Not my Cup of T: slogans on women’s T-shirts

That lifestyle bible, Heat magazine, announced in a recent issue that T-shirts were back – pointing out, to reassure anxious non T-shirt wearers, that even Victoria Beckham’s wearing them (more of Mrs B later). It wasn’t the return of T-shirts that has got me thinking – I have been obliviously wearing them all along – but the proliferation of a range of sexually suggestive slogans on T-shirts, worn by women, that gave me pause for thought. Some of these are straightforward, one-word efforts, such as ‘Temptress’ or ‘Sexy’, provoking the thought that surely if you have to tell people that you’re sexy, or a temptress, then you’re not fully living up to the label. An image comes to mind of a group of men in a pub, leering at women crossing their paths, only for a woman to walk in wearing one of the above garments. The men fall silent. One asks, ‘What about her, then?’, After a pause, one replies thoughtfully’, ‘Well, it does say on her T-shirt…’

An astonishing range of T-shirts announce the wearer’s sexual availability

Once you start looking, you find that there are an astonishing range of T-shirts been worn by British women this summer that announce, in a variety of ways, their sexual availability to the general public. If there isn’t a direct sexual reference, it can usually be inferred without having to go to a lot of trouble or having to dig deep into any subtle subtext. Lately I’ve seen ‘Pop My Cherry’, ‘Golddigga’, and ‘Eye Candy’, all drawing on variant stereotypes of the sexually accessible woman as innocent virgin, kept woman and bimbo respectively. Looking at T-shirts for sale as well as those already being worn, I have seen ‘Porn Star, ‘Porn Idol’, ‘Jail Bait’, and ‘Let’s Make a Dirty Movie’ – this had the sales tag line of ‘The perfect way of drawing attention from all the right places’! I’d rather use it in a Groucho Marx fashion, for the immediate elimination from your social circle or dating pool of anyone who seemed to be attracted to you while you were wearing it.

These were all pretty bad, but I was particularly irritated by two, the first being, ‘I Wanna Be A Footballer’s Wife’. If only it had been ‘I Wanna Be In Footballers’ Wives’, which looks like a fun series to be involved in. This one glosses over the fact that not all women married to footballers are Victoria Beckham (whose life looks less enviable by the day, in any case) and probably spend a lot of time watching their partner get chatted up by local teenagers at the best nightclub in Wrexham, or tending bruised shins every Saturday night. These T-shirts aren’t about pairing up with the goalkeeper from Bolton Wanderers; they promise a life of cocaine, designer outfits and illicit sex in the players’ lounge. Somehow this sits uneasily with the stark red lettering on a white background and the high street price tag. Second most annoying was ‘I’m Naturally Blonde, So Please Speak Slowly’. This evoked despair not only at its sexism but that we’re still reliant on Seventies postcard humour in this way. What next, a return of those T-shirts that said ‘Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free’? The answer is yes, probably, as you’ll see when I discuss men’s T-shirts later.

Regressive sexual attitudes are wheeled out of the closet again under a cloak of irony

This trend isn’t just about being sexy, either. T-shirts also announce the promiscuity of the wearer, often promising convenient unfaithfulness for the viewer, as in ‘Tonight I’m Single’, and ‘My Boyfriend is Out of the Country’. I particularly dislike the last for its implication that any questions about your availability have to be referred to your present licensee, as it were; and also that while your current partner is away you will naturally be doing your duty as a woman by servicing some other member of the male population. After all, what else could keep you appropriately busy and entertained? Extending this logic, it’s surely only a matter of time before T-shirts proclaiming ‘I Do It With Dogs’, or ‘Buy Me a Drink and I’ll Give You a Blow Job in the Back of Your Vauxhall Nova’ appear in Top Shop.

To return to my earlier imaginary scenario of men considering a woman’s T-shirt as a statement of her true nature; well, if course, it doesn’t happen quite like that. I’d be quite taken aback if someone asked me, while I was sporting my ‘Hawaii State University Diving Team 1968’ T-shirt, whether I had made it to the Olympics that year. During the age of the New Lad in the 1990s, it became de rigueur to consider almost everything anyone said about themselves as steeped in postmodern irony. This formed a neat loophole where regressive sexual attitudes could be wheeled out of the closet again under this cloak of apparent irony, and women who felt uneasy about seeing half-naked models appearing on mainstream TV before the watershed could relax (‘lighten up’ may have been the phrase used) because it was all being done as an ironic throwback to the days of Benny Hill, and wasn’t sexist at all really.

I wasn’t happy with this excuse then, and I’m not any more convinced by it now. When a woman wears a T-shirt which says ‘Porn Star’, what message does she think she’s projecting? That a porn star is a great thing to be? That she’s as good in bed as a porn star might be imagined to be? That she looks like a porn star but isn’t? I can’t see how any of these can be good, and I don’t mean to demean porn stars as people by saying that. I doubt any of them would have chosen their profession as a career option at school. Most importantly, I’d be willing to bet that no porn stars are wearing T-shirts saying ‘Porn Star’. The slogan projects a whole host of deceptive fantasies that are associated with being a porn star, without any of the reality. Saying it’s an ‘ironic’ statement, and that you don’t really want to be a porn star, simply begs the question: why, then, are you making this ironic statement? As far as the text is concerned, you are linking yourself very clearly with the image conjured up by ‘porn star’, and I have yet to see a way in which that is a positive image.

Being a doctor, teacher or firefighter is also a valid choice of career yet you don’t see T-shirts with those professions on them

Of course we hear from time to time about how empowered women in porn are these days; about how some female porn stars have become millionaires and have men at their beck and call; about how the sex industry is a valid choice of career. Whether you agree with all this is debatable, but either way, there are three observations to make in reply. Firstly, very few of the women working in porn actually embody this empowered millionaire status, so it can hardly be imputed to all women in the industry. Secondly, being a doctor or a teacher or a firefighter is also a valid choice of career, yet you don’t see T-shirts with those professions on them (well, last year Next did bring out a T-shirt with Doctor on it, but strangely it was only available in the men’s range. Perhaps there was one for women saying ‘Nurse’, or ‘Sexy nurse’.) Thirdly, never mind any of this: why would a woman want to wear a T-shirt that proclaims her to be ‘Eye Candy’, even as a ‘joke’?

I want to be careful not to say that women can’t wear what they want. Of course they can and should; I don’t want to take even a step towards the indefensible position where a woman wearing a short skirt is asking to be raped. There is an important difference between clothes that are interpreted in a certain way by a viewer, and a piece of text that is read (not withstanding the essential multiplicity of meanings in a text that we’re all aware of in these postmodern times). A text is saying something; the T-shirt is making a statement about the wearer, for people she encounters to read and take at face value. Why would a woman wear a T-shirt saying Porn Star (or Temptress, Eye Candy etc.)? The short answer is because she thinks people who see it will be impressed. I’d go further than this and say that she thinks men will find it attractive; not that they would actually be impressed if she was a porn star, but that they will infer from it that she will resemble, in some small way, a female porn star in bed. She’s a little bit wild, eager to please, sexually adventurous and willing to do what they want. In other words, the slogan on the T-shirt signifies her willingness to be what men want her to be. ‘I Wanna Be A Footballer’s Wife’, similarly, demonstrates the wearer’s eagerness to be defined by her relationship to a man (not to mention a stupid stereotype). I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Men’s t-shirts brand them as desirable, but also selective and high-status

In an attempt to be fair (and make my ‘research’ more objective), I took a look at T-shirts being sold for men at the moment. Sex is still a common theme, but the message is quite different: it’s that the wearer of the T-shirt is highly desirable, but also selective and high-status: ‘Supreme Being’, ‘Teenage Millionaire’, ‘I Only Sleep With The Best’, and ‘I Don’t Do Mingers’ bear this out, with ‘Dog Patrol’, and ‘Let Me Get My Beer Goggles’ for those moments when a man might condescend to pair up with a less than perfect-looking woman. It paints a picture of discerning, in-demand men agreeing to accept the attentions of beautiful, vacant women that I somehow feel hasn’t been masterminded by female fashion designers (I’m bracing myself for disappointment on this one, if anyone has more precise information.)

Fashion per se is not the problem here; it’s male-focused fashion. By all means wear clothes that make you feel good, but why should women have to do that by wearing T-shirts that announce their need of male approval? Let’s at least have some honesty about it if that’s the preferred tack: how about ‘Low Self-Esteem’, or ‘Ask Me How My Day Was and I’ll Think You’re a God’? T-shirts like this remind me why I decided years ago that I would avoid all Purple Ronnie merchandise like the plague; it wasn’t the terrible poems or the crappy stick figures but their inclusion of ‘Nutty Tart’, among the amusing figures that go on mugs, cards and the like. In your lifetime as a woman, there will be people queuing up at one time or another to call you nutty, a tart, a gold-digger, and worse; why give them a helping hand? Why on earth would you welcome being described as a nutty tart? Or, come to that, a porn idol? Why not describe yourself in a way that appeals to you, not some male-orientated view of how a woman should be packaged for sexual consumption?

So many women have problems with assertively stating their positive attributes, and are far happier with negative self-descriptions, either alone or to accompany any possible compliment. The T-shirt I would have felt most comfortable wearing, out of all the examples I noted, was ‘I May Not Be Perfect, But Bits Of Me Are Excellent’. Yet even here, where something positive is said, the background assumption is that the wearer was expected to be perfect. I think it’s time there was a mass printing of T-shirts saying ‘Bitch’, ‘I Am Woman: Hear Me Roar’, and ‘I Wanna Be Prime Minister’. See you at the copy shop.

Jo Knowles is naturally blonde, and also really smart, so you can speak as fast as you like. She is in the process of getting this put onto a T-shirt, but as it’s quite long it may have to be a sandwich board instead.