But Visibility Matters: A Response to Elisabeth Egan's T-Shirt Tantrum

09/11/2017 01:11 am ET

Last week I read an article that has been bothering me like the scratchy tag on the back of a dress. The article, Keep Your Fake Empowerment T-Shirts off My Daughter's Body, was written by Glamour book editor, Elisabeth Egan. In it, she explains having a temper tantrum at the mall over the onslaught of “girl power” message tees being marketed to her teen and tween daughters. Among the offending messages: “Girls Rule the World.” “We Can Make a Difference.” “Girls Can Do Anything.” “#smartgirlsrule.”

Ms. Egan and I have a whole lot in common: we are both mothers to daughters. We are both Jersey girls. We are both passionate about raising our children to be powerful and confident. We both bought into the idea of a Hillary victory with our whole hearts, and we were both at a complete loss for words when facing our incredulous girls on post-election morning.

Most importantly, we are both horrified by a Trump presidency, both because of what it stands for in theory (“Grab ‘em by the pussy!”) and what it stands for in practice (Muslim ban, transgender ban, DACA repeal, the fault on “many sides,” etc., etc., etc.)—and we both worry about the impact that a Trump administration will have on our impressionable daughters’ worldviews.

But while Ms. Egan sees the girl power shirts as “a patronizing pat on the head,” I see them as one component of the course-correction to a systemic and entrenched cultural tradition of diminishing girls and women.

Sure, seeing a loud neon shirt that says “Girls Rule the World” is for some of us a painful reminder of what could have been, but decidedly is not. And yet.

Our girls are bombarded, hundreds of times a day, seven days a week, with the message that girls are objects. Objects to be ogled, objects to be enjoyed, objects to be discarded. Objects that are ideally long and lithe but adorned with big bouncy breasts. Objects that are better seen but not heard, objects with thoughts that matter less and jobs that pay correspondingly.

One need look no further than Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s excellent documentary, Miss Representation, or the American Psychological Association’s 2008 study, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, for concrete evidence of the toll such messaging is taking on our girls’ mental health.

I bet Ms. Egan and I are similarly appalled by the statistics contained therein. But whereas Ms. Egan proposes alternative youth t-shirts such as “We’re All Immigrants Here” and “Nazis Go Home,” this ignores the reality of the tinder box we’re currently living in. I, for one, would be afraid to send my kids out the door in a “Nazis Go Home” shirt, knowing that some MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter might not take too kindly to the insinuation.

Even I occasionally get self-conscious walking around in my “RESIST” and “No Ban No Wall” shirts… but my belief that visibility matters is what keeps me putting those shirts on week after week. It’s why I co-authored the first mainstream children’s book about a transgender girl. And it’s why I refuse to remove my car’s bumper sticker that reads: “Hillary 2016. Michelle 2024. Chelsea 2032. Malia 2040. Sasha 2048.” I have faith that for every guy who stands behind my parked car and snickers, surely wondering if this is meant to be taken literally, there’s a young girl who sees those names in succession and contemplates, for the very first time, whether five consecutive female presidents could happen in her lifetime.

So as between ubiquitous messages of cultural inferiority and sexual degradation and political impotence, and ubiquitous messages of “The Future is Female” and “I’m a Girl, What’s Your Superpower,” I’ll take the sequin-encrusted Justice and Old Navy offerings any day of the week. As the Institute of Gender in Media’s motto states: “If they can see it, they can be it.” Maybe if enough girls—and boys!—are constantly and persistently exposed to the catch phrases of female empowerment, something in their subconscious brains will actually start to believe it.

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