Quick Hit: Silencing Tactics

Trigger warning: discussion of rape

I was disappointed to see some prominent feminists joining in the Target girls clothing debate using silencing tactics against other women. I’m not going to name them or link to them, if you are on Twitter there is a good chance you know who I’m talking about. But even if you don’t the point still stands, using silencing tactics on other women is not a cool thing for a feminist to do, especially ones with high media profiles. I am cherrypicking this bit of their argument. It was more nuanced than this, but this bit really rankled and I think their statements could have stood without it.

Some background: A mother complained on Facebook about Target’s clothing in the girls 7-14 size range making girls look ‘trampy’. Clementine Ford, who is not one of the feminists discussed above, chimed in with a really good article on it not being the clothing but the attitude to the clothes. More on this later. I have a real issue with the word ‘trampy’ being used to describe girls and women too. Sometimes you dress to attract attention. This is not a bad thing.

The other prominent feminists said that we shouldn’t be worrying about Target’s range of girls clothes, we should be worrying about retailers who stock clothing made with child labour. While I abhor child labour and do want it to be stamped out, I can worry about more than one thing at once and I don’t appreciate women being told that their concerns are minor or secondary to this other really important thing that you aren’t doing anything about (even if it is a really important thing). We don’t accept this from people who take the time to tell us to stop worrying about X and worry about women in Middle Eastern countries – as if we are incapable of worrying about them and as if they are incapable of doing anything for themselves, plus all the other privilege loaded things inherent in this statement. So why should we take it from women who call themselves feminist? Sure disagree with the concerns, but don’t belittle the parents voicing the concerns. Afterall it is the parents who are going to be judged by what their child wears.

This is where Clementine Ford’s argument really rang true for me. Clothes don’t sexualise children, we do. We sure do. [trigger] In worst case scenarios this leads to cases like the 12 year old girl who was pack raped by men and boys from her community, yet she was blamed for the attack. [/trigger] I’m not saying that this is going to happen if kids wear short shorts, but I think the stigma of dressing ‘trampy’ which obviously stikes a chord with many still, will stay with a child when she reaches adolescence. It’s a fucked system, but it’s still the system we live in.

My concern with the Target short denim shorts was that they might show the bottom of the bottom cheeks (or “tharse”) which is a feature not a bug for many teenagers and women but not necessarily something that I want in clothing for my 6 year old. Having now seen them in Target I think that the cut is a lot more generous than it first appeared and my fears are probably groundless. I think my daughter would look pretty cute in them. More to the point right next to the short denim shorts were a pair that would have reached to mid thigh, so it’s not like Target aren’t providing choices for parents. I would prefer a wider range of choice but then I’m the consumer not the person who has to justify their purchasing decisions to management. Also I have never worked in that side of retail so I don’t know if you are locked into particular buying patterns regarding sizes and styles etc. Also Target has to cater to young girls needing larger sizes and older petite girls needing smaller sizes (thanks to Mimbles for pointing this out).

So I don’t want clothing that makes people think my child looks ‘trampy’ nor do I want to buy clothing made with child labour. I’m happy to avoid retailers that sell clothing that is possibly made with child labour (this accusation has not been made of Target, but another upmarket fashion line). I can worry about two things at once, often more. I just wish that prominient feminists would respect this.

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism, Life, media, parenting

Tags: , , ,

20 replies

  1. I also thought Clementine’s article was excellent.
    I used to wear short-shorts in the 70s, when I was five or so (as did my brother for that matter), and I don’t think a five year old looks “trampy” because you can see their legs.
    Not to mention, any attempt to connect child abuse with what the child is wearing is the same thing as blaming women for being raped because they were wearing short skirts.
    Don’t go read the Facebook comments on the original post that started this whole thing either – I did and have never seen so much fail in one place at once.

    • I used to wear short-shorts in the 70s, when I was five or so (as did my brother for that matter), and I don’t think a five year old looks “trampy” because you can see their legs.

      Me neither, and what about all that sentimental Victorian/Edwardian art celebrating the innocence of childhood because they alone could show the purity of their non-sexualised legs?

  2. The other prominent feminists said that we shouldn’t be worrying about Target’s range of girls clothes, we should be worrying about retailers who stock clothing made with child labour.

    No! We should be worrying about major multinational corporations using underaged gay whales without landrights who work them to death under melting ice caps and enforce productivity with genital mutilation! Or possibly on the ‘net telling other people that their efforts are wasted on inconsequential matters. One of those two things, or possibly both, is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVAAH!
    That idea there, the “One most important thing” concept, the “finite justice, infinite bastards” meme, the one that says cheering someone up or putting your rubbish in the bin instead of tipping it on the floor because we must all fix the O.M.I.T., that makes me quite, quite cross.

  3. I sort of agree and sort of don’t with the statement that “clothes don’t sexualise children, we do”. The clothes are not being designed by Amazon tribespeople, but by designers who are just as much part of the culture doing the sexualising as anyone else involved. Shorty shorts aren’t intrinsically sexualising, but they can certainly be styled in sexual ways (as can most other styles).
    I keep feeling the elephant in the room is being ignored. Why is this an issue with girls’ clothes? (whether you think these shorts were too sexy or not, the fact is that someone did, and a lot of people agreed, and I’ve never heard anyone level that kind of charge against boys’ clothes). Why are we having arguments about girls dressing like princesses, or tramps, or to get attention, or because it’s just nice to look nice, and there’s nothing remotely similar about boys’ clothes? What do boys who’d like to look nice, or get attention, or express themselves, do?
    It’s not unlikely the Target clothes are made with child labour, too. In fact, I assume that unless I made the clothes myself*, that that is a risk. Even if adults made them, they probably weren’t being paid enough and may have been treated as slaves.
    *or equivalent, you know what I mean. I am a sewer (and knitter), so that is the main way I acquire clothing I know for sure is ethical.
    But hey, yeah, I can be aware of how clothes are made and how they are styled and how people might react to that, and how gender plays into it all at the same time!!! (I even manage to be concerned about how the wide diversity of body shapes, especially among children get crammed into a single series of numbers that aren’t even consistent between garments in the same shop, let alone between stores. And who gets victimised by that.)
    And did I mention that my PhD research interest has nothing to do with any of the above? It’s a wonder my brain hasn’t been throttled by my protesting uterus yet, or something.

  4. So how exactly does one “style” short shorts so a five year old looks “sexy” in them?
    The mind boggles.

  5. @Rebekka – it used to be that when your bum was hanging out the bottom of your shorts it was time to get bigger shorts and AFAIK that’s all anyone thought.
    I would think it’s not so much that a 5 yr old looks sexy, to the average person, but that it looks inappropriate because we have somehow moved on from ‘get some bigger shorts’ to ‘tramp!”.

  6. You could (no-one’s doing this, to my knowledge, although possibly on the child pageant circuit) dress a five year old in satin short shorts with black lace trim and a playboy bunny logo. I don’t think it would make the five year old look sexy, as such, but I’d sure say she was being sexualised. And in my opinion, the effect would be different if the shorts were mid-thigh, like Bemudas.

  7. Mindy – yes, agreed, if your clothes are no longer covering your body in a practical manner (i.e. covering the bits you want covered, comfortably) it’s time to get new clothes (at any age, I’d add!)
    AotQ, sexualised != sexy and/or trampy. In any case, the shorts in question were practical looking cotton short-shorts, not black, lacey or plastered in playboy logos. If a boy was wearing them, no-one would have suggested it was a sexualised or sexy or trampy image – I suspect the problem lies with how society sees little girls, and not with the clothing.

  8. Isn’t it a combination of the two? Once society, which assigns girls to the sex class, sees short shorts as sexy because they are worn by physically mature teenagers/women in a sexy manner, then the same shorts on young girls will bring in those same connotations. So, flannel nighties OK, shorts and camis not so much.

  9. But that’s not the clothes – boys can wear short shorts without anyone thinking of them as sexy. It’s the fact that women are, as you say, the sex class.
    Blaming the clothes for that is like blaming the paints because a painting lacks artistic merit.

  10. But aren’t some at least of these clothes designed specifically to imitate ‘sexy’ clothes worn by teens and adults? They’re not all neutral.

  11. True – if Target was selling black satin hot pants with a playboy bunny logo on the bum, I’d probably think the shorts were inappropriate. But they’re not – they’re selling perfectly ordinary short shorts made of checked cotton.
    Showing legs doesn’t make a little kid, of either gender, look sexy.

  12. I think that’s an extreme example. My comment #9 still applies I think. You don’t get boys wearing the kinds of shorts you describe (checked cotton). That is a feminine style, not a unisex style. Boys in NZ and Australia at least do not wear the same style short shorts as girl. The only short shorts I have seen them wear are running/rugby shorts. So no sexual connotation. Girls however wear feminine style shorts, which bring in that connotation. Unisex (eg) cargo shorts do not. It’s not the showing of the leg, it’s the style of short.

  13. @Rebekka and Tamara – if I can have a bet both ways I think you are both right. On the child the shorts, and the shorts themselves are fine. But, the fake leopard print, the cut off denims etc I think are meant to evoke images of older women in tight short shorts with half their bottom showing -which if fine if a grown woman wants to wear that. When it comes to kids clothing tt is, I think, a rock and a hard place argument.
    Sure, we shouldn’t be thinking about kids clothes like that, but it is hard not to when you are surrounded by sexualised images of adult women then suddenly see something similar in a line of clothing meant for girls (some of them well underage, some of them small teenagers) not to be a bit taken aback.
    However, the idea that these clothes then make the children wearing them look ‘trampy’ is horrendous.

  14. Of course, I wholly agree with your last sentence. I also take the view that this applies to anyone, in any clothes. If rape culture didn’t exist the “trampiness” issue would not exist either.
    And also, silencing tactics not cool.

  15. Girls however wear feminine style shorts, which bring in that connotation. Unisex (eg) cargo shorts do not. It’s not the showing of the leg, it’s the style of short.

    So what other “feminine style” clothes “bring in that connotation”? I can’t get my head around how you can be suggesting this is a problem with the clothes, and not a problem with the observer.
    If a young girl wears pink jeans, is she looking sexy because it’s a “feminine style” piece of clothing? Why not? Boys don’t (often) wear them. What about a fairy outfit? A long ruffled dress? Boys don’t (often) wear them either.
    If a young boy doesn’t look sexy in rugby shorts, I don’t see why short cotton shorts would make a young girl look sexy, if the problem’s actually with the clothes.

    • There is no way I am saying it is not a problem with the observer. I never one said that, in fact I explicitly referred to rape culture above. However, I don’t see how you can separate the clothing items from the culture they are located in. I refer to Aqua’s comment at #4.
      Also, girls are not looking sexy, they are being sexualised, as has already been pointed about before. There is a big difference between the two and I never used the word “sexy” in reference to the child, only to the clothing, and I stand by that.

  16. Have you actually seem the shorts in question?

  17. @Rebekka
    I was thinking about this in the shower, as you do, and I do think that we do place a lot of emphasis on clothing and its suitability (not really the right word) for different things. We don’t usually wear casual weekend wear to the office for example unless it is for a specific purpose, or we work in IT, because otherwise people tend to assume that your attitude to work is similarly casual. Likewise you don’t wear to the office what you wear to go clubbing. Or if you do go out straight from the office you might add some more bling, undo a button, change your hair, shoes etc unless you are going for that ‘just come from work and ready to let my hair down look’ but even that would look strange on a Saturday night (says she who hasn’t set foot inside a nightclub in over a decade :))
    So I think we do imbue clothing with meaning and judge people on that. Just think of the whole ‘tights are not pants’ thing that is still going on. (wearing tights as pants today, very comfy actually)
    I think the issue lies at how we judge people (mainly women) by what they wear. A group of girls at a club in tops showing cleavage are probably looking to be admired. However, it may well be that they have dressed up to impress each other, or they are young and pretty and want people to notice but aren’t wanting sexual advances, or they do want sexual advances and would welcome these from people they find attractive. The issue being that most people upon seeing them would assume the third thing and further that they wanted it from anyone who was going to give it to them and so on until we reach victim blaming.
    We seem to have reached a point where the judging of people via their clothing, particularly if that clothing has a sexual element attached (noting of course that all sorts of people find all sorts of different things sexy in different contexts). So it’s not, for me, such a great leap from someone seeing a sexually mature woman in short leopard print shorts or a mini skirt and assuming that she is looking for sexual advances (which she may or may not be) and judging her as ‘trampy’ for daring to be a sexual being (or simply exist in public) and then similarly judging a child wearing short leopard print shorts as looking ‘trampy’ purely because of the shorts, not because they think the child is inviting attention but because they think of that item of clothing as ‘trampy’ already.

  18. We seem to have reached a point where the judging of people via their clothing,

    I think people making generalisations about people based on clothing is the norm not the exception. If I go to say Myers wearing my usual jeans, t-shirt and sneakers I struggle to get service. If I’m wearing suit and tie then help is readily available and friendlier. A friend who shaves his head and goes to the gym a lot seems to attract security staff a lot.
    I sometimes wonder how the IT industry managed to get to the state where they are so accepting of people wearing casual clothes – if anything people are suspicious of a programmer who wears a suit. And why hasn’t this change happened in other industries?

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