Back in 1992 the Mattel Corporation released a line of talking Barbie dolls that uttered the phrase “Math class is tough!” Reaction from parents and consumers was strong, and the company recalled the dolls.
This month we revisit the controversy over messages about school, this time in the form of stylish t-shirts. First came JC Penney, which included in its back to school line, a girl’s t-shirt that read “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The company has withdrawn the shirts after more than 1,600 people signed an online petition.
Now Forever 21 has gotten into the act with a t-shirt that reads “Allergic to Algebra.” Other shirts in the line include one that says “I (heart) school -- not...”, and another that simply states “SKOOL SUCKS”.
Why is this shirt harmful? Messages such as "Allergic To Algebra" can lead to sterotype threat for women and girls, which serves to widen the gender gap in math and science at a time when female involvement is critical. Stereotype threat refers the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one's group. Since 1995, there have been innumerable research studies within the field of social psychology confirming that stereotype threat regarding one's race or gender can be incredibly detrimental to one's personal achievements. More information can be found at reducingstereotypethreat.org
I believe stereotype threat is a real phenomenon. Once our students get a self-appraisal that they are “bad” at something, it becomes almost impossible to convince them otherwise. These shirts did not invent the idea that it is cool to hate school, or to be bad at math, but they are encouraging and reinforcing that idea, in everyone who wears or even sees this clothing.
What do you think? Is “stereotype threat” real? Should retailers be pressured not to promote this sort of message?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.