Thanks to a Broadsheet reader for alerting us to this backlashtastic new fashion for teens. She didn’t want to give her name for fear of losing her summer income, but our reader wrote that she’s “a bit disappointed by the undies I’ve been folding at my job at American Eagle Outfitters (target audience: high school and college students; actual audience: middle schoolers).” The American Eagle online store showcases the items the reader mentioned in her note, including a set of lacy girls underwear with a series of slogans printed on the back, including: “Biggest Flirt,” “Best Dressed,” “Most Popular” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” Then there are the boys boxer shorts, with pictures of cute little pigs in little coats-of-arms all over them. Above the piggy heads is “Male” and, in the banner below them, “Chauvinist.” “I’m wondering whether I’m being too hypersensitive about this,” our reader wrote.
On the one hand, who cares? Dumb underwear, dumb underwear, dumb underwear. As old as time itself. And none of it as bad as those Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts that read “Who needs a brain when you have these?” or “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.”
But just because they’re not that bad doesn’t mean they’re good. It’s this kind of tiny, dumb stuff — the “Most Likely to Succeed” printed on your underwear — that gets into your head, that sends the little subtle messages that you feel stupid for taking seriously. People write us all the time about how these little things don’t matter, and why we should have a sense of humor about them, but I think they do matter, and that the threat that if we take them seriously we are humorless and shrill is exactly why they matter.
What does it even mean, “Most Likely to Succeed” on your underwear? Does it mean you are most likely to succeed in bed? Does it mean you are most likely to succeed at getting a guy off? Does it mean that the idea of “Most Likely to Succeed” in its traditional sense — as a measure of achievement and potential — is a hilarious joke that’s worth mocking on your lacy underwear with sexy black bows on the side that you buy and wear proudly when you are 10, or 12, or 15? Is it another sign of the attitude that Tracy Clark-Flory wrote about last week, that young women now face pressure to succeed professionally, academically and financially, but to do so while looking hot, thin and scantily clad?
And what does it mean to market a cute pair of “Male Chauvinist” pig boxers to boys? Boys who, if we are doing anything right at all, are being raised with a modern sense of gender parity that should be light-years away from antique male chauvinism? Think about it: If you are a 12-year-old boy, part of what we hope and assume you are learning today is that your sisters are your equals in the family and will someday be your equals in the workplace, and that your girlfriend may someday earn just as much as or more than you, and that she may someday be an elected leader, and that you will share with her the responsibilities for raising a family and keeping a house. This may sound like a pipe dream, but it shouldn’t. I am talking about what 12-year-old boys should understand in 2006, after 40 years of social, economic, political and professional progress for women. And so somebody wants to sell these boys “Male Chauvinist” pig boxers, to remind them — and their girlfriends, or their mothers, or their sisters, or whoever else is going to catch a glimpse of their undergarments — that retro notions of male superiority will not go gently.