T-Shirt Tuesday- Every Purple Shirt Communicates a Stereotype

December 20th, 2011 | Categories: Gender

Consider how color and images communicate stereotypes. Previously on T-Shirt Tuesdays TCM has discussed the words on t-shirts and how these communicate stereotypes (for example). The articles below offer some evidence to make the argument that color and images, like butterflies, unicorns, and poodles, communicate stereotypes too.

Now, consider my son. He is proud of and adamant about wearing one of his purple shirts everyday. This occurs with little variation and if variation is attempted there are consequences. Screaming and throwing himself on to the floor my son would make clear his objection. Read: tantrum, tantrum, tantrum.

For a few weeks we only had one purple shirt. This meant every day he wanted us to wash the shirt lest we pay the consequences. In desperation and, mostly, out of empathy for a child who simply has preferences, like we all do, I purchased additional purple shirts. These were not easy to find. To do this I resorted to shopping in the girl’s section. I found one plain purple shirt (the last one). But that would only postpone his meltdown one day (although on the upside it would reduce our laundry duties by half). I decided I would buy additional purple shirts with patterns on them. I bought the least girly purple shirts with patterns I could fine. This meant only two in an entire store of shirt, shirts, and more shirts.

The first shirt was purple with a plain white butterfly. Okay, it had a little silver sparkles in it. The second shirt had a monkey on it holding a balloon. Although there was pink somewhere it was not the overall color scheme and there were a myriad of other non-girly colors on the monkey. Because of its eyelashes and although debatable, the monkey seemed to look more like a female monkey. This was not a deal-breaker for me. So my criteria for the t-shirts was that they had mostly non-girly colors in the t-shirt graphic. Also, the image needed to be mostly gender-neutral. Monkeys are a neutral animal in terms of gender identification, if not more boy-sy. The butterfly, though typically girly, was a non-girly version since it was a simple butterfly design and in white. I secured two other shirts as well which even I was more skeptical about.

Proud of my accomplishment in finding potentially suitable t-shirts I bought them and then brought them to show my husband. My two additional shirts, which I had concerns about, did not pass the husband test. We stuck with the butterfly and monkey out of the graphic t-shirts and returned the other two.

Expecting enthusiasm and praise (from my two and a half year old?) I showed him the two graphic t-shirts the next morning and asked him to pick. He picked the butterfly. I was not surprised. He likes butterflies. Then, he did surprise me.

My son, purple shirt and dolly obsessed, asked me to turn the shirt inside out! The butterfly design was too much for him.

(I should note here that it could be that he doesn’t like patterns but the Thomas the Train shirt I bought him around the same time made it into the regular rotation with the plain purple shirts.)

I tried to dissuade him and urged him to wear the butterfly shirt in the intended way. He was steadfast. It seems even my two and a half year old knows that t-shirts communicate stereotypes. He seemed to be telling me, “Purple is cool mommy. But, butterflies are for girls. Only girls like delicate pretty bugs.” (He wears his ladybug hat, an arguably more boy-sy bug, proudly)

My son cannot read words. If I had given him a purple shirt that said, “I like to dress like a girl and play with dolls,” he might have worn it proudly. But butterflies, no! Even my son “gets” that colors and images on t-shirts communicate stereotypes. Did I mention he is two and a half?

For more on the meaning of color and images in gendered clothes, check out these two New York Times articles from earlier this year.

Is pink necessary? by ANNIE MURPHY PAUL author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.

Boys Will Be Boys? Not in These Families by JAN HOFFMAN

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  1. YF
    February 24th, 2012 at 00:04

    My son loves a shirt that his grandma bought from China. It’s a brown shirt (which is a “fine” color for boys) with a cute bear (again, it’s a “fine” animal for boys). However, the bear wears a pink (alarm!) ribbon, even though the pink is vvvvvvery little in proportion. Every time I see him wearing this shirt, I have some secretive thoughts. On one hand, I think this shirt is girlish; on another, I want to break this color stereotype so I let him choose to wear it freely. The more you look at the shirt, the more you feel the shirt grows on him. It’s not about boyish or girlish, it’s about him looking cute in this shirt. I feel gender/color stereotype is more reinforced in America than in China (the grandma bought this shirt for him, not even considering pink as “inappropriate” for a young boy).

  2. Marcela
    February 24th, 2012 at 16:49

    Growing up, my mom constantly suggested for me to wear pink and purple. I have two brothers, thus I infer that my mom wanted to do things with me that she couldn’t do with her other two boys. Luckily for her, I didn’t mind wearing either color. After a while, however, I began to detest pink and began to wear much darker colors, such as blue and black. I remember I had a favorite dress that had white and black stripes with Mickey Mouse in the front. I refused to wear anything else for about a month (I was three at the time) and my mom did not argue with me much. When my younger brother wanted to wear a plain pink jacket I had, she refused his plea and gave him his red and black coat. Looking back at my childhood, I realize that I do not wear “girly” colors today and feel comfortable in them merely because I am a girl; I feel comfortable in them because when I was young, those are the colors that I was mostly surrounded with. My younger brother now flees from pink shirts probably because my mom never allowed him to wear such colors. I believe that somewhere in history, women were associated with light and gentle colors and graphics because they were viewed, and still are, as the subordinate group. These associations and stereotypes have been passed down from generation to generation, and seem to have taken over society. As a result of such long-lived stereotypes, parents have become obsessed with shaping their children to their own desire due to their fear of their baby boy r girl to be assiciated with the oppositite sex. Fortunately, it seems to me that people are becoming less traditional and stereotypical concerning gender, though it is a slow process. Soon enough, I hope that parents begin to see that certain colors, toys, graphics, and such items that children of either gender choose to associate themselves with will not affect their sexuality or any other aspect of their identity.

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