Teens launch "girlcott" against Abercrombie

T-shirts sporting sexist slogans spark protest among Pennsylvania girls.

Published November 3, 2005 3:57PM (EST)

Racism? Check. Pornography? Check. Sexism? You bet.

After a few controversy-free years -- and, perhaps not so coincidentally, with its profile sagging -- Abercrombie and Fitch, that purveyor of overpriced, preppy clothes for teens, is once again under fire for marketing sexual imagery and stereotypes.

The original A&F brouhaha began back in 2002, when the retailer unveiled a line of "Asian" T-shirts picturing slanty-eyed caricatures and charming tag lines like "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White." Then, in 2003, the company was accused of peddling softcore pornography after it released a risqué "magalog" featuring adolescent models -- minimally clad in the company's clothes -- in sexually charged poses.

Now, it seems, the company is banking that it's sexism -- not just sex -- that sells.

The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that the Allegheny County Girls as Grantmakers, a group of teenage activists from Pennsylvania, have launched a boycott -- or "girlcott," as they're calling it -- in response to A&F's new line of women's novelty tees that splash sexist slogans over the breasts of their wearers.

Pity the flat-chested brunette who shops at A&F. One shirt screams, "Who needs a brain when you have these?" Another moans: "I had a nightmare I was a brunette." My personal favorite features the phrase "The Freshman 15" above a list of boys' names penned in a feminine hand. (Nice work, A&F! You squeezed both sexism and promiscuity into that one!)

Promoting their "girlcott," Emma Blackman-Mathis, the 16-year-old co-chairwoman of ACGAG, told the Tribune, "We're telling [girls] to think about the fact that they're being degraded. We're all going to come together in this one effort to fight the message that we're getting from pop culture."

But is this a battle the girls can ever win? Skeptics posit that ACGAG's appearance on the morning talk show circuit and in papers may actually play right into A&F's hands, by raising the company's profile through provocative promotion. "That's been their [A&F's] whole strategy, isn't it, to be radical?" Steve Bassill, president of a marketing consulting firm, told the Tribune. David Krafft, senior vice president of Chicago-based Graziano, Krafft and Zale Advertising, adds, "You figure they're appealing to a younger audience demographic, and [young people] are going to want go for brands that are more cutting edge, or viewed as more cutting edge."

Indeed, while both the Asian T-shirts and the magalog were swiftly retracted after public protest, A&F has so far shown little intention of recalling the sexist tees, largely because they have sold well with many women. "Our clothing appeals to a wide variety of customers. These particular T-shirts have been very popular among adult women to whom they are marketed," a company spokesman said in a statement to the Tribune.

In response, Liz Clark, a 14-year-old member of ACGAG, has only this to say: "Is society really stooping so low as to make degrading yourself trendy?"

Oh, honey. Youthful idealism never was so heartbreaking.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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