I’d seen this image pop up a few times on my Facebook feed, but it wasn’t until the super-popular website PostSecret shared it on their page that I really sat up and took notice. Or rather, it wasn’t until someone commented saying that this shirt promoted rape culture, and a friend asked me if I agreed with that statement, that I really gave it much thought beyond the usual oh great, more “hilarious” misogyny.
But you know what? After taking some time to think about it, I realized that I agreed with the PostSecret commenter. This shirt is really pretty gross. This shirt promotes some very problematic ideas about women and how they relate to men. This shirt implies that male violence, both sexual and physical, is the societal norm.
This shirt is rape culture.
Now, I’m not saying that this shirt promotes rape, or is encouraging anyone to go out and commit sexual assault. In fact, at first glance, the shirt’s message is pretty benign, right? I mean, it’s all about a dad protecting his daughter, and even if that idea is badly executed, well, the sentiment behind it is still admirable, isn’t it?
Except that it’s not.
The problem is that the real, underlying sentiment here is that the daughter is a man’s possession, not a person. She’s either her father’s “princess” or her boyfriend’s “conquest.” It’s clear that the daughter’s wants and desires mean nothing to her father – he says that he will dislike anyone that she dates simply because they are dating his daughter. It doesn’t matter whether this boyfriend (since the shirt is operating off the assumption that the daughter is cisgender and heterosexual) is a nice guy, whether he treats the daughter well, or even whether the daughter loves him – the father will still dislike him, based on the simple fact that this teenage boy wants to be physically close to his daughter.
I know what you’re going to say – But he’s not being possessive, he’s just being protective of her! He doesn’t want her to get hurt! That’s a totally natural way to feel!
What do we mean, though, when we talk about the daughter being “hurt” by her boyfriend? Do we mean hurt feelings? That certainly doesn’t seem to be what other people get from this shirt, based on the comments left on PostSecret’s Facebook page:
“He’s just trying to protect his daughter! You must have no idea some of the terrible things that happen to women.”
“It sort of more implies that these people are minors and are under their parent’s care. And being that teenage boys tend to be these creepy-ass horndogs, this is a father’s reaction to that.”
“If you dislike this shirt, you are obviously not a father.”
“I have 2 daughters [and] I agree with Sabria.. as parents we are the first line of defense. Unfortunately we may teach our daughters how to defend themselves, my eldest does, and we may teach them that they are not objects but people, but the problem still exsists where not everyone cares enough about their kids to teach them the right way. So yes jokes like these are stupid but true at the same time. I told my daughter, after finding out a girl in her class was molested, that i would happily kill someone to protect her and her siblings. I am her first line of defense so yes if you hurt my child i will hurt you back with twice as much force. The sentiment in the joke is to protect your child, not to try and objectify them.”
“My dad has never viewed me as his property, but he says stuff like this all the time when my mom prompts him by bringing up the length of my skirt or likewise. I can see how people would take this as implying ownership, but it simply does not. It’s just a dad saying, she’s my baby girl and I will protect her no matter what.”
So it’s pretty obvious that what we’re talking about here isn’t emotional damage, but rather sexual violence. Which brings us to point number ten on the shirt – “Whatever you do to her, I will do to you.” In the light of the comments above and the way that most people seem to interpret this shirt, it’s pretty clear that item ten on this list is a rape joke. The father will rape the boyfriend if he sleeps with the daughter. And that’s where the fact that this shirt is participating in and furthering rape culture becomes especially apparent.
Rape culture is the normalization and trivialization of rape and sexual assault. It’s a culture in which sexual violence is made to be both invisible and inevitable. It’s a culture that teaches us that male sexual violence is both normal and desirable. It also teaches us that men are not able to control their actions when they are aroused.
And that’s what this shirt is really saying, isn’t it? That a teenage boy will, given the chance, commit some kind of sexual violence against his girlfriend, and that the only solution to that violence is more violence, this time on the part of the father. This shirt assumes that the rape (or attempted rape) of the daughter is inevitable, and the only solution is to remove the boyfriend from the scene. This shirt says that the blame (sidebar – why the need for blame?) for any sex had by the teenage couple will be put squarely on the shoulders of the male partner. Why? Because our culture teaches us that men want sex more than women, that they can’t help being physically aggressive when it comes to sex, and finally that all of these toxic messages are just sexual norms and there’s nothing that we can do to combat them beyond matching violence with violence.
Look, I’m sure that the person who created this shirt had some very good, humorous intentions. I’m sure that they didn’t think about the possibility of people interpreting their message as contributing to rape culture. And I’m especially sure that PostSecret shared this on their Facebook page in good faith, figuring that it was something that their readership would enjoy and hopefully get a laugh out of. But the fact that this shirt and its message are so seemingly innocent is really what makes them so dangerous – because that’s how these messages make their way most easily into our cultural consciousness, not through overtly offensive or misogynist material, but through the stuff that seems harmless at face value. If someone shares a terrible rape joke on Facebook, it’s easy to explain why that’s wrong, but something like this requires a somewhat more complex, carefully calibrated approach.
I guess that what I want people to get out of this post is that it’s important to listen when someone says that something is wrong, or offensive, or contributes to rape culture. You don’t ultimately have to agree with them, but it would mean a lot if you could reign in your knee-jerk reaction of it’s just a joke or stop being such a humourless bitch or some people just want to be offended by everything and actually took a moment to try to see what that other person is trying to get at. You might discover that they actually have a point, or you might learn to look at stuff like this from a new angle, but even if you don’t, at least that person will feel as if they’ve been heard. And if they feel that way, then they’re more likely to listen to you, and that’s how dialogue works. And out of dialogue comes change.
And change is good.