You'd think that after Forever 21 and Gap U.K.'s controversies with heteronormative messaging on their children's clothing earlier this summer, retailers would give their graphic T-shirts a second read — especially when young kids are the target customers. This week alone, two more brands have faced scrutiny for the not-so-subtle sexist undertones of their kids' merchandise. First up, Old Navy was selling a questionable series of Ghostbusters-themed T-shirts in its toddler section, Jezebel reported. One tee was intended for the card-carrying Ghostbuster, another for a "Ghostbuster In Training." The difference: the wearer's gender, apparently. The gray T-shirt bearing the paranormal investigation group's official logo is in the boys' section, whereas the long-sleeved style (in pink) for the trainee is in the girls' section. (As if the all-female reboot of the film didn't have to deal with enough sexism.) Both styles have since been removed from Old Navy's website.
A few days later, another mass retail chain, Target Australia (which has no relation to Target U.S.), found itself in a very stark spotlight. One customer spotted a Batgirl-themed children's T-shirt in the girls' department that had on it a list of domestic chores its wearer would theoretically have to go through before fighting crime — among them being "dry-clean cape" and "wash Batmobile." (The corresponding shirt for boys left household duties out of the graphic, according to The Guardian.) One customer shared her unease with the text on Facebook, asking why Target Australia would even stock an item so "offensive" in stores. "What message are you intending on sending to young girls? I'm insulted that you present a future where our daughters need to complete their 'home duties' before they can go out and save the world. We know that working mothers still do more housework than their spouses, we don't need to perpetuate this inequity."
The post quickly went viral, and Target Australia responded on Facebook. "It absolutely wasn't our intention to cause any offense with this shirt, so we really appreciate you all getting in touch with us to let us know your thoughts," the retailer wrote. "We've taken this feedback on board, and sincerely apologize for any disappointment caused." More users posted to the store's Facebook page with their take on the issue, and shortly after, the T-shirt disappeared from Target Australia's website. "After reviewing and reading our customers' concerns on the Batgirl tee, we have decided to remove the shirt from our stores," the retailer added in a later comment. "It was never Target's intention to offend our customers with this item. We appreciate everyone leaving feedback today." The copy on the Target Australia T-shirt and the graphics on the Old Navy tops may seem like subtle slights to some. But messaging to girls and young women about the way they dress — and the way their clothes are scrutinized — continues to be an important conversation. Beyond mass retailers' racks, in the classroom, female students still bear the brunt of dress-code enforcement in terms of school uniform policies, from the length of their skirts to the tightness of their pants being "distracting." Discrepancies in the boys' and girls' shelves in stores can have a real effect in the long run. When there's still a wage gap to reckon with and professional fields where women are underrepresented, we need to address these kinds of heteronormative assumptions (and language) head-on, journalist Chitra Ramaswamy argued in an opinion column for The Guardian in the wake of Gap U.K.'s misguided T-shirt campaign. We've reached out to Old Navy and Target Australia for comment, and will update our story when we hear back.