I don’t have many real vices. I don’t smoke, rarely drink, and stopped indulging in drugs once I started caring about living past 30, but one thing I cannot resist is a really geeky t-shirt. I’ve dedicated two drawers in my dresser to my love of t-shirts, and still had to annex a portion of my closet to contain the overflow. There’s just something irresistible to me about being able to showcase the bits of nerdiana that I hold dear while also being comfortable, and my collection of t-shirts allows me to do just that. Which is why it kind of sucks that I’m a girl.
Last weekend, I took a birthday trip to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida. For the uninitiated, it’s a theme park whose different “islands” are built around different themes – there’s one for Jurassic Park, one for Harry Potter (which is totally badass, by the way), and one for comics, both of the Sunday funnies and superhero varieties. I love comics. I love the art, the mythologies of the characters, the over-the-top villains, the wish fulfillment, all of it. It’s an art form that captures the joy of childhood and adapts it to a grown-up aesthetic, should you choose to look deeper than the Bam-Sock-Pow. The Marvel Island shouts its love for comics loud and clear, with giant chat bubbles suspended overhead, a dewy-eyed Brenda Starr looking out over the section dedicated to old-school newspaper comics, and huge depictions of Wolverine, Professor X, and Storm doing battle with Magneto across the facades of shops.
The rides, meanwhile, drop you right into your own comic adventure. Doc Ock and his cohorts attack you during the Spider-Man ride, while the story for The Hulk rollercoaster is that Dr. Banner has finally found the solution to his genetic problem (or not), and Doctor Doom is studying your terror during his freefall ride, so if you could keep your head against the seatback at all times, he’d really appreciate it, because it’ll help him collect more data. You can ignore all of these narrative elements, of course, and still have a grand time, but I willingly bought into all of it because after all, that’s the whole point. You enter this space that’s removed from the real world, and you give yourself over to the fantasy so that, for just a little while, you’re fighting crime right alongside all of those heroes in tights.
There’s a big shop smack in the middle of the Marvel Island that’s clearly aimed at grownups embracing their inner comic geek. The swag for sale is a bit too pricey and precious to be aimed at kids all hopped up on sugar and loop-de-loops – stuff like models of characters and trade paperbacks and art books. And, of course, t-shirts. Loads of them, both subtle and obnoxious. I was happy, I was excited, and I was ready to spend some serious money. I saw plenty of shirts that I liked before zeroing on one that was just perfect: a simple blue shirt with the old-school logo of the X-Men in the middle of the chest. Subdued, yet glorious. Aaaand only for boys. Dammit. I looked around for a suitable Plan B, and though I found plenty of good designs, they, too, were all unavailable in a female cut.
Ok, I know that females aren’t necessarily the biggest market for Iron Man and Thor gear, but surely there had to be something for the fairer sex, right? Indeed, there was, tucked away in a corner of the shop: three shirts available only in girls’ cut. The first displayed several different comic book heroines – Storm, Rogue, and the like – with “Girls Night Out” emblazoned across the middle. Pretty dopey. The other two, however, were worse. One had a profile of Iron Man and the phrase “My boyfriend’s abs are made of steel!”, while the other simply proclaimed “My boyfriend is a superhero!”
My boyfriend has absolutely nothing to do with why I’m in the goddamn shop, gang.
The folks behind the counter were very much aware that women entering the shop were getting short shrift, and thought what little the store did have to offer was pretty damn dumb. Unfortunately, the problem was above their heads – it seems that the moneyhat types who do the buying simply aren’t convinced that woman will buy comic-themed apparel, and if they do, it’s just so they can praise their nerdy boy toys. Probably with a giggle and a hair flip.
I’m not so unrealistic that I think for a moment that the shop’s shirts should be split 50/50 between stuff for girls and stuff for guys. The fact is that, yes, more men than women will want to declare their love for Wolverine in public, men’s shirts are less expensive to make than women’s, and girls do have the option to wear a boy-cut shirt if they don’t mind looking a little boxy. I know all of this. I get it, really, I do. I’m ok with there only being a handful of shirts for women in the Marvel Island shop – it’s frustrating, but sound commerce. But what’s not ok is that the few shirts available are all about presenting women as nothing more than vapid stereotypes. Besides being insulting, it’s completely at odds with what Marvel superheroes stand for. Storm was worshipped as a goddess, and you want to slap her on a t-shirt that makes her a member of some sort of Cosmo-sipping femme cabal out for dancing and window shopping? Pathetic. Men get to proclaim their admiration for Captain America or Spider-Man – or even pretend to be them – while women get to tell everyone how happy they are to have a sexy boyfriend. Yeah, ’cause that’s what the women of Marvel are all about.
I know there are times when true equality isn’t really the smartest choice, but how about we start small, by accepting for a moment that a woman has more to be proud of than the guy who chooses to be seen with her? Or, hey, let’s be totally crazy and own the fact that not every woman is even into men. Let’s not devote half the shop to the small segment of women who are nerdy and proud, but let’s make sure the stuff we do keep in stock isn’t actually insulting and shameful.
And for the record, my husband really is a superhero, but I don’t need a shirt to remind me of that.