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Why Feminist Clothing for Boys Is So Controversial

Normally, the outrage cycle focused on children’s clothing is aimed squarely at girls, usually ones getting sent home for too short shorts or tank tops in the summer, anything that might “distract” the boys from focusing. Now, finally, we’ve gotten all riled up about something boys might wear that distracts not the sexual proclivities of girls, but the ideological objections of parents: a J.Crew T-shirt for boys that says “I am a feminist too.”

After the $29.50 crew neck shirt showed up on the retailer’s Instagram this week, it sold out online, but not before some commenters made clear they were not cool with indoctrinating children in this way.

Some commenters on the post claimed J.Crew had lost their business for being so political, particularly when feminism is “pro-abortion and anti-Christian,” one wrote. “Terrible business strategy and sad to force it onto a young boy.”

Defenders noted that boys have long been sold and marketed message T-shirts that perpetuate sexism, and this shirt is doing the opposite: “Messages like ‘chick magnet,’ ‘boys will be boys,’ ‘fathers, lock up your daughters,’ and ‘ladies’ man’ cultivate and perpetuate an attitude of disrespect toward and objectification of women. It’s not ok,” another wrote.

On Twitter others made the same observation — that no one seemed to mind when J.Crew sold a “lock up your daughters” T-shirt for boys.

This isn’t the first time this has come up. A few years ago, retailer Zulily sold a line of positively messaged shirts for boys and girls, but notably, a Boys Will Be Boys T-shirt with the Boys crossed out and replaced in red letters with Feminist. Folks got just as upset, arguing the messages on the shirts promoting girls as strong and capable were “unfair” to boys and this whole feminism thing had gone too far.

On the J.Crew Instagram, the comments quickly got political, and while no one said outright that they didn’t believe men and women were equal, most of them took issue with the use of the word feminist or the indoctrination of children with ideologies they are too young to understand. That devolved into another round of debating whether today’s use of the word “feminist” is misandrist or not. Those opposed to the shirt clearly still attach negativity to its use.

“Modern feminism in the United States advocates subverting men and their rights and opportunities and futures to those of women,” one woman wrote. “As a woman, a human, and the mother of a little boy who will have his own hopes and dreams, this offends me greatly. We should all view ourselves as equalists. If you put this shirt on your child, you’re inherently saying you value him and his future less than those of his female counterparts.”

Retailer Free to Be Kids also makes social justice themed T-shirts for boys and girls, including feminist themed ones.

They responded on Facebook to the J.Crew backlash. “No one accuses the people with kids in Nike logo tees of turning their children into advertisements,” they wrote on Facebook. “No one sees a kid in a Star Wars shirt and thinks they’re shilling for LucasFilms. So why is it that when we put a kid in a Feminist shirt, he’s suddenly a walking billboard?”

In a longer post on the website titled “Actually Yes — You Should Label Your Child a Feminist,” they acknowledged why “feminist” is still such a polarizing word to some people as a retailer who has “been hearing stuff for years,” including comments that certain parents would “never put my kid in a shirt that says FEMINIST,” and claiming kids can’t know what it means. They write that kids do, in fact, get it:

Our friend Blaise, barely 8, wore his gold-on-black Feminist shirt on the day of the Women’s March this year. When asked what feminist meant, he furrowed his brow like he didn’t know why someone was asking such an obvious question. “The idea that boys and girls are equal,” he said. “Yeah,” his little brother chimed in. He’s 6. He has a shirt that says, “Feminist like My Dad.”

My own Kindergarten son’s definition of feminism is simply that “girls should be allowed to do the same things as boys.” One day when he heard other kids on the playground say that girls weren’t allowed to play soccer with the boys, he not only raised it with his teachers — he actually stood up at an all-school meeting in front of more than 100 kids to state that girls should be able to do the same things as boys, then call on his friends for comments and discussion. Pride does not begin to describe what I felt when I heard about this.

They go onto acknowledge that Rush Limbaugh had a lot to do with turning feminism into a dirty word, but one that needs reclaiming. “We were taught that feminists were bad, evil women who wanted to take everything men had, who wanted to trample society into the dust, who wanted to remake everything into their own selfish image, whatever that was,” they write. “No more marriage! No more babies! Women running everything, from households to Fortune 500 companies, and all with the vague and ugly tint of lesbianism in there somewhere. This is the hatred we grew up hearing. This is what they taught us to believe, with horrible words like ‘femi-Nazi.’”

But they maintain that equality should be a fact of life, not a polarizing term, and they aren’t the only retailers who have begun to pick up on this shift in embracing the term and the messages associated with it. A number of brands are not only offering gender inclusive or gender neutral clothing that can be worn by girls or boys, particularly for children under age 2. Retailers have also begun removing some of the gendered labeling of toys in the toy aisle — Target did so in 2015.

And the haters obviously aren’t the market for the social justice T-shirts. Mintel market research found that one in five parents with a child under age 12 wants gender neutral clothing and products, particularly Millennial and Gen Z parents, who aren’t fans of gender segregation in shopping. Like so many aspects of our gender identity, gendered clothing was also a marketing ploy.

In a piece looking at the changing trends and history of gendered kids stuff at Footwear News, we learn that it wasn’t actually so pervasive until the 1980s, when two important things happened: increased use of prenatal testing to determine gender of unborn children, and the advertising realization, to multiply sales, that parents would buy two of everything if it was distinguished by gender. That led to, according to historian and author Jo B. Paoletti, who researches fashion gender differences, an “explosion” in hyper-gendered gear and clothes.

“We now know from decades of social science research that kids begin to understand at a very young age how gender is signified and expressed,” Paoletti told Footwear News. “They absorb what they see and hear, and they learn what it means culturally to behave and dress like a ‘real’ boy or a ‘real’ girl. Parents have started to say, ‘Is this really the lesson we want to teach our kids?’ Whether it’s gender or racial, stereotyped thinking hurts all of us.”

Of course, the clothes do matter. But they are only one part of the real indoctrination of gender going on. Raising a feminist son takes a lot more than sticking them in a T-shirt that advertises it. It’s good branding for the cause, and money in a retailer’s pocket, but what will it do for your kid?

In a piece at the New York Times seeking advice from a range of experts on how to raise a feminist son, Claire Cain Miller devised the following: let him cry, give him female role models, let him be himself, teach him to cook and clean, to nurture others, to be pals with girls, teach consent, teach him that “girl” isn’t an insult, read books about girls and women, and celebrate boyhood, too.

There’s nothing in there about putting him in a T-shirt. But if you’re going to, you might want to at least make sure you’ve explained what it means, if for no other reason than so they can debate everyone who will have a problem with it.