Unsavory gag: Hat at Spencer's spurs boycott

Jessica McGrane was looking for something funny and kitschy for the immature people on her Christmas list– namely her 20-something brothers and boy cousins.

Naturally she headed to Spencer Gifts in Fashion Square Mall, where she found not only kitsch, but products she calls "offensive, violent, and sexist." One in particular– a hat that says "Swallow Bitch Swallow"– inspired her to urge her friends to boycott Spencer's.

"I cried, it was so upsetting," recounts McGrane, who works for a local agency that helps women affected by sexual violence. "Products like that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women."

Almost as bad for McGrane was that her brothers saw nothing wrong with the message– which refers to a sexual act. "They were teasing me. They think I'm over-reacting."

McGrane, who wrote letters to Spencer's on both the corporate and local levels, wants the hat off the shelves. She contacted various media to urge a boycott. And she wants the chain to evaluate its other merchandise and ask, "How does this contribute to violence to women?" Her questions have touched some nerves.

"I believe a product like this contributes to a rape culture," says Jeanine Woodruff, co-director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. And its message "should be a red flag," she says, "for anyone seeing somebody wearing that kind of message."

Woodruff advocates verbal challenges to anyone seen wearing the hat, which she finds loaded with a message of domination and degrading language. And she endorses McGrane's call for a boycott.

"We've never, ever been boycotted," says Heather Golin, director of communications for Spencer Gifts. "The first thing we do is research a complaint. Depending on the complaint, we take action. We don't leave it hanging. And we try to be respectful of people's views."

Spencer Gifts corporate counsel Ron Mangel says he hasn't seen McGrane's letter. Nor, he says, has he received any complaints about the "Swallow Bitch Swallow" hat.

Nonetheless, says Mangel, "The hat was supposed to have been discarded. It should have been thrown out in July." The reason? Mangel isn't sure.

In other contexts, the word "bitch" is no stranger to Spencer Gifts. It appears on t-shirts, lighters, and other merchandise.

"I get a number of complaints," says Mangel. "I never heard a complaint on the word 'bitch' ever."

Fashion Square Mall gets very few complaints about Spencer's, according to spokesperson Misty Parsons, because "People know Spencer's sells adult material, and they don't let their children in."

Spencer Gifts' target market is 18 to 25 year olds, both male and female, says Golin. And a note on the front of the store reminds customers that it carries adult humor.

"If this is not to your liking, we're not interested in that customer," adds Mangel.

And as far as Simon Property Group, which owns Fashion Square, is concerned, the store is within its rights to display a "Swallow Bitch Swallow" hat just inside its front door. Says Parsons, "What a retailer does inside their space is okay as long as it's legal."

Parsons encourages customers with concerns to contact the store manager. And after a reporter inquired, Parsons offered to call Spencer's to see if they would relocate the hat to another part of the store.

The hat is too hard-core for at least one local sex-aid retailer. Greg Sakaf, owner of adult video and novelty store Ultimate Bliss, says he wouldn't sell such a hat.

Sakaf keeps all the blow-up dolls, turbo-powered strap-ons, and other adult novelties behind a special door for customers over 18 only. He objects to the fact that kids can walk into Spencer's and see adult-themed material.

"If I did that, what do you think would happen? Because they're a multi-million-dollar company, they get away with stuff we couldn't."

In the past, Spencer spokesperson Mike Champion has described the store's merchandise as "irreverent, lighthearted gag items." Is this a case of the critics lacking a sense of humor?

"That's not true," says boycott backer McGrane, admitting she's bought "Anti-Masturbatory Gum" from Cha Cha's, another store that carries kitsch.

"It's possible," says McGrane, "to be tacky and unrefined without degrading one gender or another."

Thirteen-year-old boys love Spencer Gifts, but some critics worry that merchandise like this encourages male violence against women.