"Who the fuck is Plain Jane?" reads a T-shirt from the Spring 2013 collection by Montreal lifestyle brand Plain Jane Homme. Next to the question stands the silhouette of a naked woman, her back turned, with panties around her ankles. This is the logo of a Canadian clothing company that purports to be inspired by "the ultimate gentleman." Originally only appearing on T-shirts, the image is reminiscent of the infamous 1970s mud-flap girl favored by long-haul truckers and now adorns hats, jackets, and pants sold across Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
But it begs the question: who the fuck is Plain Jane Homme—or any other company in 2013 for that matter—to make female submission its mascot?
Two years ago, PJH cofounder Hardip Manku, said in an exclusive interview with GQ magazine that the company’s logo was merely functional. “I wanted to create the letter ‘A’ and the only way to turn a female figure into that shape was to include the panties at the base of her legs,” he said. But with the PJH website describing the brand as an homage to “the girl every guy wants and every girl wants to be,” it’s difficult not to take umbrage. I’m not the sort of girl who wants to drop her underwear for a $48 T-shirt, and I’m pretty sure none of the other women I know would want to do that either.
But PJH is only the latest brand to embrace sexist messaging in the past few years. Their logo recalls Disney’s controversial “I Need a Hero” shirts for women, which went on sale last month, not to mention Topman’s 2011 T-shirt for men that read, "Nice new girlfriend, what breed is she?” JCPenney, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters have also been lambasted in the past few years for selling gender-biased clothing options.
Malcolm Barnard, a senior lecturer in visual culture at Loughborough University in the U.K., wrote the 2002 book Fashion as Communication and its followup, Graphic Design as Communication in 2005 and has studied sexism in the media for more than two decades. He said he noticed a decline in sexist representations in the 1990s, but that in the 2000s gender bias seemed to rear its ugly head once again. Though discrimination may be nothing new in the fashion world, Barnard noted that the “furor over what kids have been wearing” has only surfaced in the past decade. “It might just be that all the cultural studies people have been doing is actually having an effect,” he said.
Cultural pundits have blamed both Mad Men and hipsters for modernizing sexism. In 2010, Ms. magazine argued that consumers sartorially embracing Don Draper’s stylish 1960s look are also embracing “signs of a world of masculine privilege predicated on sexism.” But PJH launched its logo in 2004—three years before Draper was born. Not only that, Burly Girl Gear had already rebranded the mud-flap girl for female consumption in 2003, and raunch culture—led by patriarchal institutions like Hugh Hefner—had by 2005 already tricked women into wearing Playboy Bunny merchandise under the auspices of female empowerment.
Last year, New York’s The Cut blog dubbed this new approach to objectification Hipster Sexism: “young women being defined, but always ironically—with a wink and a nod—by their sexuality and/or bodies.” Barnard, who holds a doctorate, doesn’t buy into that. He thinks hipsters misunderstand irony, and he’s not the only one. According to Zoe Williams of The Guardian, while irony is pregnant with meaning, “hipster” objectification is often meaningless: “[I]t's ironic because it appears to be saying ‘women are objects,’ yet of course it isn't saying that, because we're in a postfeminist age,” she writes. “But nor is it saying ‘women aren't objects,’ because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it's effectively saying ‘women are neither objects, nor non-objects—and here are some tits!’”
Barnard considers PJH’s logo “gratuitously offensive” and thinks it does indeed objectify women. “It reminds me of a phenomenon we have here of ‘the lad’—a young, drunk, sexist lout who fancies himself to be a bit popular with ‘the ladies’ and that is all ‘ladies’ are, to be pursued as sexual objects," he said. This is particularly exemplified by one of the T-shirts in PJH’s latest collection. It displays a calendar on the front with a different woman’s name under each day of the week and, on the back, a scorecard under the words “The Numbers Don’t Lie.” Consciously or not, the top effectively reduces women to notches on a bed post, while the man is solely defined by his conquests (the company’s use of the hashtag “#pantydropper” has a similar effect).
An executive at Plain Jane Homme, who wished to remain nameless because he didn’t want to speak on behalf of the entire company, argued that not only was the brand “feminist” it was subverting the stereotype of the traditionally unalluring “plain Jane.” He also added that the logo wasn’t intentionally titillating. “It wasn’t meant to be sexy, it was a kooky logo,” he told The Daily Beast. “Either you love it or you hate it, but you’ll never forget it.”
The company has been considering a male version of the brand called Plain Wayne, which would boast a logo of a man with his boxers around his ankles. But that doesn’t solve the problem. As Barnard noted, “it is still sexist to send a simplified and generalized image of masculinity.” The two generalized images of gender he comes across most often are the reduction to appearance, good or bad, and the stereotyping of behavior—for instance, women as maternal and domestic and men as brilliant adventurers.
In April, Disney inadvertently bought into the behavioral stereotype by selling a Marvel Avengers shirt for boys that read “Be a Hero” and one for women which read “I Need a Hero.” The latter was removed from Disney’s online store (though another women’s shirt, “I Only Kiss Heroes,” remained) after a petition on Change.org attracted more than 9,000 signatures. Disney released a statement claiming “the T-shirt was designed to be a witty, playful interpretation of the Super Hero theme.” Barnard called this self-referential attempt at wit a “Mickey Mouse edition of post-modernism” (even if the company is clever enough to quote the culture ironically, he thinks "it's harmful—kids won’t know that it’s ‘ironic’”).
A California-based company called Mighty Fine, which creates hundreds of designs a month for Marvel, confirmed they created Disney’s hero shirts. In response to the controversy, a representative for the company told The Daily Beast that Mighty Fine is “a majority-women owned company” with a “predominantly female” design team. The company specifically argued that the taglines “I Need a Hero,” “I Only Kiss Heroes,” and “Be a Hero” were empowering (sound familiar?). “All our designs are meant to be relevant to the wearer and in these cases empowered the woman and set a standard for the one deserving of her kiss, her attention or [empowered] the men to inspire them to be more than ordinary,” Mighty Fine said.
But the message is clear: guys get all the action. It’s a theme that persists across young women’s fashion, such as JCPenney’s 2011 sweatshirts for girls (ages 7 to 16) which reads “I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” That same year Forever 21 was forced to stop selling tops that read “Allergic to Algebra.” Gymboree adopted a similar message for the female toddler set. The company’s site eventually dropped two onesies—one for boys that read “Smart Like Dad” and one for girls that read “Pretty Like Mommy”—after MomsRising.org wrote a letter to the company urging them to “stop selling children’s clothing that promotes harmful gender stereotypes.”
Disney, once again, took a similar approach in 2012 when it started selling Mickey and Minnie Mouse shirts that the site Stitch Kingdom pointed out used words like clever, awesome, genuine, curious, original, leader, funny, and brave to describe the male character and cute, sweet, gorgeous, adorable, beautiful, pretty and hot for his female counterpart.
But Disney left out one adjective for women: victim. But, it’s cool, Topman picked up the slack. In 2011, the U.K. clothing company was forced to stop selling a T-shirt for men that featured an apology and a laundry list of excuses including “You provoked me,” “I was drunk,” and “I couldn't help it.” A Facebook group protesting the shirt complained it “appears to make a joke of the excuses perpetrators use for domestic abuse.” Topman later apologized for this and the “Nice new girlfriend—what breed is she?” T-shirt, stating: “We would like to stress that these T-shirts were meant to be light-hearted and carried no serious meaning.”
Another ill-conceived “joke” that appeared last year was a sexist washing label found on a pair of men’s pants from U.K. retailer Madhouse that exclaimed “GIVE IT TO YOUR WOMAN, IT’S HER JOB.” The punchline? Madhouse went bust last year; the company was reportedly bought by a new owner around the time the label came to light. Even if the fashion world hasn’t quite gotten it yet, it seems like consumers have made their message clear: sexism is no longer fashionable.