I think the normalization of the word “wifebeater” to describe a tank top really shows that people aren’t actually critically thinking about “inclusive” language that actually matters.
I’ve heard it so casually spewed out of people’s mouths of both sexes without any sort of awareness. My parents are foreign so I was taught to call a shirt with thin straps/no sleeves a tank top. I did a double take the first time my classmate said they purchased a new “wifebeater” and asked them what they were even speaking about.
I get the association with men wearing tank tops under their work uniforms and brutally abusing their wives after work, but WHY is this term still normalized? You’re telling me I’m going to hear someone say that they saw a ciswoman chest feeding their baby in a wifebeater? What is logic?
When I was growing up in the US in the 1960s, a "wifebeater" was a pejorative term that meant only one particular kind of tank top: a man's tight-fitting undershirt (meant to be worn under other clothes) made of thin cotton knit cloth, usually white and ribbed, with narrow straps, deep armholes, and a low-cut neckline. Like the kind Marlon Brando wore in famous publicity photos for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Paul Newman wore in the films "Harper" and "Hud."
Moreover, when I was growing up, the term "wifebeater" was only used in the US when these shirts were worn by particular kinds of men - mainly uncouth, rough, coarse, badly-behaved working class men who did manual labor and were only of certain ethniticies. Slur terms I recall from my childhood were "guinea T" and "dago tee."
Martin Scorscese made use of the association of this garment with misogynistic Italian working-class men to good effect in "Raging Bull" by having Robert DeNiro wear a "wifebeater" a number of scenes. For those who don't know, "Raging Bull" is about famed professional boxer Jake LaMotta, who unfortunately was a working-class man of Italian heritage who was a real wife beater. https://youtu.be/cFgAORdRUf4
By contrast, where I grew up, the polite and non-pejorative names for these kinds of men's undershirts worn by men generally were: men's summer undershirts, men's warm-weather undershirts, men's vests, string shirts, string vests, GI undershirts, army-style undershirts - the latter two names coz these types of undershirts,were standard issue for US army soldiers in WW2.
Army undershirts came either in bright white like the ones negatively stereotyped as"wifebeaters," or - more commonly - in the various shades of green tinged with yellows and grays worn by militaries worldwide known as "army green," "military green," "fatigue green" and, in the US, "olive drab" or the letters "OD." (Calling them O-D went out of fashion with the rise in street drug use and overdoses.)
By contrast, in the US when I grew up and for most of my adult life, the term tank top - or just plain tank, which in my personal experience is the more commonly used term for them - has always meant sleeveless tops made for and bought by either sex that were intended to be worn as outerwear or mainly as outerwear. Tanks also differed from men's warm-weather undershirts and army-style undershirts in that they could have a relaxed loose fit or even a baggy fit just as much as a tight fit; they could be made of fabrics of all sorts of weights and colors; and they could vary considerably in terms of strap width, neckline and armhole depth.
The special types of tanks made and worn for sports activities like running were and still are known as singlets, athletic tops and A-shirts as well.
From what I see online, today the tight-fitting kind of tank meant for men to be worn as undershirts and warm-weather or indoor outwear are commonly marketed as A-shirts and tanks.
I have no proof of this, but my general sense from personal observations over nearly 7 decades is that these types of garments have been called tank tops mostly when they are worn by girls and women, whereas they're generally called just plain tanks when they are worn by boys and men or by both sexes as in unisex tanks.
Again, I have no proof of this, it's just a hunch, but there seems to be something about calling a garment for the upper part of the human body a "top" that makes people imagine it as exclusively worn by women and girls. The glaringly sexist choice of photos used to illustrate different types of tops by Wikipedia in its page titled "top (clothing)" lends credence to my hunch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_(clothing)
ETA: A white tank of the "wifebeater" stereotype style was also famously worn by John Travolata in "Saturday Night Fever," Kevin Bacon in "Footloose," Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck," Bruce WIllis in "Die Hard," Alec Baldwin in a movie whose name I don't recall, James Gandolfini and other men in many episodes of "The Sopranos," Colin Farrell in the movie version of Miami Vice, Hugh Jackman in "X-Men: Wolverine," Channing Tatum in "Magic Mike," Edward Norton in "FIght Club" and Richard Gere in some famous shots by Herb Ritts:
(Also I added Robert DeNiro in "Raging Bull" near the top of this post where I discuss the stereotyped association to Italian men because in that movie DeNiro didn't just wear a "wifebeater," he played a real-life one of Italian heritage - the professional boxer Jake LaMotta.)
This has been my experience of the term used as well. And it's a bit of a one-two prejudice punch, where there's both the sexism of calling it a 'wife beater' so casually, but it's also pejorative of the type of men pictured as wearing them visibly: "poor white trash/ trailer trash (that's another one of those terms that many people are oddly comfortable using, considering it's literally referring to poor people as garbage), assorted other blue color or no color working men, implying they're the "type" of men who engage in all that DV-stuff (just uncouth louts, certainly not any of the nice middle class or wealthy men in our social circles).
Your tank top knowledge is unbeatable! 🎽👌. I call them singlets.
May I culturally appropriate that? I just love it. It sounds so...knightly!
You are like an encyclopedia on this site!
Apparently you now need to call them "camis" here. I haven't found a tank top in years and thought they had stopped making them, until accidentally I found "cami". Now it turns out everyone still has them.
When I grew up it was a wifebeater on a guy and a tank on a girl.
If you just search "women's tanks" or tank tops online, a lot of options should come up.
Camis and tanks are not the same thing - or they weren't historically. Cami is short for camisole. It's a type of garment for women or girls originally meant as underwear. Camis have very thin spaghetti straps; they're traditionally made of a light fabric, such as silk, satin, cotton or nylon - and often they have decorative frills like lace sections, piped satin edging, little bows. Camis tradtionaly have been considered lingerie and they're not meant for exercise.
I have always thought of camis as like the top portion of the undergarments worn under dresses that in the US used to be known as "slips."
"Camis" (camisoles) usually have spaghetti straps (sometimes even adjustable), while tank tops have thicker straps.
I always thought camisoles were of lighter fabric and were intended to be worn under semi-sheer blouses.
Wow! You worked way harder on this than I did. Masterfully broken down and explained!
I'm surprised the term goes back that far in history; I thought it was a relatively recent invention.
Tank tops are not wifebeaters - only white sleeveless men's undershirts are. These garments are not intended to be worn as outerwear and, therefore, only worn by a certain type of "lower class" man - perhaps a worker who has taken off his work shirt but not gone on to fully change after work, as opposed to dressing "properly." The name is not glorifying violence against women, but, quite oppositely, is being used pejoratively towards the men who might do such a low class thing as beat their wives. So, I can buy the nickname of this garment being classist, but not sexist, as such. I'm not going to defend using this name, especially because the meaning is, evidently, no longer understood, but I don't really see it as much different from all of the other colourful phrases and nicknames that are currently falling victim to the great unthinking wave which is also supporting everything identity politics.
100%. It's a mocking pejorative and highly context-dependent. You're not going to see any magazine articles about Paul Mescal's signature wifebeater look.
This is extremely strange to me. Was this in an Anglo country? This would be like a man who bought a tight Speedo saying "check out my new banana hammock!" without a hint of sarcasm.
I now live in the US & English is my first language, but I'm not a US citizen, and I also was really taken aback when I heard the phrase, 'He was wearing a wifebeater.' A WTF? It's not used in my (English-speaking) country at all. That sort of garment would be called a singlet or (more recently) a tank there.
Yeah, that sounds weird - why would someone classify himself as the kind of man who beats his wife?
I'm a non-native speaker, and tend towards just saying "undershirt" as that's the literal translation of what we say in German.
It might be that these undershirts might first became known as "wifebeaters" because men who beat their wives/partners generally do so in the privacy of their own homes, often when they are dressed for relaxation (and heat relief) in just their underwear. So when police officers responded to domestic violence calls in tenements, trailer parks, houses, apartment buildings, they often found the perp in his undershirt and boxer shorts or undershirt and pajama bottoms. The way Robert DeNiro playing bonafide wife beater Jake LaMotta is dressed in this scene from Scorscese's "Raging Bull" (1980): https://youtu.be/cFgAORdRUf4
I agree the name "wifebeater" was meant pejoratively against men who beat their wives. The name wasn't an endorsement of woman battery by men, it was a criticism of it.
But at the same time, there was already a longstanding prejudicial belief that only uneducated brutes of the lower classes and certain ethnicities beat their wives. The name "wifebeater" for these shirts particularly when worn by, for example, Italian-American men, fed into and bolstered those ideas.
But I don't agree what these shirts were once seen as "only worn by a certain type of lower class man." They were widely worn by men of all classes, and still are.
My dad, born 1923, wore these shirts - sometimes outside too. He was middle-class "lace curtain Irish," a decorated Navy officer and pilot, with an Ivy undergrad degree and MBA. After finishing grad school on the GI bill in the late 1940s, he got a very good job in a white-shoe WASP firm on Wall Street - in fact, he was the first non-WASP the firm ever hired. When he went to work, he wore nicely tailored Brooks Brothers suits, but when not at work he was more casual. I have photos of him wearing this kind of undershirt outside in the1950s mowing the lawn, playing with me, carrying me sitting on his shoulders, leaning up against a tree having a smoke, washing and driving the car. He wouldn't go to a restaurant or church wearing this kind of undershirt, but he had no compunction about wearing one outside around our house and neighborhood or ferrying his kids around town running errands.
I remember lots of other middle-class "respectable" men in my childhood neighborhood and other places wearing these shirts outside. If the weather was hot, it was a pretty common sight and didn't indicate "low class." Still doesn't.
my butch friends call it a "wife pleaser" instead, i don't think that's any better but i have a hard time arguing with a woman in a tank top
I call it a "bad husband" sometimes, when I am feeling playful. I am wearing one right now, so no arguing, sis. :)
Good one. Never heard this before. :)
I have heard young colleagues casually toss out phrases like “omg I am so OCD” or “she is such a Nazi” but then use “folx” and “cishet” and silly neopronouns.
Rules for thee but not for me, I see.
OP, adding to my longer comment: I think you'll have better results getting boys and men, and women, to stop calling these types of shirts "wifebeaters" if the alternative you propose is just plain "tanks" rather than "tank tops."
As I mention in my other comment, people in much of the world nowadays seem to assume automatically that shirts called "tops" are exclusively or mainly for girls and women.
It is a singlet.
Yes, singlet is the term I use for the underwear. Tank top is for something coloured and worn as a visible top in my parlance.
I called them that before I was introduced to "wife beater" as a term used to refer to those tops.
I've only ever hear "singlet" used to describe tank top like tops that go down around the crotch and sometimes extend over the top part of the thighs too, like a woman's bodysuit or a wrestler's garment. I wonder if the terminology varies culturally/regionally?
In the UK a sleeveless cotton jersey top traditionally worn under clothes is a "vest". It can be other fabrics: basically it's something worn underneath clothing as an extra layer for warmth.
In Australia it's a "singlet".
Also a long-sleeved, high neck garment is a "skivvy" (in the UK it's a polo neck). Skivvies/polo necks may be worn as "vests" particularly in the UK where it's obviously colder.
I've also heard the men's version (worn as exterior clothing) as a "muscle shirt", however it may be that those have a higher neck and are more like a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
The women's version (worn as exterior clothing) may be called a "tank top", but the woman's version of exterior tops tends to have straps/less fabric at the top.
There is some interchangeability with gender/garment/term and how wide the straps are/how high the neck is.
I always thought "skivvies" meant underpants, but it sounds like it can also be used more broadly to indicate general undergarments whether a top or a bottom?
My singlets go that far because I stretch them. ;)
It’s like pimp and ho parties, ghetto parties, trailer trash parties… nothing like making fun of the poor!
These parts of language are the "death by a thousand cuts" of patriarchy in language. People really don't believe in or understand the power of language but all of these things, like saying "female doctor" instead of "doctor," and "guys," when referring to mixed company are the knives. Each cut is guilty of the continuation of patriarchy. People, especially men, love to belittle, and claim meaningless each cut which together patriarchal power is derived.
I refuse to use them, and continue to make an effort to teach people about them even against overwhelming odds, and indifference.
Language is not minimal. Language is POWER, and it is used to oppress.
So what do you think people should say instead of "you guys"? I had a friend who insisted on "ladies," which rubs me wrong because of the class element in it; I am not a lady and don't want to be called that, but I never naysayed her because I didn't want her to be uncomfortable. I'm from the U.S. South and was put down all my young life for saying "y'all" due to people with southern accents being seen as stupid, so to have people widely adopt that now, frankly, pisses me off though there's nothing I can do about it. I say this because I will be viewed one way for using "y'all," while people who are not southern or not Black will be viewed potentially differently.
Of course there are terms like "everyone," or just the plural "you" (potentially confusing). Those are not casual, though, so they don't truly replace "you guys" and "y'all."
In emails, I've adopted "everybody" or when it's just two, "you both."
IRL, sometimes "everybody" makes sense, so I err toward that. Or just the plural "you."
Those work fine for written contexts, where I'd be unlikely to use terms like "you guys" and "y'all" anyway. In contexts such as meeting up with two or three people very casually in conversation on the sidewalk in a place where "you guys" is the common term, things get much more weird. I kind of end up with no words in my mouth.
Sex-neutral substitutes for "you guys" include "you people," "you peeps" and just plain "you," "people," "peeps" and terms like "pals," "chums," "colleagues," "cronies," "comrades," "neighbors" and "team." For example:
Hey there, you people
How are you peeps/pals/chums doing today?
Hey you, I've been thinking about all/both/the whole bunch of you recently. Would love to catch up.
Dear work cronies/comrades
Hey neighbors, we're having a get-together next week/month to celebrate X. Would love if you'd join us.
So, team, are we all set for the dinner rush?
Thanks. Some of those would work for me in some contexts. In work-related and written instances, I'm fine with saying things like "everyone," "everybody," or "all of you" and always have. Slightly more formal.
I won't be saying "you people," though. That has an unfortunate history behind it and could come across awfully. Nor do I want to be overfamiliar by calling people pals or chums or anything that assumes a level of closeness I may not have with them. I wouldn't like to be addressed that way, either.
I'm not trying to split hairs for the sake of it, btw. I've given some thought to this in the past and haven't ever found solutions I really like.
My ex had a cousin who said 'chums'. I didn't like it, but that might have been because he was such a plonker.
Some people call them "vests" which is ultra confusing for me, but I prefer that to wife beater.
Or just sleeveless tops is also fine. Maybe also because there are variations of sleeveless tops, like spaghetti strap, whereas the cut of the tank top in question is the one referred to as the wife beater...
That last point is good, we can use the term "wife" for something like THAT, but the neutral terms to describe us are off limits? Huh?
I was around in the Dark Ages when the term was normalized, or at least I started hearing it a lot in the 1990’s. Back then feminism was so entrenched nobody thought it would ever come under threat. The term came in as part of the semi-ironic fashion for trucker hats, wallet chains, and shirts with embroidered name patches on them. Guys might not be long-haul truckers or appliance deliverymen or school janitors, they might be writing poetry on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (RIP), but they could dress like the endangered working class. And I think it was considered so obvious that it was wrong to beat your wife that nobody thought the term “wifebeater” would be taken as a literal tribute.
Now, thirty years later, here we are, with abortion illegal and men making a serious push for women to stop working and stay home with the kids. But hey, at least we can police the language around the name of a shirt.