December 01, 2008

Hate mail, Club Libby Lu, and me

More than two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Club Libby Lu, the store that promotes "make-over" parties for little girls, parties where a girl as young as four or five is dressed as either a princess or a sex object, parties that end with the little girls dancing with "sexy moves" in the window of the mall store. Actually, my post wasn't so much about Club Libby Lu as it was about the conversations I have with my students during the ten minutes before class begins and about how two blog posts about Club Libby Lu led to a discussion about consumerism, the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls, and damaging gender stereotypes. But my post ended up being the target of many google searches, mostly from parents planning birthday parties. Because I'd dared to criticize Club Libby Lu, the post led to hundreds of hate emails.

For the record (and to repeat what I said in some of the comments on my posts), I am completely in favor of kids, both boys and girls, playing dress-up and experimenting with all kinds of costumes and roles. But Club Libby Lu gives the girls only two options: you can be the pretty princess (and a princess by definition is someone born into power and wealth, not an empowered woman who chooses her path) or you can be the sex object rock star who dresses slutty for an audience. Girls at Club Libby Lu parties aren't given the option of scientist, or pilot, or doctor, or firefighter.

And yes, I'm appalled at the way how young children are sexualized at a place like Club Libby Lu. When sexuality is forced on kids before they are ready, it is artificial, and not at all empowering. The first couple of strange comments I got about Club Libby Lu, I made an honest effort to explain some of this, but soon I figured out that commenters never came back to hear what I had to say. When I turned the comments off on the post, I began getting the hate email.

Much of the hatemail begins or ends with an insult to my character. If I look critically at Club Libby Lu, then surely, there must be something wrong with me. Anonymous readers tell me that they feel sorry for my husband, with the implication that anyone who criticizes Club Libby Lu must be frigid. They tell me that I'm an "uptight bitch" and that they feel sorry for my children, who clearly never get to have any fun at all because of their evil feminist mother.

Many of the emails tell me that I need to "lighten up." Why is that whenever feminists analyze gender roles, someone tells them to "lighten up"? The implication is that it is better to just go through life with your brain turned off. My favorite insult was the anonymous person (hate mail is almost always anonymous) who called me a "childless prude who clearly has no clue what it takes to raise kids." That made me laugh.

What appalls me most about the hate mail is not the venom that pours out; that's just misdirected anger and I shrug it off. No, what's shocking is how poorly the emails are written. Has the state of public education in this country sunk to such a level that adults can't communicate in whole sentences? Must their insults be so unoriginal? And what ever happened to making a logical argument?

The biggest defense of Club Libby Lu — well, actually, the only defense I can glean from any of these rambling and poorly written emails — is that the girls have "fun" at the parties. Yep, that's the whole defense. "But it's fun." One parent said he had reservations about the place because of the sexist messages it seemed to be sending, but that he was glad he kept his mouth shut because his daughter "had fun." That seems a curious defense to me. I know people who think that torturing animals is fun — I knew kids when I was growing up who shot birds for fun — and the fact that the kids think it's "fun" doesn't make it okay.

I've yet to receive an email that had any sort of logical defense for Club Libby Lu. And the hate emails are about to come to an end. As many of my readers already know, Saks is closing all their Club Libby Lu stores. By May of 2009, all 98 stores — including the one that opened here in April of 2006 — will be closed. The Saks news release said simply that the stores were "not profitable." I suspect it is the economy more than cultural change that has brought about the end of Club Libby Lu, but still, I am relieved to see those doors shutting.


jackie said...

I'm sorry that you've had to deal with all those hate emails, though of course you have been all reasonable and funny and jo(e) about it! I'm continually perplexed at the amount of hate or anger that people must be carrying in order to vent it on random strangers like that.

Lorianne said...

"But it's fun." One parent said he had reservations about the place because of the sexist messages it seemed to be sending, but that he was glad he kept his mouth shut because his daughter "had fun."

Hmmmm. I wonder how this fun-loving dad would have felt if his SON had gone to the party, dressed in drag in order to "play along," and then danced in the window in his pretty princess costume? Would that have been okay if the boy "had fun"?

I mean, if this is simply a matter of playing dress-up and having fun, lots of boys like to dress like girls, and lots of girls like to dress as boys. Why not let ALL the options be out there, as happens in classrooms that have costume closets? (Even back in the dark ages when I was a kindergarten student, girls were allowed to put on ties and boys could put on aprons when we played house: the outfits were there, and we chose who wore what, all in the name of "fun.")

I suspect that the real gender double-standard would be revealed if that guy's "little man" wanted to dance in high heels and a pink feather boa. He wouldn't want to encourage that kind of fun, would he?

Anonymous said...

Well, I for one was happy to see your original Club Libby Lu post. We have (had?) one at our local mall, and Neighbor Girl was always curious about it, but thankfully, I had read your comments before taking her in. I checked out more stuff on-line after reading your comments, and decided that I completely agreed with you. (I must say even had I wandered in unprepared, the overwhelming smell of nail polish and hair spray would have driven me right back out!)

Neighbor Girl (now age 7) has plenty of fun and even likes to dress up as a princess or a rock star, and wear nail polish, etc., but it's done in a healthy non-sexualizing way. (And only rarely involves dancing in windows! ;) )

Glad they're closing--that place made my skin crawl.

--Neighbor Lady

Julia said...

Damn straight! I live under a rock, so I didn't know about this abomination until I heard of it on the radio a couple of months ago.

My daughter got a box with a princess dress up outfit as a gift for her 3rd birthday. From a boy she played with at playground every day (she invited her whole playground posse-- they hung together for a couple of hours a day every day, so I thought it was very reasonable of her to want them all at her birthday). The fact that it came from this boy blew my mind. Clearly he didn't choose it for her. If he was consulted he would have no basis for suggesting this crap in a plastic box (stackable drawer, no less, with a label that encouraged girls to buy MORE and make of them a chest)-- their games together were of running, and jumping, and swinging, and monkey baring. Must've been the mom, and I found it incredible that someone would consider this an uncontroversial gift, something she didn't feel the need to check whether we thought was appropriate.

Our solution ended up being calling the thing a Queen Ester costume (check out the strong female role model), as the birthday and the gifting occurred close to Purim. We also tried to find all the other dress up costumes you talk about-- the firefighter, and the pilot, and police officer, and doctor-- to dilute the influence and allow her to make choices. We ended up only having success with doctor. Costumes for the rest, if we could find them at all, were flimsy, highly destructible, and mostly plastic. That made me mad too. Because these choices do not promote flight of imagination, they only serve to channel kids into predictable and sadly shortsighted stereotypes.

BrightBoy said...

There are things that seem cool and fun to a child at the time they happen because the child knows no better, but that in later years can come back to be damaging.

I, too, intensely dislike the sexualization of young children. Teens are a different matter entirely, but for someone my sister's age to be up dancing in a window is ridiculous.

As for the feminism question: I've never really encountered a feminist quite like you before. You thoughtfully question the establishment, put forward unique and innovative ideas, and work to see that you treat all people, with women as one group among them, equally.

There is the perception that many feminists simply blame men for all their problems.

I once described the group to a friend of mine as "people complaining to me about a bunch of crap that I didn't do."

I wish there were more like you, and I'm sure there are many who we just don't see, being overshadowed by the obnoxious loud-mouths on television.

You're right about this club, and I'm glad that it's closed (now if only we could do something about those Bratz dolls...).

Anonymous said...

Good lord. I'm really glad I've missed that era. We've only got Bratz dollz and inappropriate clothing for sale (mostly imported from the US, sadly) to deal with as far as that kind of thing goes here in Sweden.

nimiecat said...

Hooray! Thanks for the good news! :)

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I've been by that place. They dress kindergarten girls like little sluts. Its totally obnoxious.

Liz Miller said...

Thank you, Economy!!! I'm so glad these stores are going the way of the dodo.

Anonymous said...

It is shocking how hateful people can be when they're "anonomous".

I have two young daughters and with the Bratz dolls and the writing on the ass of their pants (now what sick perverted man thought that up?) drives me crazy.
They do have princess costumes, but they also have pirates, vampires, a doctor/vet, etc.

The "sexing up" of young girls is so disturbing. Last year at the christmas concert at school, a girl in my daughters class - grade 1, had on a bra! A bra! At six! Ugh... and boy was she proudly showing it off.

Kyla said...

A friend who worked in the mall near Libby Lu called it "prosti-tots", which isn't too far off the mark, I think.

Anonymity makes people much angrier and much more ignorant, I find.

Clara MacCarald said...

The economic situation has some benefits. Now if it can only stop drilling in the Marcellus shale...

Arwen said...

People that angry always strike me as people who feel some discomfort at what they're doing. Otherwise, why be quite so angry about a criticism?

Bardiac said...

I remember that post, and remember thinking how absolutely right you were in your analysis. I should have emailed you a note of admiration to counter all the hate mail!

I live in the sticks, relatively, and never had to see one of the stores, even, so I guess I should count myself as lucky. I don't say this about most businesses, but it sounds like a good thing this one is going under.

Maybe you discouraged a couple people from taking their kids, in which case, yay you! :)

Michael Campbell said...

That you were bothered less by the vitriol of the hatemail than by the quality of the writing is absolutely adorable.

And I definitely don't feel sorry for your husband. Lucky duck.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Kindergarteners don't know they're dressing like sluts unless you tell them.

I don't know where I'm going with that.

Maybe that's what the dad meant -- my daughter dressed like a slut for a day but she didn't know that's what she was doing, and she'll never dress that way in public again, so it's OK.

I'm not saying it IS ok. But that's what the dad may have meant. "No harm done."

kathy a. said...

hate mail! oy. i'm glad they are shutting those places down, for more reasons than that.

Arwen said...

Jennifer (ponderosa) - I totally agree that you're right. I've got a friend who is a middle school teacher and we often talk about what the 'tweens wear and what it says to them v. what it says to those older than they are.

The problem, I think, is that those symbols get glamorized in kids' minds. Not everybody, but a percentage. They become value; they become worth. And in 10 years, when slut gets attached, there's already a charge it's attracted to, a charge based on worth, glamour, power.

A male child given fireman as COOL doesn't really know about what that looks like, either; or a cop or a teacher or an anything.

Unknown said...

Never heard of it, but equally appalled. My oldest daughter is 7, and I'm simply exhausted by the measures I've had to take to keep her from rampant sexuality. For Halloween, classmates of hers were belly dancers and gypsies and geishas. It was so, so sad.

Rev Dr Mom said...

I remember the post--but do you mean that you're STILL getting hate mail? Wow.

As for the writing quality--I've noticed that other places. Reading political blogs during the campaign it was really evident--the nastier the sentiment being expressed, the less logical the argument and the worse the grammar.

jo(e) said...

Jennifer (ponderosa): It's not that attending ONE PARTY is going to hugely harm a five-year-old. But Club Libby Lu is just a symptom. From infancy, girls in this culture are constantly bombarded with messages that tell them that they will be valued ONLY as pretty princesses or sex objects. When you add up all the negative messages they will get about their bodies, about their sexuality, and about themselves, it's pretty appalling.

When I talked with students about Club Libby Lu, we began with that as simply one example the many ways in which the dominant culture enforces rigid gender roles, promotes consumerism, and forces sexuality on children before they are ready.

jo(e) said...

Rev Dr Mom: See, the hate mail doesn't come from regular readers, but because my post shows up in google searches. That's why it has continued.

I should also say that every once in a while I get an email from someone who was planning a Club Libby Lu party and changed their mind after reading my post and the ones I linked to.

Zhoen said...

Condolences on the trolls. Ugh.

Lorianne summed it up nicely, I thought. The best litmus test, turn it around, see if it's ok for the other gender. Good for all kinds of reality checks.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

It's one reason I'm so glad my 4yo is obsessed with dinosaurs. A girl who roars like a triceratops every 5 seconds is impervious to a place like Libby Lu. Long may it last.

On writing: My 6yo is having trouble learning to read/write, and it's been amazing to me how, when I mention it to friends and family, they say, "Oh, I'm still bad at writing!" And it's true. They are still bad at it.

Anonymous said...

children are made to grow up far too fast now, I sometimes wonder if this is why we have so many young girls with children of their own. As for dressing little children as grown-ups, well that just makes me feel sick

Horace said...

This mail is obviously not coming from regular readers, since anyone who has ever read a single other post would know that you are as far from being a frigid bitch than one can imagine, and the your husband (and children, and whole family, and friends, and readers) are in fact quite lucky for you.

And besides, I'd rather know a thousand frigid bitches than a single surrendered wife.

BrightBoy said...


I completely agree with the person above. You're wonderful.

Lomagirl said...

Sunday afternoon, and all the kids have been hanging out at your place for the weekend- yours and the neighbors. You must be doing something right- and it isn't a princess party.
My daughter falls prey to this completely- it shows in her poses when I snap her picture. I encourage fairies and mermaids and mythical imaginative creatures, but princesses are common, too.
A colleague just told me that when his oldest was 16 he had to walk around with a mean "keep off, she's jailbait" look, and now he has to do it with his 13 year old.

Anonymous said...

I love the fact that you were more concerned with the quality of writing than the ugly comments. I'm glad they've closed down - it sounds hideous.

elswhere said...

I remember that post, too; at the time, MG was even more princessy than she is now, and for a while I lived in fear that she'd be invited to one of those parties. I knew she'd love it, I knew RW and I would hate it, and I figured I wouldn't have the heart to tell her she couldn't go to a friend's birthday party.

Fortunately, she never did get invited to Libby Lu's. And now she is older, and they're gone, and I am much relieved.

Also,I admire your grace and humor in the face of trollish hate mail!

Silver Creek Mom said...

COUGH! Sputter! WTF?
I have never heard of this place and THANK GOD it is closing.
I just don't get it...I really don't. WHY?
Why does SEX sell even at that tender age?

Silver Creek Mom said...

Just an after thought I wonder waht the father who kept his mouth shut becasue his daughter had fun would have thought if it was his TEENAGE Daughter dressed sexy and dancing in the mall window?
Would he have kept quite then if she was having FUN?

Anonymous said...

I just heard about CLL closing a day or so ago. My first reaction was: "CRAP, I wish I was still blogging, 'cause I'd link to my earlier rant on the place and then yell in all caps, I WIN!"

My very second thought was, "Well, I hope Jo(e) blogs about it, at least." Yay.

kathy a. said...

dress-up and let's pretend are fun -- it's the blatant sexualization, commercialization, and the narrow roles provided that are horrifying.

i was worried when my daughter went through a lengthy "princess" phase -- but she didn't view princesshood as confining. she liked dinos and hiking and building things and animals and music and reading; thought she could be an astronaut and veternarian and pediatrician and music star and teacher and a few other things all at once. wearing pink, purple, and sparkles, on accounta she liked them.

the stuff hit the fan in high school, when her best girlfriends got all boy-crazy and consumed with makeup and fashion and cliques -- they were sucked into the sexy marketing abyss. and she wasn't. it felt lonely for her.

college is different. the social expectations are not so rigid as they seemed in high school. but i can't help thinking that the pressures on girls are great, and club libby lu was, as someone said, only a symptom.

Anonymous said...

Blackend Boy,

Looks like Bratz dolls might be on their way out.


Lilian said...

Fascinating discussion, as usual. And this makes me very very glad that I have only boys.

I hope that Megha (above) is right about the Bratz dolls perhaps being on their way out. Those are the creepiest, way worse than Barbie. Yikes!

OneTiredEma said...

I hadn't heard about this fantastic news! My daughter is one week shy of four and a half, so it's a relief to know there will be no CLL bday party invites in her future...

Anonymous said...

okay, I work at Club libby lu and we give the girls a choice of what they want to wear and we even ask for moms approval. The girls love having an open floor to dance to and love getting there hair done by someone they can look up to and have a good time with. Libby lu gives the girls an opportunity to be a rockstar or a princess with there friends. Dont blame libby go blame hannah montannah or in other words miley cyrus.

Anonymous said...

It IS ridiculous. My neice went and I guess the girls were having some kind of party. I was watching them strut down the "runway", and my neice was saying "I want to go!" I immediately walked away and NEVER looked OR brought my neice to that store. Thank goodness it's gone!