Google “JC Penney shirt” and you’ll get a swath of articles calling the company “sexist“, accusing it of gender stereotyping, or, as in the case of Jezebel, challenging the department store with the simple the headline: “No”. What’s causing the commotion? A white long-sleeved shirt that was being sold online that reads “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” It was not a hit with the masses. By midday on Wednesday, more than 1600 people had signed a petition against it started by Change.org.
And so JC Penney did what any big company does to save face: it pulled the product and issued an apology the next day. But while it seems the people of the Web are unanimously offended, some industry experts say we need to chill out.
Easy to miss in the Google search is this article from Adrants, an online publication run by former Leo Burnett employee Steve Hall, in which he defends the company. “Oh sure, buried in that statement is the not too subtle jab that pretty girls are stupid or, conversely, they are so hot they can get away with whatever they choose,” he writes. “But, seriously. what girl hasn’t uttered that in jest at one point or another?”
Hall points out the only reason JC Penney is catching flack is because they are, well, JC Penney. “The trouble is when a brand says it, the entire world is watching. And while the statement may, on it’s own and said one to one, be rather innocuous, when it has the heft of a brand like JCPenney behind it, it’s bound to draw fire from the naysayers.”
Hall’s not alone in his thinking. In an email, Anthony Marsh a.k.a “Profits”, a California-based independent designer who runs several online apparel stores and has been in the business for 15 years, agrees that as a corporation JC Penney is intensely scrutinized. “It has to be concerned with public opinion since it can cost them serious money if they fall out of favour. They also have to answer to stockholders. I, on the other hand, produce products that I want to wear and that I find funny.”
Being an entrepreneur, Marsh offers up the following advice for the naysayers: “Instead of complaining, why not create your own product with an opposing opinion and use your effort to convince JC Penney to take on that product? Same amount of energy, a larger platform for your message without limiting someone from their own self expression.”
My vote goes to the Village Voice for their headline: “JC Penney…Too Stupid for Words”.