Foschini: Buying into the T-shirt rhetoric
The T-shirt is a global struggle icon. But over the past fortnight, sexist slogan T-shirts have attracted criticism from the South African women’s movement and justifiably so. Offensive printed T-shirts are not unique to the South African context but rather indicative of larger difficulties facing women who react with anger or frustration to a worrying or alarming situation.
Recently, British retailer Topman introduced a range of T-shirts, including two offensive slogan T-shirts which were eventually taken off the shelves following a similar outcry to that against the Foschini Group. In the Topman case, the retailer claimed that the T-shirts were ‘meant to be lighthearted and carried no serious meaning’, while the South African retailer pulled the T-shirts relatively faster and in a flurry of spin. The Foschini Group maintained that their T-shirts were also meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’ but they would not be deaf to the community’s outcry and would not hesitate to act immediately.
Some of the offensive and subsequently removed T-shirts read ‘SINGLE: Stay Intoxicated Nightly Get Laid Every day’, ‘YOU LOOKED BETTER FROM BEHIND’ and ‘I put the STD in STUD, All I need is U’. These slogan T-shirts were withdrawn because the Foschini Group felt that they had ‘crossed the line between humorous and offensive’.
Sexist slogan T-shirts are really just in bad taste, lack any fashion-forward nuance and are probably counter-productive to the slogan they bear. So then how do these T-shirts find their way to the racks in the first place? Well apparently, these T-shirts are large turnover items for the retailer. Thus, I don’t believe the problem lies with the Foschini Group. The problem lies the guys buying the shirts who remain oblivious to the offensive character of the merchandise.
The South African women’s movement objected to the marketing of this attire because it normalizes and valorizes risky sexual behavior in a country where the link between HIV/AIDS and overlapping multiple sexual partnerships is well established. I take a less sugar-coated view of the sexist slogan T-shirt. For me, the T-shirts have an extraordinarily serious meaning because they are symptomatic of a multinational and widely-accepted casual misogynist attitude towards women and their concerns.
This casual misogynist attitude is most evident in the public response to the removal of the T-shirts from the shelves. Opinions about removal seem to range from ‘it’s just a T-shirt’ to opposition to the fact that these T-shirts are actually offensive rather than humorous, all the way up to a point where the Foschini Group has been accused of pandering to a small sector of the population with insignificant concerns.
In these hostile circumstances, words like ‘hysterical’ and ‘paranoid’ tend to be thrown around but are usually hurled in the general direction of women. The South African women’s movement faces ‘uptight’ and ‘humorless’ allegations which attributes their reaction to the irrational, overly-sensitive or unhinged nature of the female species. Within a broader perspective, this is not an uncommon occurrence in fostering a casual misogynist attitude. Where women react with anger or frustration to unscrupulous or corrupt behaviour, they are often labeled as unbalanced individuals who become over-emotional about a ‘relatively minor’ issue.
The process of trivializing women’s frustrated or angry responses can be called ‘gaslighting’ – a term coined from the plot of the 1944 MGM film Gaslight. On an individual psychological level, the concept of gaslighting is emotional manipulation aimed at altering a woman’s perception of herself by presenting false information. However, on a collective level, gaslighting is an attempt to silence women by convincing them that their reaction is unjustified and their concerns out of whack with ‘normal’ bigger issues.
Gaslighting, in this case, is ironic. Casual misogyny and its silencing effect are a pervasive concepts with tentacles that stretch far beyond the concerns raised here. Nonetheless, to this end, gaslighter commentators have failed. The fact that the sexist slogan T-shirts were removed from the shelves was an added victory. What the South African women’s movement has done is made the public aware of the underlying messages reinforced by T-shirts and shown society a horrible example of how women’s anger and frustration is often dismissed as insignificant and irrational.