Girls’ T-shirts with empowering slogans are reinforcing feminine stereotypes

Why T-shirts with empowering slogans like ‘girls are smart’ are pseudo-feminist and what apparel companies should do to enter the gender-equality market.

It started as a nice trend with beautiful empowering sayings for girls, such as “dream big,” “just be yourself,” and more. But it has become a popular token for clothing companies to show how they are playing the feminist card and supporting the current feminist discourse of empowerment and equality. It seems so popular that every clothing company for girls is proud to present their recent collection of T-shirts for girls. They do this to show their audiences, mainly self-aware mothers that aspire for their daughters to be strong, powerful, and successful, that they are a well-tuned, hip, and updated clothing company, sharing the same feminist values as them.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In a market that is based on identity, where the audience is buying both a product and a story of identity they can relate to, such slogans have an important role in promoting feminist discourse. Spreading self-esteem and positive messages is always a good thing.

Every effort to promote girls’ self-esteem and belief in themselves is a positive effort. It is always important to advance feminist ideas, empower girls, and send them the message that they are equal to boys and to inspire them to achieve their dreams. I admit that I personally liked these slogans when they first came out. I love empowering messages and share the enthusiasm they stimulate. So, what’s not to like in these feminist empowering messages for girls?

To answer this, let’s take a step back and look at the entire picture of the girls’ clothing market.

Since 1985, the market for children’s clothing has changed dramatically, from a unisex wardrobe to a gender-defined market. From a market that offered a wide range of colors, shapes, and styles, parents are now offered clothing embellished with flowers or trucks, defining “boys” and “girls” sections, with less space devoted to neutral styles.

A random visit to most of the children’s clothing retailers will reveal a very distinct gender-defined pallet of colors. Girls will mostly wear pink, purple, pastel, light blue, yellow, white and black. Boys usually wear colors like black, red, blue, grey, green, orange, white and yellow. In addition to the difference in color and shape, boys’ and girls’ clothing share a distinction in their prints. While boys’ clothing mostly have prints of objects that are considered masculine, like trucks, monsters, and sports icons, girls’ clothing have objects that are considered feminine and cute, like pandas, butterflies, ice cream, bunnies, narwhal and, of course, unicorns. Not only are these animals considered feminine icons, but the print is also making sure we will recognize them as such, usually adding extra feminine touches to the cute animal, like a hair bow, eyelashes, sparkles or sequins. Thus, children’s clothing is gendered, and there is no mistake in which gender these clothes are designed for.

This process of highlighting femininity in girls’ clothing can be seen in the various shapes and patterns, linking the shirt, or dress or skirt, to the girl’s feminine identity and body shape. Mainly, feminine clothes are designed to be tighter and, sometimes, to expose more skin than boys’ clothing. In this sense, gendered clothing relates differently to girls’ bodies than boys’ bodies. Girls’ clothing, such as leggings, tight shirts, or belly shirts, emphasize the girl’s body and physicality. The unique gendered patterns are designed to portray a softer, more feminine silhouette for girls.

Therefore, when feminist slogans, such as “be strong, be brave, be kind,” “girls can do anything,” “just be yourself,” are attributed to girls’ clothing, they become another feminine feature to virtue signal femininity. These slogans, as a trend, become a marker for gendered clothing for children. Missing from boys’ clothing, they become another feature of femininity.

These feminist slogans define girls as in need of empowerment, possibly because they are not aware of their strength in the first place. That makes me wonder why we needed these slogans in the first place. Why do we need to tell girls they are strong, they can love science, they can do everything they wish? Isn’t that one of the truths that go without saying? These sayings could potentially do the opposite and emphasize that there is a doubt, instead of reassuring girls they are all these things.

It is very hard to find boys’ empowering T-shirts saying, “be strong” or “boys can do anything.” That’s because society does not look at boys as if they need empowerment. Masculinity is considered the norm, already embodying the guidelines for success, strength and powerful behavior in modern society. The lack of empowering slogans for boys attests to the idea that boys don’t need encouragement because they already are the standard. They don’t need to be told to be strong, or that they can do anything they wish — because they know they can. They know that some of them will be successful and some will be less so, but it is not due to their gender. Girls, however, are bombarded with messages that emphasize their lack of self-esteem and that base their future success on individual virtues. In other words, it is up to you, the girl, to be strong and powerful.

Drawing from the criticism of whiteness, and white identity, as the prevailing concept defining the norm, and defining other groups as the exceptional or even outsiders that should relate to the core white culture, it is easy to see how empowering T-shirts are signaling girls as the other. These empowering slogans become symbols to reinforce gender differences and highlight girls’ otherness.

Simply put, empowering feminist slogans became another cute pink bow on a unicorn to signal femininity. Although they are designed to overcome the gender gap by encouraging girls to be confident, these slogans are removed from their positive original meaning as they become markers of gendered clothing all over again. In addition, they encourage a tenuous connection between the girls’ physical body or beauty and politics.

But feminism has nothing to do with slogans or even with gendered clothing lines. Branding girls’ clothing as feminist doesn’t involve ideology, or labor, or policy. It is just a matter of saying “this is feminism, and we think girls should love it.” Although slogan T-shirts have been part of the public face of almost every modern social movement, children’s political slogans draw constant criticism. Some argue that children’s bodies should do not become another sphere for political arguments and that children are too young to understand the meaning of these sayings. In this case, feminist outreach is trying to make it as appealing as possible by distilling girls’ self-esteem and struggles into an image and a few words.

This phenomenon is called recuperation. In the sociological sense, recuperation is the process by which political ideas and images are co-opted, absorbed, incorporated, and commodified within media culture and corporate companies, and thus they become more socially acceptable. In our case of empowering feminist slogans, corporate companies are incorporating feminist messages into their girls’ clothing lines, sugar-coating them in sequins and sparkles and extracting them from their original rebellious meaning and context.

What can children’s clothing companies do?

Very simple, they choose either to add empowering messages to boys’ and girls’ clothing in equal measure or to eliminate this design entirely. The idea is simple, if empowerment is gendered, then it sends a double message of what is the ‘right’ way to be, that girls have not achieved that yet, and that empowerment is a feminine issue.

If a clothing company wants to put gender equality on its agenda, that would be amazing. It would be simply addressing boys and girls the same. It does not require unisex clothing lines, although this would be great, especially for children who identify as non-binary. It means taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture and the meaning of gendered prints and slogans. They could either be gendered or shared by all. It is that simple.

Shani Horowitz-Rozen, Ph.D.

Written by

Strategic communication expert, designing stories of social change. Writing about culture, media, gender & social change.

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