink and Blue Projects (detail above).
We have the right to make choices in the marketplace, and the marketplace is growing and becoming more diversified everyday. Online t-shirt companies like Columbus-based Skreened, for example, offer design options that can be printed on your choice of t-shirt (color, cut, size). But for the majority of Americans shopping at Walmart, Target, and Sears (who carry the Land’s End line), the choices are pretty black and white. Or should I say, pink and blue. And that matters. It matters a lot.