This summer, at least on the PCC campus, I'm seeing a tremendous revival of the vulgar t-shirt. Many of my students have the most extraordinarily hostile --and occasionally funny -- messages across their chests.
What bothers me most, however, are the ones that play on traditional female rivalries and anxieties. "Tell Your Boyfriend I Said Thanks" read one I saw in the hall yesterday; "Tell Your Boyfriend to Stop Calling Me" read one from last week (on a different young woman, mind.) T-shirts like these -- and there are others -- trouble me more than the ones that read "All American Bitch" or "So Many Men, So Little Time". Displays of sexual bravado like these may be somewhat embarrassing and juvenile, but they aren't designed to do damage to other women.
If there is one consistent lament I hear from the women in my feminist studies classes, it's about the presence of intense competition in their lives. Not academic competition, but sexualized competition. As has often been noted here on this blog and elsewhere, this competitiveness on an "attractiveness market" is more intense in a community college with primarily lower middle class and working class students. To generalize enormously, the less privileged the background, the more intense the sense of competition among young women. Far too many young ones grow up with a sense that their sexual desirability is a more marketable commodity than their intellectual accomplishments; this is all the more likely to be true in families where there isn't a history of women going to college. (If you don't believe me, visit any American community college on a hot day -- and then visit an elite university in the same weather. You'll see more mini-skirts and heels in five minutes at Pasadena City College than you will in five hours at Berkeley or Stanford. That's anecdotal, sure, but don't take my word for it -- try it yourself.) The bottom line: class and sexual competitiveness among women are, to say the least, not unrelated!
I realize it's problematic for a fortyish man from a relatively privileged background to "tut-tut" with annoyance at the realities of the "attractiveness market" on which so many (but by no means all) of my young female students compete. But as I've said over and over again, at least part of living a feminist life is learning not to see other women as rivals. You can't be committed to women's liberation and see other attractive women as one's enemies. One of the sad fruits of a sexist culture is the sense of isolation that many women have from one another. Internalized misogyny and competitiveness do not rest easy with a belief that women ought to be seen as complete human beings.
It's unlikely, of course, that any young woman is going to be directly threatened by the "Tell Your Boyfriend I Said Thanks" shirt. But it's also equally unlikely that the shirt is intended to be interpreted ironically, as a wry commentary on the state of women's competitiveness and anxiety. The shirt makes a claim about the wearer and her desirability -- and it suggests that attractiveness is a zero-sum game for women. The sexier girl gets attention from other girls' boyfriends. Fear about playing that game -- and losing at it -- is a major factor in the lives of many of the young women with whom I work.
I've had four entries up in recent weeks on modesty, women's dress, and male self-control. Having insisted six ways to Sunday that lust is always the problem of the luster, I stopped short of saying that we ought not ever consider others when we dress ourselves. And yes, if what another woman wears makes you feel jealous and insecure, that's as much your problem as it is for a man who is aroused by the same display. But I draw a distinction between the accidental and the intentional. A woman who is perceived as beautiful will be envied -- and perhaps even disliked -- by a few of her female peers regardless of what she wears. That's not her fault. But if she wears a "Tell Your Boyfriend I Said Thanks" shirt , she's being quite deliberate about her desire to elevate her own status in a mildly shocking but deeply competitive manner. For that she is responsible, as in a small but significant way, she's choosing to be actively hostile towards other women.