Dear Forever 21,
In early October, decade-old footage emerged of Donald Trump saying that as a famous man, he can get away with grabbing women by the pussy. He has since defended it ― repeatedly ― as locker room talk. His son, Eric, said it’s just what happens when men hang out together. His wife, Melania, brushed it off as “boy talk.” Have you heard any of this? Because it’s the same message you’re peddling in your stores right now with a shirt that says, in all caps, that “Boys will be boys.”
As the mom of a little boy, I admit that there’s a part of me that likes the idea of a flip expression I can call on to laugh off my son’s more rambunctious moments as a natural expression of his gender. He threw his fire truck at my head? Boys will be boys! Screamed like a deranged animal on the F train? Aw shucks, he’s just a boy.
But there’s such an obvious ugly side to that expression. It promotes the false narrative that boys and men are inherently aggressive and can’t fully control themselves. It lets them off the hook for bad behavior, while simultaneously selling them short. Boys will be wild, boys will be combative, boys will be impulsive. They will not be thoughtful, sensitive or shy or any of the other wonderful things that boys and men actually are.
Forever 21 is hardly the only manufacturer that has ever slapped the dated cliche on a T-shirt and sold it. “Boys will be boys” stuff is all over Etsy. Nordstrom had a shirt, and The Children’s Place did, too. There are, doubtless, many more examples. But this moment is different. These are a different version of the same words that have been invoked by a man running for this country’s highest office ― a man who has essentially admitted, on tape, that he believes he is entitled to women’s bodies. A man who bragged about grabbing women’s pussies, about trying to fuck them, and then tried to convince people it’s no big deal. A man who has been accused of rampant sexual assault.
Calling out a kids T-shirt is the kind of thing people like to pounce on as liberal hand-wringing over nothing, but it’s not. It’s one more small, concrete example of how steeped we are in the rhetoric that gives rise to men like Donald Trump and empowers them to dismiss anyone who questions their behavior. I’m not mad about a silly T-shirt. I’m exhausted by how deep this all goes.
You know what else we used to say about kids? That if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. We told girls not to worry their pretty little heads over things. We stopped using those phrases and idioms because they were antiquated and harmful, and this one is, too.
So please, can this be the moment when we retire “Boys will be boys” once and for all?