Archived Story

T-shirts treat girls like they are stupid

Published 9:45am Saturday, September 17, 2011

Column: Pass the Hot Dish

Stupid is as stupid wears. There was a new spin on the old saying this month when teen novelty clothing tried to make a statement and got caught with its foot in its mouth.

It may have been Fashion Week in New York City, but it was shopping mall retailers JC Penney and Forever 21 who captured the buzz of controversy. They thought it would be clever to exploit the stereotype that girls are naturally bad at math and that particularly attractive girls shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about school at all because there will always be boys around to do their thinking for them.

I doubt that’s the back-to-school message any parent wants his or her daughter to buy, wear or perpetuate.

“I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me,” graced the front of a T-shirt marketed to young girls by JC Penney. While over at Forever 21, that bastion of quality and good taste, girls had their choice of, “Allergic to Algebra” or the more egalitarian, “I (heart) school … not” and “Skool Sucks,” just in case you’re against not only math, but spelling and all learning in general. I can’t imagine that last one even being allowed in the school where I used to teach.

Amid a storm of negative press and critical ire from every corner of the Internet, JC Penney issued an apology and pulled the shirt from its shelves and website. As of this writing, Forever 21 has not commented on or halted its anti-education marketing campaign.

There is a lot wrong here. First of all, even cute young ladies need to manage their expectations and prepare for the future. The only girls too pretty to do homework are dating George Clooney or marrying Tom Brady. The rest of us have to study, especially for that math test on Friday.

I, too, thought I had an allergy to math when I was growing up. I am a perfect example of how females develop a fear of numbers that is commonly accepted as normal for a girl and rarely explored or conquered. My sixth-grade math instructor taught faster than I could learn.

After explaining something new, she would ask, “Shall I move on?” I didn’t want to be the only one to admit I didn’t understand, so instead of speaking up, I shut up and let the class pass me by. I began to know anxiety and panic intimately whenever I had to do anything associated with numbers.

The sad part is that everyone, including myself, decided that I was simply not inclined toward mathematical thinking. I was labeled the creative one, which was code for can’t do math.

A lifetime of nervous tip calculations and asking my husband to add up my gin rummy points lay before me. I don’t blame my teacher or my parents, but I really think that had I been a boy, I would have been expected to overcome my limitations rather than accommodate them.

Notice no shirt referenced above was marketed to boys, only to girls. What I wonder is: Who was in the room making the decisions to sell them, and why didn’t they consider something a little more empowering to show that femininity and intelligence are not mutually exclusive? It’s possible to be fun, flirty and smart. What if these were the T-shirts hanging in store windows next September?

“I’m an honor student and my hair smells fantastic.”

“Ask me about my algorithms.”

“I can’t go out with you. I’m too busy solving for X.”

“Math is easy. French manicures are hard.”

“My gray matter is gorgeous.”

What would happen if we threw out the tired notion that being merely decorative is enough for girls? What if we rejected the idea that it’s cool for girls to appear uneducated? What if every girl was told that intelligence and compassion are the most attractive characteristics a woman can have? What would happen if we stopped cultivating a culture of stupidity?

If today’s girls lived with that message, what would tomorrow’s women be like?

It’s not a difficult question to answer. You do the math.

Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at