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24 October 2014 15:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Davis

What's the big deal about a stupid T-shirt?

  • Rebecca Davis
Last week I was one of 11 women who wrote to the Foschini Group to complain about a number of sexist T-shirts being sold by Markhams and Sportscene. The T-shirts are no longer on the shelves, but the response from the South African public has been very disheartening.

The items we cited as being particularly offensive were a T-shirt which read SINGLE: Stay Intoxicated Nightly Get Laid Everyday; another which featured a three-panel comic strip with the words How To Get Laid: 1. Borrow your dad’s Porsche 2. Flash a lot of cash 3. Lie and tell her you love her; and finally, and most egregiously, a shirt which bore the legend “I put the STUD in STD, all I need is U”.

The Foschini group responded extremely rapidly, particularly after pictures of the shirts in questions began to be circulated on social media and the story was picked up by news outlets, including the BBC. The clothing group issued an apology and pulled the items out of stores within days: a creditable response, especially as insiders in the clothing group inform me that these T-shirts “sell like hot cakes”. A source of serious concern thereafter, however, has been the outpouring of hostility directed at the 11 letter-writers on Twitter, blogs and the comments sections of news articles covering the T-shirts. 

People who resented our actions in causing the withdrawal of the T-shirts tended to have arguments falling in one of three camps. Firstly, that the T-shirts were not, in fact, offensive. On the contrary, some claimed, they were downright hilarious. Secondly, that even if they were offensive, the Foschini group was wrong to pander to the desires of 11 uptight feminists, because such a small group should not have “the right to decide what should be removed from a population of 50 million”. Thirdly, the “it’s only a T-shirt” faction: people who said that the issue was too trivial to waste time on.

As we pointed out in our letter, what we were objecting to was not just the misogynistic message of the garments, but the fact that they appeared to normalise and valorise risky sexual behaviour in a country where the link between HIV prevalence and sexual concurrency – the practice of maintaining multiple sexual partnerships that overlap in time – is extremely well documented. Lighten up, we were repeatedly told. Stop being such a bunch of typically humourless feminists.

“Humourless” and “feminist” appear to be irresistible collocates in the minds of many. It’s an idea I find particularly irritating, partly because all the funniest women I know are feminists and partly because it enables certain sections of the public to dismiss any attempt to highlight sexism as attributable to a sense of humour failure. The logical entailment of this is that misogyny is hugely amusing, and anyone who fails to get the joke must have no sense of humour. I found it particularly bemusing that many people tried to claim that the T-shirts were “ironic”. Irony, to remind you, is the rhetorical device in which the stated meaning is the opposite of the intended meaning. You would have to work very hard on a case to persuade me that when the Foschini group markets T-shirts which essentially say “I have no respect for women”, what they actually mean is “I really respect women”. Those T-shirts did not satirise anything – they merely reproduced views which unfortunately are in common currency in our country. If we lived in a land where sexual violence was unheard of, the HIV rate negligible and women accorded equal status in every public and private sphere, then you would have a better shot at crafting an argument that the shirts were ironic.

Over the past week I have been accused of being both a “humourless carpetmuncher” (50% accurate) and a “fancy housewife” (100% inaccurate). The author of the latter description wrote that our actions were “the reason why feminists have such a bad reputation”, because we were “moaning” about trivialities when we should be worrying about “women who have serious issues to deal with in rural areas”.

The first point to be made here is that we are not dealing with a zero-sum game. My predilection for moaning about T-shirts does not preclude me from working with women in rural areas (as indeed many of us do).  Secondly, the 11 of us – and countless other right-minded individuals, both women and men – try to point out sexism wherever we encounter it, be it on a T-shirt, in the words of high-ranking government officials, or in everyday bureaucratic encounters. We do this – and trust me, it’s tiring – not because we are in desperate need of “a life”, or because we hate men, but because we subscribe to the revolutionary belief that men and women should be treated equally. It is a particular branding failure on the part of the feminist movement that so many people are unaware that the meaning of feminism is, literally, the belief that men and women should have equal rights. If you believe that, then you are a feminist – end of story. 

Nothing I have heard in the past week has dissuaded me from the notion that we were right to complain about the T-shirts. The only compelling argument I heard as to why the T-shirts should have remained in stores was because the wearing of the garments functioned as a convenient kind of douchebag uniform, allowing the world to identify you at a glance as being a total doos. That aside, I am happy that the issue has sparked some semblance of a conversation about feminism in a country where this rarely happens. While race is endlessly theorised, debated, interrogated and discussed, and racism rightly denounced wherever it appears, the same is simply not true for issues relating to gender. The women’s rights movement in South Africa is in dire need of spokespeople.

My comrades and I would be quite happy to stop bitching about T-shirts and kick back with a beer. But until women’s rights are accorded the respect they deserve in this country, I’m afraid we quite literally can’t afford to do so. DM



  • Rebecca Davis
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Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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