The Problem With Your Daughter’s Girl Power T-Shirt

I have a 10-year-old daughter, which means I’ve spent the last decade navigating the segregated gender ghettos of children’s fashion. When she was young, in the waning days of George W. Bush, the pink-blue binary largely defined our retail options.

During the Barack Obama years, Disney-bankrolled princesses came to rule the box store aisles, if not her young desires. “The only princess I like is Leia, and she’s a senator,” became her stock reply to the odious question “who is your favorite princess?” I was proud, as perhaps only a sanctimonious mother can be.

Ever since we had a female nominee for president, and ever since said nominee won the popular vote but lost the election, there’s been a marked change on the kids’ racks, alongside the usual unicorns and emojis. Princesses have largely ceded the castle to girl power. But, instead of feeling righteous ebullience about my daughter’s expanding sartorial options, I feel discomfited.

Take what’s offered this season at Old Navy, which told me it sells more graphic tees than any other store in the country. Girls can announce they “make a difference,” or “run the world.” Boys, instead “unleash the beast” unless they prefer just “chillin’.” Of course, they can also choose between icons of existing power franchises populated by men: sports teams and superheros. 

Princesses have largely ceded the castle to girl power.

Visit any box store, and you’ll see a similar range of messages silk-screened onto miles of cotton. Girls, change the world and project positivity. Boys, have fun or be the superhero; that’s your gender birthright. (Target: Unlike the other box stores, you get props for making boys shirts that promote kindness and diversity, as well as science and the arts. And for this Wayfayer-sporting sloth clutching a snow cone on his hoverboard — no message there, I just like it.)

Listen, I know I sound cranky as hell; a woman who can’t be pleased. Surely it’s progress to have an army of girls outfitted in “run the world” tanks instead of a parade of preening princesses. (“Frozen,” I’ll never forgive your pretensions of radical sisterhood, which were just baby steps in the same old Barbie heels.) “Let it go,” you might tell me. (That song! That inescapable song!)

But it’s not just that a new binary replacing the pink and blue one has emerged in the kids’ section, where girls defensively assert their “rule” and boys relax with their “chill vibes.” And it’s not just that the world is a mess and that we’re telling girls to clean it up while boys get to play ball.

Of course, it’s not up to elementary school students to fix the mess their parents’ generation has made; at least not yet. Still, these shirts are telling them something that my own kid sees as fundamentally unequal. It’s also disconnected from taking action, from gaining the actual girl power such shirts allege exists.

I suspect that to many parents — and mothers in particular, as we’re the ones who usually do the shopping — purchasing a so-called empowerment T-shirt from a massive corporation feels like a political act. Ladies, that’s a next-level capitalist Jedi mind trick: defanging feminism to sell it as a cheap trend en masse. Resistance? I can get it for you wholesale, with a sequined generic slogan.

It’s a next-level capitalist Jedi mind trick: defanging feminism to sell it as a cheap trend en masse.

Capitalism never resides far from irony, at least through my vintage aviators. In this case, we can thus chart the rise of silk-screened girl power: In the mid-’70s, a radical feminist bookstore — also anti-capitalist, though that goes without saying ― sold shirts that said: “The Future Is Female.” It was a message from the lesbian separatist movement.

The shirts were resurrected in 2015 and sold by a Brooklyn shop that donated a quarter of the profits to Planned Parenthood. The shirt was photographed on celebrities of varying lesbianism themselves, from St. Vincent to Cara Delevingne, and spawned a New York Times style story and a Zazzle of knockoffs (if I may coin a new collective noun). Then Dior sent models down the runway and Jennifer Lawrence onto glossy advertising pages in $750 T-shirts that said “We Should All Be Feminists”— a la Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — in a campaign that fashion magazines venerated for taking a stand. Fast fashion followed suit, and soon girl power became de rigueur disposable fashion for females of any size.

Author Andi Zeisler spent a necessary book considering the tension between pro-woman purchasing and politics, aptly titled We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. In it, she discusses how what she calls “marketplace feminism” ― which sells something fun and feel-good ― depoliticizes the very work of feminism action, which often isn’t fun and doesn’t feel good.

“The problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off,” Zeisler wrote. “The root issues that feminism confronts — wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism, structural violence and, of course, bodily autonomy — are deeply unsexy.”

A model walks in the finale of the Prabal Gurung Fall/Winter 2017 collection, wearing a T-shirt with a message that reportedl

There’s a reason we feminists became known as killjoys. Namely, struggle ain’t joy; it is damn hard work.

I would like my kid to know regular joy. And I would like her to have a positive association with the hard work of feminism, and with her femaleness on the whole. But that means knowing that these fun T-shirts aren’t the hard work of feminism, even if their sudden ubiquity makes the notion of women’s power at least nominally more normative.

Not every mother will opt to teach her kid what abortion is, though when in 2017 my daughter began chanting about choice at her first women’s march, I knew I wasn’t going to wait long to explain what those words meant. (“Dirty Dancing” and a pause button is useful in this lesson, I’ve found.) She wears a purple NARAL Pro-Choice America shirt, a gift from my mother, as her girl power shirt of choice. And she knows why.

There’s nothing magical about the work involved in achieving actual power for girls, and women, in our actual world. We won’t accomplish it by telling girls to be unicorns, as almost every major fashion producer tells them on at least one T-shirt this year. Unicorns don’t run the world any more than actual girls do. Sure, I’d rather see my daughter in the “run the world” tank than an emoji one. (I can’t stand those). And I hope that these messages confer a sense of worth and ambition and dignity that our culture has long failed to provide.

But if we really want girls to run the world, so to speak, we can’t just let that message become another unicorn or emoji. We need to help girls ― and boys ― understand what it means to make the difference that’s proclaimed on their T-shirts by doing more than wearing a slogan. That means modeling the hard, unsexy work of change-making ― like Senator Leia, my daughter might say ― and not just posing as princesses in woke garments.

Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.

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