'Tr(eat) Me Better': empowering women, one sex-positive T-shirt slogan at a time
Sometimes a T-shirt is just a T-shirt, but there are other times when that T-shirt is making a political or social statement on behalf of (and sometimes along with) its wearer. Sometimes, it's not just fashion - it is ideology made chic.
Asian-American actress Michele Selene Ang caused a stir recently when she uploaded onto Instagram a picture of herself staring into the camera, sat on a dressing-room table, dressed in all black. What was the fuss about? The actress's simple black T-shirt, which had these words on it in white: Scarlett & Emma & Tilda & Matt.
Those who keep up with Hollywood are familiar with the names (Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon). Those who keep up with sociopolitical conversations around pop culture know what those names have in common: they belong to white actors who have participated in Hollywood's whitewashing of Asian characters and stories.
Damon saved China in the flop The Great Wall ; Johansson played the widely-accepted-as-Japanese Major in another expensive flop, Ghost in the Shell ; Swinton was another originally Asian character, The Ancient One, in Doctor Strange; and Stone straight up played a quarter-Chinese character, Allison Ng, in the widely panned Cameron Crowe comeback that wasn't, Aloha.
So while Ang was wearing just a T-shirt, that T-shirt had a lot to say.
The Cape Town-based clothing label C(lit) - as in clit, the clitoris, the female organ of sexual pleasure - is also doing exactly that. Started by students Sarah Zimmermann and Ceil Reyneke, the label comprises hats and T-shirts with feminist, sex-positive slogans and messages printed on them.
C(lit), say Zimmermann and Reyneke, was "born out of a desire to create wearable social commentary, something that we found was lacking [locally]".
"Clothing can become such a powerful tool for self-expression, and if that expression can communicate or make social statements, it transcends normal 'dress' and becomes a way to express identity. Fuck cat-calling. Fuck sexual suppression. Fuck misogyny."
Fuck it all indeed.
"We are influenced ... by our social environments, and our brand is manifested as a response to issues of misogyny, consent, sexual empowerment and our identities as a millennial generation ... The texts we place on our merchandise deal with themes that we hope resonate with people's lived experiences," say Zimmermann and Reyneke.
The duo hope the statements on their clothes "give a sense of empowerment to anyone who wears them".
One such empowering statement stands out, printed across a cute baby-pink T-shirt: Tr(eat) Me Better. With the colour pink often associated with femininity and softness, what could be more unfeminine in a society as patriarchal as ours than a woman demanding better oral sex?
Not only does she want you to eat her, but she wants you to do it like you mean it.
This might not seem like such a feminist statement to some, but it is. Many women are often afraid to express themselves sexually for fear of judgment from their partners. After all, only a slut demands better sex and the world hates sluts.
As actress Amy Poehler wrote in her book Yes, Please, one of the great sexual conundrums young women often find themselves in is constantly trying to strike a balance between being seen as a slut (if you're deemed "too good" in bed) or being seen as a prude (if you're found to be "too boring" between the sheets).
So yes, Tr(eat) Me Better is a radical feminist statement.
About that name, they say: "We chose C(lit) because we wanted to normalise something that we personally experienced to have been largely made inappropriate to speak about, or acknowledge: pleasure."
Locally sourced and embroidered in Cape Town, their products also feature self-affirming statements such as You Do You, Millennial AF and the Beyoncé-influenced Feeling Myself and I'm a Grown Womxn*.
"The Millennial AF text owns the identity that we constantly get flak for. This is in the way we personally express ourselves online, using platforms that weren't necessarily available to older generations who don't understand the power of social media and how it is an important tool for sparking dialogue."
Social media is an integral part of any business that wishes to succeed among millennials, and it always feels more authentic when a brand is made for millennials by millennials, although they say that C(lit) is targeted at "anyone who wants to make a statement through their dress, and aligns themselves with our message and ideals".
"Our main influence, besides the fashion and art scene in Cape Town and surrounds, comes from what we encounter on social-media platforms, Instagram being the foremost," say Zimmermann and Reyneke.
"Through the visual language people create for themselves online, we draw inspiration from the way our generation communicates and curates self-expression, both on an aesthetic and semantic level. This is why we operate primarily from social media, as we feel that is our best way for people to relate to our product."
Their lookbook is bold, with their simple hats and tees juxtaposed against bright, flowery backgrounds. The tees don't need much to stand out against such a strong setting: seeing a man clad in a white T-shirt with the words No Means No written across them is a rather striking thing.
"While our perspective as womxn comes from a specific experience regarding these issues, we hope that other people can relate in their own way because consent goes beyond issues of gender," they say.
Besides the really-not-at-all-complicated issue of consent (which is often discussed on social media and in social circles as though it's a complex philosophy that requires several higher education degrees to understand), another sexist idea that C(lit) clothing attacks is the notion that women dress for men. Spoiler alert: they don't.
Not Wearing This For You is a slogan that's on their bucket hats and T-shirts.
With gender-based violence and the treatment of women coming under scrutiny across South African media (and hopefully across our dinner tables, too), the label founders are aware of the contribution their work makes to the current gender discourse.
"We acknowledge that our voices are only a small part in the narrative going on in South Africa right now in terms of social issues. We are striving to create a brand that multiple people can relate to on some level.
As womxn, we feel it is important to create something that can be shared with others ... We hope that some of the texts we use can create discussions around gender inequality, consent issues and the patriarchal culture that is prevalent in our society at large."
Zimmermann and Reyneke say they don't have any solid ideas about where their brand will be in a year's time: "We're still working towards building our brand up; we are constantly going through processes of learning."
In the end, C(lit) is about, as one of their slogans states, Pussy Power. And not just the old-fashioned (and insulting) idea that women's true power lies between their legs, but the idea that women are powerful beings. And it's about time everyone acknowledged it.
*'Womxn' is the intersectional version of women, and is growing in use beyond feminist spaces.