Whip-smart commenter Sarah Woolley recently drew my attention to the above T-shirt recently pulled from Topman stores in the UK. Topman is a dude store owned by the same empire that owns Topshop, for context.
Topman was selling the above shirt (and another, printed with the equally witty, “Nice new girlfriend -- what breed is she?”) until last week, when complaints led them to pull the offending shirts from stores. Though a shirt that compares women to dogs is certainly unpleasant enough, the checklist T-shirt above -- which reads, “I’m so sorry, but...” followed by a list of “excuses” like “I was drunk” or “You provoked me” -- is especially worrying.
Most of the criticism has focused on the shirt as referencing domestic abuse, but it could just as easily be alluding to rape. The listed excuses are all-purpose: “I couldn’t help myself” could suggest the familiar “she was asking for it” defense, and even “I hate you” works in multiple situations, as neither rape nor physical assault is a matter of love.
Obviously, said shirt invests in the cultural conditioning we all live with, the assurance that women are responsible for the violence done to them. If a woman is beaten up, she must have done something to deserve it. If a woman is raped, she must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong person. Many women spend their lives working hard to unlearn this ideology, and not all are successful.
So when a shirt like this appears, while it’s easy to suggest it’s all in cheeky good fun, it’s actually reinforcing that toxic culture, the one that holds women responsible for their abuse. Joking about it is almost worse, because it assumes that this is such a universal idea that no one will question the appropriateness of the humor.
Topman removed the shirts from stores and their website last week, and issued a predictably clueless statement, considering they approved their sale in the first place:
"We have received some negative feedback regarding two of our printed T-shirts. Whilst we would like to stress that these T-shirts were meant to be light-hearted and carried no serious meaning, we have made the decision to remove these from store and online as soon as possible. We would like to apologise to those who may have been offended by these designs."
But that’s just the trouble: Topman doesn’t get to decide whether they shirts carry “serious meaning.” That’s going to vary according to the person seeing them. A woman (or man) who has been assaulted and heard these “excuses” from her abuser is unlikely to find them amusing. Her reaction isn’t wrong; it is a result of her experience. It doesn’t matter if Topman meant for the shirts to be offensive; they will offend some people, no matter the intention.
More than that, this isn’t simply a matter of some uptight chicks being offended. These shirts promote the idea that abusing or raping a person and then selecting one of a predetermined list of excuses is FUNNY.
In the US, one third of women will be sexually or physically assaulted by a male partner -- not by a stranger, but by someone they love and ostensibly trust -- at some point in their lives. In other words, that means one out of every three women you know is statistically likely to be a victim at some point.
There is nothing funny about that.