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Nothing says “I love you” like a shirt that says “Ew, people.”
One of the marvels of the modern day gift market is the way that its journals, magnets, and coffee mugs swing wildly between smiling beneficence and saucy declarations of misanthropy. One minute everything’s all “Live. Laugh. Love.” and the next, you’re looking at a shirt that says, “Ew, people.”
When the holidays roll around, you can show your affection for a friend by buying them a tee that says, “I’m actually really nice, until you annoy me.” You can get the mothers and medical professionals in your life wine glasses that say, “Surviving motherhood one glass at a time” and “Because patients.” Who wouldn’t want a birthday card that says, “I hope there’s a piñata, I really need to hit something”?
To state the obvious, these products express humor that’s negative, aggressive, and sometimes self-deprecating. They also represent an odd dichotomy: While most of us wouldn’t go around telling strangers that we hate people, that same sentiment magically becomes okay when it’s printed on a T-shirt.
“I think one reason people like this on products is because it’s not addressed to anyone in particular,” says Caleb Warren, a marketing professor at the University of Arizona who studies the use of humor in marketing. “You’d never say [things like this] in real life, but it works on products because there’s a distance there. It’s airing this grievance that is common or relatable, so that people can connect to it even if they recognize that it’s snarky.”
In other words, these products are definitely rude, but they’re not being rude toward a specific person or group of people. Instead of being put off by the tone, we identify with the sentiment and understand it as a way of blowing off steam. Humor is a coping mechanism, and who isn’t exhausted by other people sometimes?
While shoppers can buy snippy-bordering-on-vicious products for themselves, there’s a reason why these items have cropped up in the gift world for decades. (Hallmark, for instance, debuted its cartoon character Maxine, the “Queen of Crabbiness,” in 1986; the mall chain Spencer’s Gifts has been around since the late ’40s.) Buying presents is about demonstrating your bond with someone, and humor that disparages a third party is one way of signaling common ground with another person.
That can, of course, quickly steer into dangerous territory: “Racists bond over racist humor,” notes Warren. Spencer’s Gifts, for instance, has a well-documented history of selling racist and misogynistic merchandise.
A large portion of the “sassy gifts” category includes items that represent frustrations of a distinctly female variety. They make jokes about forgoing diets, ditching workouts, drinking heavily, struggling through motherhood, flat-out misbehaving. In short, they’re about rebelling against societal expectations of women, which demand a greater level of congeniality than is expected of men.
You know these products are meant to be purchased for and by women because their rambunctious messages are paired with pleasing, unchallenging, traditionally feminine aesthetics, creating a cheeky sense of dissonance. Take, for instance, a pink letter board that says, “I meant to behave but there were too many other options” — photographed amid pink candy and tissue paper flowers — or a mauve T-shirt that says, “I make pour decisions” in bouncy, bubbly script.
For a master class in colliding charming aesthetics and slightly more acerbic content, look at the collage artist Anne Taintor, who has been mashing up 1950s advertising imagery with witty phrases of her own invention since the mid-1980s. Her work has been a mainstay in gift shops for decades, printed on magnets, coasters, and cocktail napkins.
Taintor takes mass market representations of femininity and inserts into them an ironic, knowing female voice. On top of a picture of a beaming woman in the kitchen, she writes, “Why, I’d be delighted to put my needs last again.”
“I guess what I like about these old images is that these women look really happy, and they’re indicating that maybe they’re not as happy as they look,” Taintor says. “I became friends with one of the old models, and she said that she and the other models used to think it was so funny how they were asked to pose looking so happy about dish soap. They were aware of the irony of what they were doing.”
Warren says that low-key seething, aesthetically feminized gifts are a perfect illustration of the “benign violation theory” of humor that he developed with Peter McGraw, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado. As its name suggests, benign violation theory proposes that humor occurs when a situation is both benign and a violation — like a wine glass that suggests you’re an irresponsible, possibly even terrible mother (a violation of expectations around parenting), but says so in a sweet (or benign) font.
To compare these products to jokes told by stand-up comedians, the printed words are the content of the punchline and their aesthetics are the delivery.
“Sarah Silverman says the most horrible things in such a cute way. Bob Saget plays off of that, too, because his Full House character is wholesome and innocent,” says Warren. “In their stand-up acts, they leverage that full effect by saying the most horrible things. It’s funnier in part because of that wholesome image.”
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