LATE last week in the digital barnyard, glaucoma there was no sound louder than outraged clucking. A hip mother hen and former magazine editor had started some serious squawking.
As reported in The Age, blogger Mia Freedman instigated a campaign against the company Cotton On Kids. Alerted by a reader who’d visited one of the chain’s stores, Freedman found herself appalled by a particular product. She then did what all irate modern parents with a router must: she unleashed her wrath on the internet.
Freedman wrote that she was ”outraged, disgusted and distressed” at the appearance of a specific shirt. Her digital spittle ricocheted in no time flat. In the online campaign to undo Cotton On, an angry tangle of threads emerged. Thousands of other parents echoed Freedman’s outrage, disgust and distress and an impromptu boycott was threatened.
According to some reports, the company was assaulted with complaints. Livid mothers, concerned citizens and anyone looking for distraction on a Friday afternoon requested the item be removed from sale.
Whatever the volume of grievance, the group of companies complied. Whether it was fear of censure from a taste-maker such as Freedman or genuine moral shame, we can’t be sure. In any case, Cotton On Kids vowed to delete the item, extended an apology to ”those who have been affected” and said it would ”sincerely endeavour to not cross these lines again”. The fact of lines being crossed is purely a matter of taste. Opinion may have been divided, but the T-shirt made for babies with the slogan ”They Shake Me” is no longer available for sale. Not at Cotton On, at least. It may, however, be bought in various versions at boutiques in the real and virtual worlds.
Since the early part of the decade, similar wayward-wear for infants has been on sale. Once, it was only elite and ”edgy” stores that purveyed shirts for pre-literate tots. These items, retailing at upwards of $40, bore slogans as confronting as ”Mother Sucker” or ”F*** this Family, I’m Moving in with the Osbournes”. In the tradition of couture, the trend trickled down to the ocean of mass consumption.
Five years earlier, it was only the toddlers of the chic wearing T-shirts that bore punk labels such as ”Kid Vicious” or the hyper-ironic ”They Shake Me”. Now, those parents who fail to shop in the nation’s boutiques can afford to ”abuse” their offspring too. A fashion-forward woman such as Freedman must have been aware of this fad. I still dress like it’s 1992 and somehow the Bad Baby trend appeared on my own radar.
But it wasn’t until Freedman saw this outrage for sale at a shopping centre that she chose to mobilise her audience of comfortable parents.
Presumably, in the right hands, these shirts are nothing more than a comic gesture made by a generation of parents themselves raised on rebellion. In the care of less fashionable stylists, they are tantamount to ”child abuse”. Or, to use Freedman’s own ardent prose, the shirt is an attempt ”to turn children into the sickest kind of human billboards to advertise Ö smart arse and grossly insensitive slogans”.
This sort of rage, as sincere as it might be, rests on an assumption that there is a neutral way in which one can clothe one’s infant. There is no instant in the sartorial life of a middle-class child when he is not dressed by his parents as a ”human billboard”. While the vulgarism of ”They Shake Me” may offend some, still others, including myself, mine offence from the outsized and overpriced Bugaboos of St Kilda. There are those who find the common shopping centre fashions for babies unbearable. And there are curmudgeons, like me, who find the sight of a kid decked out head-to-bootie in Baby Prada smart arse and grossly insensitive. The brand of conceit that drives parents to advertise their wealth is another sick kind of advertisement.
Shaken baby syndrome is, of course, a heinous thing. Reference to this wrong might be considered crass. But it might also be read as comedy. The real work of comedy is to find a way to speak the unspeakable.
It seems, of late, we’d rather not hear this kind of utterance. In fact, we’d much rather swathe it in Baby Prada.