My daughter loves going to the mall. This is not shocking. It is also not surprising that your average American mall is full of mixed signals for young women, with mannequins and the models in store artwork often posed provocatively to depict the kind of fantasy girl that society loves to sell. As dad to a girl who now likes makeup as much as Minecraft, and for whom Forever 21 is the new Children’s Place, I find myself constantly walking a tricky line between supporting self-expression and making clear what is sexist, which things disempower as much as they empower. None of this is new.
But it says something—and not something good—when we reach a point in our culture that a national retailer can sell clothing emblazoned with a sexual assault joke and display it for all to see. An Oregon woman walking through Portland’s Lloyd Center Mall was stopped in her tracks to see novelty store Spencer’s displaying a quartet of Trump shirts, one of which exclaimed: Grab America by the Pussy.
Take that in for a moment.
A sentiment that base and assaultive was placed facing outward into the mall where a parent like me might be bringing his daughter to her favorite store. Where do you start with that? Ok, honey, “pussy” means “vagina” and “grab it” means just what it sounds like, and the reason it’s on this shirt is because the President-elect told another man to do it, bragging that he himself does without asking permission.
Should your daughter then ask, “If the President does it, does that mean it’s ok?” you’d have to explain that, no, actually it’s not ok; it’s beyond not ok, and that if you were the one being subject to this attack, you would be very upset, perhaps traumatized, and might go to the police. Who knew that a trip to the mall could require an explanation of sexual assault, consent, and rape culture?
What if it’s your son who sees this? What if he doesn’t ask you anything at all but you see his gaze lingering on the slogan before he files it away quietly, in the way so many boys do. Terrific: you can have that same whole conversation unbidden, and explain to him that he may never ever be that kind of man, that this is the most awful kind of man of to be. And somehow you must make this seem true, despite the fact that being such a man is no impediment to fabulous wealth or winning the highest office in the land.
And it’s not just kids to consider. Every adult, female or male, who has been groped, fondled, or penetrated without consent (over 300,000 Americans each year) now can see their private pain rendered as both punch line and consumer good. Even those fortunate shoppers who have thankfully escaped such assaults are confronted by the specter of molestation as acceptable public humor.
Understandably, the shopper was outraged and posted about it on Facebook, her story going viral and launching a wave of calls and emails to the mall management, which finally prevailed upon the store to at least move the items inside. (It was later removed from the floor entirely.) While the mall manager Bob Dye showed appropriate concern and dismay, Spencer’s did not. They argued that it was just satire and not an endorsement, despite being accompanied by three pro-Trump shirts (the first of which reads “Team Trump”).
According to Spencer’s VP Kevin Mahoney, “The shirt was never meant to promote any type of abuse or attack on any person.” He is quoted as saying that the shirt “was ‘satire’ similar to Alec Baldwin's portrayal of President-elect Trump on Saturday Night Live.”
Perhaps Mahoney hasn’t ever read a definition of satire (the purpose of which is to expose, criticize, and shame), or maybe he just hasn’t actually read the online product description, which says “This laugh out loud Spencer's exclusive shirt is perfect for reminding everyone that Trump's in charge.” That’s not satire; that’s back-slapping between bros.
Here’s something else Spencer’s doesn’t seem to know: grabbing someone else’s genitals without permission is a sex crime. That’s true in Oregon (where the shirt first got noticed) and New Jersey (the company’s home state) and is pretty much considered at least sexual battery everywhere in the nation.
The real question is how this could ever be considered ok, and the real answer is painful. Having elected this man President even after we all heard this crude boast in his own words reveals the enduring power of the sexism that still poisons our culture. Though in recent years it has seemed like progress has been made, and that at very least people know they should be apologetic for their lapses into sexist language or behavior, the demeaning of women has never ceased; women’s and girls’ bodies have remained both endlessly commodified and ripe for vilification. Consider what happened when Megyn Kelly took on Trump: he focused his counter-attack on his disgust for female biology.
The election of this specific man has legitimized the lowest version of manhood and set-up the worst treatment of women. The product manufacturers at Spencer’s gifts long ago proved themselves to be crass and dimwitted, and now they’ve added soulless to the list, too, but at least they can say they’re taking their cues from the top.
Next time I go to the mall with my daughter, it will be in a new era: the Trump presidency. I’m scared to think what values might be on display in the months and years ahead.