The Intersection of T-shirts, Language and Culture


A couple of years ago, my 24-year-old daughter was working at Carolina Ale House, and was given a t-shirt to wear that said “Wanna score? Ask me how!” in big letters across the back. This shirt was only given to the female staff. As you might imagine, the female staff members were upset by this shirt and did not want to wear it. Fortunately, the local manager agreed and told the women that they did not have to wear the shirts. The question is, which person at corporate  thought it was appropriate to make a joke about the female staff offering sex to their patrons?

On another occasion, while Christmas shopping this past December, I saw a t-shirt at a kiosk that said: “D.A.D.D. Dads Against Daughters Dating: Shoot the first one and the word will spread.” I have not been able to get that image out of my head. I really enjoy t-shirts that play with words and ideas.  I can certainly appreciate its sarcasm, but this shirt bothered me greatly because of the harmful message it sends.

Promoting the idea that daughters are their father’s property, and therefore he has the right to shoot her dates is outdated and offensive. While we still live among the vestiges of a patriarchal society in the United States, do we really need to actively market items that keep us there? Currently, in many countries, daughters are still treated as the property of the family to be traded away for riches regardless of who she ends up married to, even if she is a child. In some countries, women are allowed to be murdered if they are suspected of besmirching the honor of their family. This is simply not a way of thinking that we should be joking about or continuing to encourage. We don’t have these systems in the United States, and I would argue that most Americans do not want them. Promoting messages that men know better than women as to who their partners should be is insulting and dangerous.

Some may argue that the shirt’s message presents the sweetness of fathers wanting to protect their daughters. In fact, children should feel safe and protected by their parents. But the idea that a father must not only usurp his daughter’s decision-making autonomy as to who her romantic partners are, but also should threaten them with bodily harm is repugnant. I realize that the message is hyperbole, but this type of sentiment bleeds into our cultural thinking more than we believe.

In another example, Amazon was selling clothing that said “Slavery Gets Sh** Done” through third party sellers on their Marketplace. After many customers threatened to boycott the company over the slogan, Amazon discontinued the items. Could no one have predicted that this message would be upsetting to many?  There is no question that there are first amendment rights issues at play here, and some may find the messages on these shirts funny, but just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should.

As marketing companies come up with slogans for t-shirts, they are constantly jockeying for the funniest or most ironic statement to increase sales. What they frequently don’t do is consider how the phrase they place on a t-shirt will land with the wider public. All these types of messages become an insidious conduit for exacerbating already sexist and/or racist thinking. Without stopping to think about how these messages impact individuals and groups, marketers are fanning the flames of racism and sexism by presenting messages as “entertainment.” When we read these shirts, knowing that they are supposed to be funny, we do not always stop to think about what the messages mean.

It is only when a message is as offensive as the ones mentioned earlier in this article, that they receive the attention needed. Please do not read this as an argument for censorship. I understand that we are all allowed to wear what we like. The point is to encourage us all to take a step back and consider whether the messages on our clothing really reflect our thinking, or if we are subjugating another group of humans in order to score a laugh. Culture shapes language and language shapes culture in an unending circle. If we want some elements of our culture to change, then we need to change some of our language, including the language on our t-shirts.

Anna Lynch: Writer, educator, and champion for all things women.

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