Our guest blogger is Rebecca Lefton, a policy analyst with the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress.
JCPenney is advertising a girl’s t-shirt that says, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The merchandise description reads: “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.”
That’s right, girls starting at the age of 7 are being told that their looks, not brains, are all that matter. And that boys are smarter than girls.
JCPenney should immediately stop selling such sexist products and donate any sales revenue to a girl’s empowerment organization. And for a moment, let’s take a deeper look into the seemingly harmless attention that is given to girls’ appearance. Sexism is still pervasive and limiting women’s achievement.
The stats don’t lie: a recent Commerce Department report on the gender breakdown and compensation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields found that women still only represent 25 percent of jobs in these fields — the same number as over a decade ago — and are paid less than their male counterparts, earning only 83 cents to a man’s dollar. Sadly, that’s better than the overall wage gap of 77 cents (and the gap for women of color is even larger). Why are we telling girls that their academic and professional achievements don’t matter as much?
Every two minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted in the US (note: 60% of sexual assaults are not reported). Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, notes that “the pressure has grown much more intense to define themselves and gain all their self-worth from the way that they look, and the way that they look is supposed to be, increasingly and increasingly younger, sexy. And femininity becomes defined for them by sexiness (you know, at the age of four), narcissism, and consumerism—all three of which are problematic for me.” Is this really the message JC Penney wants to send young girls?
Women comprise only 20 percent of representatives in Congress. Out of the Fortune 500 companies only 12 women are CEOs. Without women leaders, women are left out of decision-making. There is only one woman to represent more than half of the population on the Super Committee that is charged with making critical decisions about ways to reduce our deficit. We clearly still have a long way to go.
Award-winning actress Geena Davis, who noticed the over-sexualized depiction and huge lack of female characters in cartoons, said, “The aspirations of female characters are limited almost exclusively to finding romance; male characters almost never have ‘finding romance’ as their ultimate goal.” Davis has since formed the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media that seeks to improve gender representations in children’s entertainment.
Instead of focusing on women’s passion, intellect, and achievement, gender stereotypes, and images of girls that are increasingly sexualized in the media, advertising, and now JC Penney t-shirts, continuously reinforce the primacy of female appearance. As Orenstein said, the emphasis on girls’ appearances and femininity does not give girls more room to express their identity and realize self-fulfillment; rather, it puts them in a box.
Ascribed ideals of femininity that are restrictive and manifested through objectification of females have serious implications for our economy and society. They should not be glamorized.
The JCPenney corporate communications department tells the website The Frisky that they have decided to discontinue sale of the shirt in light of the controversy. In an email, brand communications manager Ann Marie Bishop writes, “We agree that the ‘Too pretty’ t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message…We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.”