As far back as I can remember, J.C. Penney has been the quintessential wannabe shopping place. When I first became aware of the store, when I was in junior high school, it was the place where those of us who couldn’t afford cool name-brand jeans could buy a pair of denim pants. Only one problem: the denim was a cotton-polyester blend that never faded the way Levis and Wranglers did. So yes, I had blue jeans to wear when schools were doing away with dress codes that, well, required girls to wear dresses. But they were jeans that shouted, “Hey, uncool kid headed your way!”

Back then Penney’s, as we called it, seemed content with its niche as an affordable store, not so uncool as Sears or Montgomery Ward, but nowhere near as hip as Dayton’s, which was the reigning department store in Minnesota. At some point over the decades, J.C. Penney (and Sears) made a push to become more stylish, adding name brands and, yes, even 100 percent cotton denim jeans. Meanwhile, corporate mergers swallowed up Dayton’s, and its old locations now have Macy’s signs on them.

Just two years ago a J.C. Penney back-to-school commercial showed students turning the school cafeteria tables into a fashion runway during lunch. And the company has a Facebook page that encourages young shoppers to post their “haul” videos, homemade videos in which teenagers show off the latest items they have purchased. But this week a controversy has launched J.C. Penney into the realm of the ultra-hip Abercrombie & Fitch, which has faced criticism for marketing T-shirts carrying what some people viewed as racist or sexist messages.

The T-shirt sold on says, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” The shirt unleashed waves and waves of criticism on Twitter, in the blogosphere and from customers, and on Wednesday the retailer said:

J.C. Penney is committed to being America’s destination for great style and great value for the whole family. We agree that the “Too pretty” t-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale. Our merchandise is intended to appeal to a broad customer base, not to offend them. We would like to apologize to our customers and are taking action to ensure that we continue to uphold the integrity of our merchandise that they have come to expect.

Should J.C. Penney get off that easy? We live in a time when girls entering their teenage years face often face a crisis of confidence. That was the reason behind the Take Our Daughters to Work program, which was launched by Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation in 1993. The program, which provided one-day educational programs for girls who went to work with a parent or sponsor, had the goal of telling girls that they were valued and that they should put their minds to productive use. But it was criticized for excluding boys and was expanded to include them in 2003.

Certainly the J.C. Penney T-shirt adds nothing positive to the self-esteem of girls. It could be interpreted as, “Don’t worry your pretty little head with unnecessary things like book learning.”

Remember, we live in a world where education for girls is a precious commodity in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not a joke. In some cases, it is a matter of life and death.

Yes, we can and should appreciate what style and design bring to our lives. (Some of my best friends are fashion designers.) But looking good can — and should — go hand in hand with being smart.

In fairness, J.C. Penney does offer a shirt that says, “Smart Cookie.” But it still offers one that says “My Best Subject” and lists “Boys,” “Shopping,” “Music” and “Dancing” as the possible choices.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen September 1, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Great piece. I missed this controversy but am so grateful that our newshound, Carla, added this to our list of toxic subjects to attend to right now. JC Penny should create a contest for girls that rewards them for smart slangy slogans that could promote girls’ creativity and determination. Facebook is just the right showcase for this untapped talent base that loves to shop.

  • hillsmom September 1, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Ugh! Probably designed by a guy. But good for them to pull it, even if coerced.

  • Roz Warren September 1, 2011 at 7:57 am

    It does make me wonder whether anybody along the line from the design of this shirt to finally making and selling it had the good sense to step back and suggest that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea? I also wonder how well the shirt sold before it was yanked. I’d like to think that hordes of teen girls turned their noses up at it and went for “Smart Cookie.” But I suspect that this might not be the case…