According to Script, or, How I Got a Sexist T-Shirt Taken Down
A few weeks ago, I was walking back to work after my lunch break when I passed one of the many tourist gift shops that dominate the streets of downtown Victoria. You know the type: garish window displays with front doors open to allow the excess of merchandise, postcards, and Canadiana to spill out onto the sidewalk. This one was no different; indeed, these stores are virtually interchangeable, and probably share suppliers for their mass-produced dreamcatchers and neatly gendered pink-or-blue kids’ t-shirts. However, something in the jumble of regrettable souvenirs caught my attention. A t-shirt, stretched across cardboard backing, with this message across the chest:
Top 10 Reasons Hockey is Better Than Women
- In hockey, everyone likes it rough
- You only get 5 minutes for fighting
- ‘Puck’ is not a dirty word
- You don’t have to play in the neutral zone
- It’s possible to score a few times a night
- When you pull the goalie nobody gets pregnant
- Missing teeth doesn’t stop you from scoring
- You can always get new wood if your stick breaks
- The zamboni gets to clean up the mess
- Periods only last 20 minutes
Unsurprisingly, I was offended by this image and its message. Even if I were not a nasty-woman-feminist-killjoy-on-high-alert-to-be-offended, I could hardly miss the misogyny on display. I sized up the situation and my capacity to address it, and decided that I didn’t have the emotional energy at that moment for the kind of confrontation I knew would follow.
A few days later, though, I did. So I went back. And it didn’t go super well.
I posted this on Facebook after the encounter:
This t-shirt is advertised in the front window of a tourist shop a few doors down from my office. When I noticed it for the first time last week, I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I told myself not to be so surprised, that this was just one more expression of the quotidian violence that women (queer, trans, Indigenous, and women of colour, especially) face. But I felt hurt and ashamed and afraid anyway. Because this is still the world I have to live in and I am viscerally aware of the ways in which my body, my sexuality, my politics are simultaneously objects of scorn and fascination—and this is a dangerous reality. Being a woman, being queer, being feminist… these markers of difference are dear and constitutive parts of me. They are also targets of hatred, sites of vitriol. And I see the ways in which they endanger me.
So, today, when I walked by the window, I had to go in. I had to ask the people who run this store why they had decided that this image belonged at the centre of their display.
To the woman at the counter: “I want to ask you about a t-shirt in your display, the one about hockey being better than women… I want to know: why is it in your window?”
Response: “Because we sell it.”
Me: “I just feel that it is a shitty message, do you know? I walk by it every day and it really stinks and I think about the little girls who will see it. I am hoping you can take it down.”
Response: “We don’t change the display.”
Me: “Can I file a complaint or speak to a manager? Or perhaps I can leave a written message? I recognize that this decision is not on you.”
Response: *Pause* “Well I guess you could talk to Cheryl.”
I walk to the desk at the back, where two more women are conferring over an order form. I figure out which of them is Cheryl and repeat my spiel. She makes it clear that this is a big ask, well above her pay grade. I ask if there is someone I can email, someone “at the top.” She looks skeptical, but gives me the contact info for the owner. The women don’t smile or acknowledge me when I thank them for their help.
So that is what I am going to do. I’m going to email these people because I have to believe that it is possible to achieve this one small thing—that it is possible to get this one store to take this one shitty, misogynistic thing down. Right? God, I hope so.
Please consider helping me do this by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 250-389-0995 to express why this is important to you. If you want to share this message, that is also chill with me.
I followed up by emailing the store and shared my message in a comment on my Facebook post as a sample script for people to use. It read:
My name is Sylvie and I work at a business a few doors down from your store at 907 Government Street. I am writing with a request. It's not a big one, but it is an important one. Let me explain:
Each day, I walk by your store and see this picture in the middle of the display window (see below). Every time I see it, it is like a slap in the face: it is a reminder that we live in a world where it is acceptable to ridicule women's bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our interests... I worry about the little girls and young women who will walk by, see this, and feel like less. I worry even more about the boys and men who will see it as an affirmation that this is an acceptable way to talk about the women in their lives, that it's okay because it is “humour.”
I want better from (and for) the men and boys in my life. I want a culture where we operate as partners, teammates, friends, and equals.
But seeing this t-shirt displayed so prominently in your store window makes it feel that much harder to make that hope a reality. Does that make sense? Taking it down probably seems like a gesture so small as to be meaningless, but I promise you it is not. It would mean so much to me, and to the other people who see this image and cringe. I promise you, it matters.
Thank you for your consideration.
I made my Facebook post that evening; by the morning, several dozen of my friends and acquaintances had liked or shared the post, commenting with messages of support and promises to email or call the store. By noon that day when I went to check, the shirt was down. I was exhilarated, my supporters celebratory. We won! We succeeded in clawing back a piece of stolen dignity!
That’s the narrative, at least. That’s what we can tell ourselves when we pat ourselves on the back and raise a glass at the bar after leaving work early on Friday “because we're worth it.”
But here’s the thing: while I am grateful for the support of those who rallied to join my mini-movement, I am left feeling a little bit sick at the predictability of it all. Because there was never really any doubt that I would succeed. There was no question that I would make the intervention that I did and that, once the fire was lit under their feet, the store owners would respond by taking the shirt down. Think of the children! What about the little [white] girls? It’s Academy Award material, this stuff. I was just following the script that white consumerist feminism has laid out for me and they were responding according to that same script. It is precisely the kind of limited and sanctioned form of visible resistance that patriarchy, consumer capitalism, and colonialism require to legitimize themselves and placate a restless public. The shirt was too offensive, the outrage too simple, the online activism altogether too comfortable.
Where is my righteous urge to intervene when I walk past the same man in a wheelchair every day, the one who sleeps in the awning of the store across the street? Where are my peers’ outraged refusal to back down in the face of injustice when I share an article by a friend about the connections between rape, black racialized bodies, and settler colonialism? Where are my social media allies when the weight of homelessness or transphobia or the violent acquisition of Indigenous lands cannot be lifted by sharing a few choice tweets? I am not above this; I know that I, too, have been satisfied with making the kind of “activist” interventions that ensure my own comfort and safety. But I am tired of these scripts and the ease with which we cast ourselves in these familiar roles.
Maybe next time, instead of asking nicely, I’ll just smash the window.
Sylvie Vigneux is a visitor in Coast Salish territory, where she studies law at the University of Victoria. A descendant of Irish, French, and Odawa ancestors, she is working to untangle how best to be accountable to those relations and what it means to learn colonial law on Indigenous lands.