Boys’ Clothing—Valuing Toughness and Aggression

This is an issue that has long irritated me and, from what I’ve seen, has not improved since I wrote this post in January of 2011. These products are no longer available so there are no live links here, just images.

In my previous post about the gender environment we have created for boys, I talked about associative memory and the “environment of images” that surrounds young boys, concluding that the gender images that dominate boys’ popular culture influence their definition of masculinity.

As an example, I said that “…if boys repeatedly see portrayals of males as tough, aggressive warrior types, they will begin to associate those traits with men and masculinity.”

Boys don’t have to look hard for examples of the tough guy in popular culture—he is seen all over the television dial, in advertising, and in the books based on popular TV series. He is held up as a sort of ideal (in sharp contrast to “wimpy” smart guy characters) and he teaches boys that success comes from being aggressive.

Increasingly, the influence of this character can be seen in boys’ clothing. As the examples below demonstrate, scary imagery, with its undertones of aggression, appears on clothing marketed to boys aged one and up.

Looking at the youngest age range, we have this image from H&M. A little frightening for a baby, isn’t it?

Boys' Clothing: Skull T-shirt from H&M in 2011.

Moving into the offerings for toddlers and preschoolers, we can look at some of the designs from The Gap. The pirate theme is a popular one for boys, but the imagery in this shirt, aimed at toddlers, is a little dark. The Skate shirt, also very dark, is available for boys aged four to fourteen.

Toddler Skull & Crossbones T-Shirt from the Gap in 2011

Gap Skull Skate Shirt from 2011

Not to be outdone in the creepy department, The Children’s Place offers this shirt for ages four and up:

Children's Place Baseball Outlaw Shirt from 2011

Target has more shirts for 4-year-olds with the skull theme.

Boys' Clothing: Black Skull T-Shirt from Target in 2011 Boys' Clothing: Orange Skull T-Shirt from Target in 2011 Green Skull T-Shirt from Target in 2011

Shopping at Canadian retailer Zellers, I saw plenty of clothes with the same theme. Unfortunately, pictures are not available online, but there were images of skulls, flames, and dragons encircled by flames in clothing marketed to boys as young as seven. The Gap also has a dragon shirt for boys aged six and up, shown here.

Boys' Clothing: Fire-Breathing Dragon Shirt from The Gap in 2011

Graffiti-styled fonts also offer a hint of aggression, in shirts like these, seen for children aged four to fourteen at The Children’s Place.

Graffiti Text in Boys' Clothing--Shirt from The Children's Place in 2011 Graffiti Text in Another Shirt from The Children's Place, 2011

Loud rock music is another theme for boys, perhaps best represented by this shirt from The Gap.

Rock & Roll T-Shirt from The Gap in 2011

Girls face a whole host of other issues with their clothes, but the lack of aggression in theirs makes for quite a contrast with boys’ clothing. Girls and guitars tend to be less about noise: this shirt shows a guitar surrounded by butterflies.

Girls' T-Shirt--Pastel Guitar with Butterflies from The Children's Place in 2011

Similarly, the only girls’ shirt I could find with skulls had a completely different vibe from those on boys’ shirts. These skulls look almost friendly, surrounded as they are by hearts and cupcakes and rainbows.

Girls' T-Shirt: Friendly Skulls with Pastel Accents from The Children's Place in 2011

What kind of environment are we creating for boys with these images? One that makes aggression and toughness look cool. As we’ll see in my next post, the warrior is not the only male stereotype to be exalted in boys’ clothing. The brat also makes his presence felt.


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