Unintended Messages

“But she is my daughter. That may mean nothing to you, but it means everything to me.”
Dukat in Star Trek DS9: “The Sacrifice of Angels”

There are countless very good and funny and well-designed T-Shirts available online (don’t worry, this wont be a sales-pitch). Today, talented artists and witty writers (okay, that hurt) can see their ideas realized. Although personally I love to wear black (or, at times, single colors on black), I can appreciate many of them (including a very beautiful T-Shirt to show off your inner passive-aggressive by displaying an hedgehog with an “Hug me” sign).

But it’s also very easy to create something that conveys an unintended message, not only to some nutbags who want to be offended, but to a large amount of people. PostSecret had a photo of a T-Shirt online (going via laughingsquid to the manufacturer myfatherdaughter) whose text read:

Rules for Dating My Daughter
1. Get a Job.
2. Understand I don’t like you.
3. I’m Everywhere
4. You hurt her, I hurt you.
5. Be home 30 minutes early.
6. Get a lawyer.
7. If you lie to me, I will find out.
8. She’s my princess, not your conquest.
9. I don’t mind going back to jail.
10. Whatever you do to her, I will do to you.

Which lead to some interesting comments online, among others:

I usually avoid topics as gender roles/norms like hell — because they lead no where and the ‘arguments’ are often (surprisingly) sexist. What’s worse, there usually are some nutbags in the mix who — without blaming the victim — crave to be seen as a victim for the satisfaction it gives them to feel wronged, who love the situation where men and women see each others as enemies (or where the only males are psychologically castrated), who argue from personal — frequently biased — experience, and who enjoy the drama, not the discussion. In short, they add heat, not light. They are rare but get noticed and they spoil the discussions for me. (Personally I think that gender should play no role in life, except in personal preferences when it comes to partners, but I grew up with Star Trek TNG.)

But I think this case illustrates nicely that a T-Shirt — that might have been meant humorously or even heroic (a father protecting his daughter and willing to go to jail for her) — can be seen as promoting norms where daughters are seen as property and have to be protected.

I think one problem is that it’s too close to what many people would take (on first glance) as admirable, yet (in my view) it selectively treats adolescent girls as little children. At the same time, it is not over the top enough to be clearly seen as satire. And satire would be easy — as one person said, what if it were about dating a son? Satire would have been one very powerful way to start a discussion about invisible norms. Sure, nobody (hopefully) really feels that way (e.g., about going to jail), but it’s not over the top enough — and it has undertones that come form a bad place.

So, I think it’s a good example to consider how your message could be interpreted, esp. if you print it on a T-Shirt, and whether there are not solutions that are similarly funny but also make people think. After all, making people laugh and then think has tremendous potential for change — positive change.