In what feels like a case of déjà vu all over again, kids’ clothing store The Children’s Place has released its fall line for girls, which contained a t-shirt featuring the age-old message that math is hard.
In my house, we always credit that quote to the great sage Barbie because of the brouhaha over a talking Barbie doll. In 1992, Mattel released Teen Talk Barbie. Among the 270 phrases she would say was this winner: “Math class is tough.” Reaction to this was so strong the company offered a swap to anyone who had bought the doll and then changed the computer chip to take out that phrase, leaving less offensive (but still pretty sexist) offerings like “Party dresses are fun” and “Do you have a crush on anyone?” A couple of years ago, retailer J.C. Penney got similarly lambasted in the media for a t-shirt saying, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The company pulled it quickly from its site.
The Children’s Place seems not to have learned from others’ mistakes. This fall, thanks to the store, little girls age 6 to 12 (or so) can proudly display a list of “my best subjects.” Checked on the list are shopping, music, and dancing. Not checked: math. A parenthetical under the list points out, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” True, but why can’t girls excel in math and fail miserably at shopping?
Predictably, the Children’s Place did eventually pull the t-shirt after significant blowback on the Internet.
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My daughter decided last year, somewhat arbitrarily, that math is her best subject. Sure, she is good at math, but she seems to be equally good at reading. I think what she is really saying is that she understands it and enjoys it. That’s great. I’m just scared that as she heads into second grade and beyond, some of these societal messages that say she shouldn’t like math and is innately not very good at it will trickle down and change her mind.