by Anisa Thompson
On a beach-themed day during the week of Homecoming, I was sitting in class wearing a white tank top with a beach-esque skirt. Upon entering, one of my classmates demanded that I wear my tank top the next day. The following day’s theme was dress-like-a-decade. My response was a look substantiating much confusion. After asking why, I received quite the excited response: “Wife Beater Thursday!”
If I got anything out of those poetry quizzes from previous years of English class, it’s that “Wife-beater Wednesday” would have sounded slightly better, but that’s besides the point. Why, in 2021, are we still calling white tank tops “wife-beaters,” and why are we excited about it? Do we want to be wife-beaters? If you just answered no to the previous question but are struggling to justify your wardrobe choices with a coherent response, please keep reading. Further, why are we asking our female friends to wear “wife beaters?” Is this your idea of inclusivity? I hope not.
The origins of the infamous “wife-beater” begin with the 1947 Detroit case of James Hartford Jr., a man who beat his wife to death. Although there is no online evidence displaying the article, local news supposedly reported on the incident with an article entitled “The Wife Beater,” where Hartford Jr. can be seen sporting his blood stained white tank top. Seeping into American pop culture, the infamous white tank top began making appearances in movies. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando’s character, Stanley Kowalski, “rages, yells, rapes his sister-in-law and hits his wife,” all the while donning a white tank top, according to Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s New York Times article, “Are We Really Still Calling This Shirt a ‘Wife Beater’?”.
By adopting this tank top as an exhibition of alpha maleness, if you will, the American media makes aggression and violence against women acceptable. However, in in an interview for Velasquez-Manoff’s article, Adam Klein, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, shares that “‘[p]eople aren’t calling it a wife beater because they believe that beating your wife is O.K.’.” I’m willing to accept Klein’s statement. I had conversations with students who casually referred to our classmates’ attire as “wife beaters,” but did not support wife beating. Though, willingly using “wife beater” opposed to using our wide range of fashionistic vocab “casually evoke[s] violence against women,” as put by Velasquez-Manoff. In Peggy Orenstein’s “The Miseducation of the American Boy,” Orenstein writes about “how misogyny becomes ‘hilarious’” as males use humor to blanket misogny, especially during “locker-room talk,” rape jokes, and the, as Orenstien puts it, “weaponized” descriptions of sex: “It can be hard to tell whether they have engaged in an intimate act or just returned from a construction site.” Orenstien shares that “the stories boys tell are really about power: using aggression toward women to connect and to validate one another as heterosexual.” While I hope that male identifying students at Blake don’t feel as though they need to validate their masculinity through wearing a shirt associated with violence directed toward females, the issue still remains that the term “wife beater” is degrading to women. Orenstein writes that this type of dialogue “abrade[s] boy’s ability to see girls as people deserving of respect and dignity.” Joke or not, being asked to participate in “Wife Beater Thursday” struck a nerve.
When walking around on Dress Like a Decade day in a high ponytail and my dad’s oversized Looney Tunes t-shirt from high school and then seeing my peers visibly enjoying their “Wife Beater Thursday,” I couldn’t land anywhere shier than complete disappointment.
Let me make this clear; there’s nothing wrong with wearing a white tank top. But to those of you who participated in “Wife Beater Thursday,” I hope you now understand the connotations of your actions. If you don’t, simply imagine walking into school one day to find your female classmates wearing “husband beaters.” I don’t know what that one looks like, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.