When I first saw the headlines about a mom in Utah who bought out a store’s inventory of certain shirts because she found them offensive, I was ready to roll my eyes. As a longtime writer, I’m no fan of censorship, whether it’s mandated by a government or somehow enforced by an individual person or group.
But the more I read about it, the more I began to see things in a different light. For one thing, what this woman did was an attempt to censor material targeting minors — PacSun’s apparel is largely aimed at teens — and that’s not so different from other protections for children, such as limiting what films they’re allowed to see in theaters, for instance. Censorship is always a slippery slope, however, so I still feel it necessary to handle the subject with kid gloves — more on that later.
There is something, however, I can say about this issue with total confidence: The mom’s strategy was brilliant.
Here’s what happened: Judy Cox and her teenage son were shopping last weekend at a mall in Orem, Utah when they saw a PacSun store window display of T-shirts that “featured scantily-dressed models in provocative poses,” The Daily Herald, in Provo, Utah, reported. Offended by the shirts, Cox complained to the store manager. The store manager, Cox told the newspaper, was sympathetic, but said she’d need to get permission from PacSun’s corporate office to take down the display.
For Cox, that wasn’t good enough. So she opened her wallet and shelled out $567 to buy the store’s entire remaining supply of so-called “Visual” T-shirts — the ones with the imagery that had upset her so. She said she planned to return the shirts “on day 59 of a 60-day return policy.”
If Cox had just written a strongly-worded letter to PacSun headquarters or had begun a petition, I probably wouldn’t be writing about her right now. Instead, her very unique form of protest caught the attention of not just her local newspaper, but the national media. This is why it was a brilliant move: it brought tons of attention to her cause and, given her plans to return the shirts, it did so at virtually no expense.
Cox, of course, had no idea her story would go viral.
“I thought this would be a nice local story for Orem,” she told The Daily Herald. “I was hoping someone may speak out. Clearly I didn’t think it would go this far.”
But did it go far enough? It seems that PacSun doesn’t plan on abandoning its “Visual” line.
“While customer feedback is important to us, we remain committed to the selection of brands and apparel available in our stores,” PacSun CEO Gary Schoenfeld said in the statement, according to The Associated Press.
I have to admit that the idea of adolescents running around wearing T-shirts of half-naked, bombshells makes me uncomfortable. How does what they see on those shirts affect their evolving perceptions of the female body? Does it add to the objectification of women overall? How do young girls feel when they see those images on their older brothers’ and classmates’ T-shirts? Does it skew their beliefs about what their own bodies should look like?
You could argue that, in the grand scheme of things, the shirts really don’t matter that much. Our children are bombarded with sexualized images every day on TV, in magazines, on billboards and yes, in storefront displays. That said, I think that for kids, there is a difference between seeing a picture-perfect, bikini-clad babe on the cover of Maxim when you walk by a newsstand and seeing her on your teenage neighbor’s outfit — in young minds, the latter may have much more staying power.
For her part, Cox isn’t just relying on her influence as a consumer; she’s apparently hoping that the T-shirts will be found in violation of city code. The AP reports that Orem, where most residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is in an “ultra-conservative” county that prohibits displaying “any material that appeals to a prurient interest in sex and depicts nudity, actual or simulated sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.”
Invoking the law, in this case, is not something I can get on board with. The idea of bringing the government in to regulate public expression makes me very nervous. What might be targeted next? Will displays of yoga pants suddenly be banned too?
But I do think Cox is on to something, at least in terms of finding a smart way of putting pressure on a retail chain to consider its influence on young customers. T-shirts like those in question clearly speak to much more than just one’s sense of fashion. Sex will always sell — the question is, at what price?
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