Opinion

Sexist superhero shirts appear in popular retail chains

Target Canada, Walmart and The Children's Place all recently featured sexist superhero shirts in their stores. What message does this send our kids?

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Photo via CBC.ca

If your comics-reading daughter wants to proudly display her favourite superheroes on an article of clothing you may be hard pressed to find an appropriate shirt for her to wear.

There’s been a rash of superhero-related shirts for sale in major retail stores across North America—and they are anything but super. Target Canada is selling baby onesies that have been called sexist by outraged parents and media outlets. The male onesie reads: “Future Man of Steel.” Meanwhile, the female onesie declares: “I only date heroes” with Superman’s symbolic “S” plastered on the front. Ugh!

All this superhero merchandise does is sell the idea that women can’t be heroes.

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Walmart carries a similarly disconcerting shirt for young girls: “Training to be Batman’s wife.” Yeah, because who wouldn’t want to be the wife of the emotionally unavailable Caped Crusader?

Not to be overshadowed, The Children’s Place landed in hot water last month when customers noticed that the lone character missing from their Guardians of the Galaxy shirt was Gamora—the only female member of the crime-fighting group. Gamora was treated as an equal participant in the film, but The Children’s Place issued a public letter of apology that came off as rather hollow:

“The Guardians of the Galaxy shirt, in particular, is a boy’s shirt, which is why it does not include the female character of Gamora. We try to have a diverse assortment but unfortunately cannot represent each movie and character.”

There are two assumptions made in this statement: 1) Boys won’t wear a shirt with a woman on it—even an ass-kicking green one. 2) Girls wouldn’t wear a superhero shirt anyway. These ideas are outdated, sexist and false. This started the #WheresGamora hashtag that is still alive on Twitter.

I, for one, would love to be the fly on the wall when these decisions get made. Does anyone around the table question it? Is there even a woman present? Do the comic book companies just rubber-stamp all the designs and never ask themselves if they can do better? Or is it only after a public outcry that anyone bothers to take a second look and realize that something might be wrong?

Read more: Traditional gender roles: Boys will be boys>

That last option is what happened with DC Comics—the company behind the iconic Superman and Batman universes. They responded to the criticism over their t-shirt with the following statement:

“DC Comics is home to many of the greatest male and female Super Heroes in the world. All our fans are incredibly important to us, and we understand that the messages on certain t-shirts are offensive. We agree. Our company is committed to empowering boys and girls, men and women, through our characters and stories. Accordingly, we are taking a look at our licensing and product design process to ensure that all our consumer products reflect our core values and philosophy.”

But wouldn’t it have been nice if these issues had been acknowledged before there was a media firestorm?

Sure, some may argue that these are just articles of clothing and we can choose to not buy them—which I assume (nay, hope!) we are all doing. But it signifies a much larger problem. I can certainly imagine my daughter as a superhero. But the cultural messages that surround her suggest that she can’t, in fact, save someone—that she is the one who needs saving. And I’m not buying it. I can only hope she doesn’t either.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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