Wifebeaters in XXS

Relax, it's a joke, James Doolin says of his women-hating fashion line.
Either it is, which is appalling. Or it's not, which is more appalling

April 22, 2007
Ottawa Citizen
By Janice Kennedy

You can get them in infant sizes. It says so right there on the website.

If dad wants his baby boy to look like a chip off the old block, he can outfit him in a pint-sized version of his own muscle shirt. After he orders his own -- white or black with "Wife Beater" stitched across the front -- he can order a nifty number for Junior with the words "Lil' Wife Beater" emblazoned across the tiny chest.

The Texas-based website that sells these fashion statements has been around for seven years, and its operator, entrepreneur James Doolin, has observed in repeated media interviews that everyone should just relax. Wearing a "wife beater" shirt has nothing to do with violence, and anyone who's hip knows it. The shirts, he has suggested, are an ironic cultural joke.

Guess so. In his website photo, which shows a woman about to be smacked by a man, both parties are laughing. The signature music is pretty amusing, too -- a repeating loop of Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up. Then there's the site's hilarious "Wife Beater Hall of Fame," which includes pictures of Ike Turner, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. (That Doolin. What a yukster.)

Finally, there's the order form.

It offers a "Bonus Beater" shirt for "Convicted Wife Beaters Only." You must "enclose proof of conviction, court records, restraining order ..."

Are we still laughing?

Either all this is meant as a joke, which is appalling. Or it's not. Which is more appalling.

Most appalling of all is the fact that "wife beater," as a cultural phenomenon, is actually a perfect metaphor for the ambient misogyny that is so pervasive we don't even notice it any more. Certainly this is an extreme expression of it (not to mention an wondrously tacky one), but it is also an effective symbol of the male-dominance attitudes that drive our world.

That we have come to accept the term "wife beater" as funny is amazing. That we have come to accept its woman-hating subtext as culturally neutral is frightening.

That may be part of the reason for the crusade Borys Wrzesnewskyj has undertaken. The MP for Etobicoke Centre, a Liberal backbencher, tried again last week to get a private member's bill passed that would add girls and women to the Criminal Code's law on public incitement of hatred. Currently the law protects only those identified by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.

Not that Wrzesnewskyj and the bill's proponents want to throw all woman-hating men in jail. Jerks will always be jerks, but that doesn't make them criminal. What the proposed amendment would do, however, is draw a line at what is publicly acceptable. Or incitable.

It would also address the issue of violence against women at its roots. (Those of you vigorously objecting here are being disingenuous. No, men do not need similar protection because, Lorena Bobbitt notwithstanding, there is really no widespread gender-specific phenomenon of violence against them.)

We already have laws against physical brutality and abuse. Protecting women from the public incitement of hatred would tackle the problem at its source, addressing those vicious misogynous manifestations that can lead to physical violence.

Wrzesnewskyj has become a recent champion of the cause, but it's hardly a new one and he's hardly alone. Over the years, the idea of including women in the anti-hate law has been recommended or endorsed by such diverse voices as Canada's Law Reform Commission in 1986, the late Ray Hnatyshyn when he was justice minister, Jim Flaherty when he was Ontario's attorney general, current Attorney General Michael Bryant, the Ontario Provincial Police and numerous school boards and educators' associations. In different ways, all of them have seen firsthand what can happen when the hatred of women finds itself tangibly expressed.

But maybe we should go deeper. Maybe it's time to start dissecting those expressions of misogyny around us that are so well disguised they might not even be recognized as such. Some of the toxicity is so well-dressed it looks respectable, almost genial.

But if you're a thoughtful man (especially one who loves the females in his life), you might want to ponder what it is you're suggesting every time you spout those old platitudes to which you've probably never given a second thought.

You know the ones I mean -- the inappropriate sexual references, the belief that some abuse victims "have it coming" or "ask for it," the confident conviction that women should stick to cooking and leave the deep thinking to men, the lame jokes about women drivers or women athletes or women politicians.

The thing is, every time you trot out those tired opinions, you are reinforcing the fundamental inequality of women in the world. Whether or not you truly believe it, you are promoting the idea that women are just not as good as men.

As with almost everything else in life, it all comes down to power and control. Ottawa social worker Rick Goodwin, an expert in the field of male domestic abuse, wrote some years ago about the "disturbing truth" he had discovered. "Abusive men are not much different from most men," he said. "The theme of domination is endemic to our society, particularly in the area of male-female relationships," which he says include both marital relationships and gender politics.

Abusing men have been socialized in the same culture, and the difference between them and non-abusing men is really just a question of extent and mode of expression. "All men need to come to terms with issues of power as they relate to the women in their lives," wrote Goodwin, currently the executive director of The Men's Project, a counselling initiative for men. "Since abuse cannot occur between equals, we must first restructure both interpersonal and gender equity."

Then, speaking as a man, he concluded: "We must begin the difficult process of relinquishing our masculine prerogatives."

That's a pretty outrageous statement -- or a courageous one, depending on your moral perspective. Either way, it's undeniably subversive.

It opens the door to thinking about the kinds of things, the attitudes, those prerogatives have routinely allowed. The view is not pretty.

Masculine prerogatives have allowed radio bigmouths like Howard Stern and Don Imus in the United States to become rich and famous, not just for their crude vulgarity but for their ceaselessly degrading sexism. (Imus was the character recently fired -- for now -- for referring to the winning Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." He has also called respected Washington journalist Gwen Ifill a "cleaning lady" and dismissed his own former news reader Contessa Brewer as a "skank" with a "fat ass." All this on air.)

Masculine prerogatives have ensured that women in politics get a disproportionately rough ride, one based strictly on the fact that they're female. Sadly, John Crosbie's infamous dismissal of Sheila Copps in Canada's House of Commons more than 20 years ago -- "Quiet down, baby" -- doesn't even sound outdated. The executive director of Equal Voice, which is working to get more women into politics, wrote recently about the departure of Belinda Stronach. "Our nation's newspapers," said Ann Wicks, "used these words to describe Stronach: all butt and no brains, blond ambition, princess, Daddy's little girl, the other woman." What message, she asked, does that send to women?

Masculine prerogatives have placed the demeaning of women squarely into popular culture, whether in movies and music (have you heard what they're listening to?), on talk radio or in low-life fashion statements.

Not that there aren't also tonier ways of strutting those prerogatives, demeaning women in ways that speak to higher cultural brows. What else would impel my colleague David Warren, and other media observers like him, to comment that egalitarian men have been "feminized?" That some of the girls at his high school were "sluts?" That the wife in "a healthy marriage" should be "a servant" and (according to St. Paul 2,000 years ago) "obey" her husband? That motherhood is dishonoured by feminism?

Until enough men decide to re-think their thinking, the poison will continue to seep out. And muscle shirts with ugly messages will continue to be just one small, sad symptom.