T-shirt Politics

T-shirt Politics
by (c) 2002 By Pam de Montmorency

Unless you have spent the last year at an ashram, I guarantee you have seen or read about an alarming new trend expert’s call ‘female bullying’. From Oprah to Brokaw, everyone is talking about the wicked behavior of adolescent girls.

Having been an adolescent girl, it surprises me that the media is treating bullying as a ‘phenomena’. From my experience, girls were bullies in the 1980’s and I am fairly confident that girls bullied before and after that decade. Bullying is not new so why is the media trying to convince us otherwise?

Now I am no expert on adolescent girls or the media for that matter. In fact, I am no expert on anything save that red always looks great with orange and cell phones should come equipped with a device that obstructs you from calling your ex-boyfriend after three cocktails.

But I am a pop culture junky and as any junky worth their salt will tell you, being slave to an addiction gives you an understanding of that addiction on an ethereal level. When something is awry, an addict knows. It is through media that I get my daily dose of pop culture. Why was my dealer so concerned with bad girls?

In asking why I decided that I best investigate all things ‘girl’. Trite as it sounds, if you want to learn about girls a good place to start is the mall. Sure, you can hold focus groups and petition for grant money, but then you run the risk of having to defend your conclusions. Shopping is more fun.

So off to the mall I went and there I discovered the usual: belly revealing tanks, the black polyester club pant we all succumb to eventually and a surprising devotion to that whole Madonna cowboy-thing from a couple of years ago.

And of course I found the T-shirt. That staple of all staples. The one item that says, unequivocally, “I am just too cool to care”. Having been ‘too cool to care’ (a.k.a. broke) my entire adult life, I practically pirouetted to the T-shirt rack where I spotted a pretty red number with orange embroidery. But to my complete horror, said number, was embroidered with the slogan ‘Princess’.

This had to be a mistake. 21st Century girls are not ‘Princesses’. 21st Century girl’s roar and run with wolves and things. They certainly do not loose sleep over pees in mattresses. What were T-shirts saying to girl’s?

Everyone knows that the T-shirt is a scared canvas for slogans that define the politics of modern society. Martin Luther had his Wittenburg doors, the Communists had their Manifesto and modern society has the T-shirt. Looking through the rack, the only thing the modern revolutionary has to say is that girls are ‘Spoiled’, ‘Innocent’ and ‘Precious”.

Remember the ‘70’s when T-shirt’s spoke out against war and racism? And the ‘80’s when t-shirts were emblazoned with that subversive political message about Frankie and Hollywood? The ‘90’s were too condescending a decade to say anything to anyone. Their plain white tanks were anti-political. That generation ran on a slogan-less ticket.

But in 2002, the T-shirt heritage we are handing our girls is disturbing. We are giving them cloths that define their generation as ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, ‘Sweet’ and ‘Fragile’. We are clothing a generation of young women with slogans that celebrate the stereotypical girl; a girl that is sugar and spice.

It wasn’t that long ago when a group of spicy women were saying just the opposite. The year was 1998 and four (or was it five) lovely ladies from England ‘trended’ their way into our hearts with the revolutionary message of Girl Power. The Spice Girls told us that being a girl was a powerful thing, a thing to be proud of. Unfortunately their philosophy could not withstand the appeal of solo careers and soccer stars, so the message fell flat.

The mall had forced me to see that everywhere young girls turn they are bombarded with imagery, in clothes and music, that defines them as ‘Princess’. After all, Britney Spears is Head of the House of Hollywood, royalty for ‘Those Who Think Young’.

But I had to remember the mission. What began as research into ‘girly’ matters and bullying was now careening out of control into heady ‘politico-couture’ territory. What started out as a pleasure trip to The Gap had turned into one of those nightmares where everything on the sales rack is a size two. I had fallen prey to the really cute red and orange T and my original question was still unanswered.

Was there any correlation between the messages on our adolescents T’s and the media’s stalwart attempt to shame bullying girls into being nice?

The recent coverage of girl-on-girl bullying delivers the message that although boys bully, their bullying is healthier in a time tested way. Girls who bully are particularly cruel and this bad behavior is unseemly in a ‘Princess’. Now I am not condoning aggressive behavior in girls. I am simply wondering if there is a connection between the media’s ‘stunning’ revelation that girls can be mean and vindictive and a fashion craze that dresses girls up in clothing designed to advertise their ‘girly-ness’?

In truth I don’t know if there is any correlation at all. This pop culture junky could simply need a fix of Must See TV. But I can’t help but marvel at the success of a Pop Princess such as Britney Spears compared with the virtual disappearance of bullying bad-girls such as Christina Aguilera. Is the truth that we want our girls to be girls and our boys to be boys? After decades of trying to assimilate the sexes, are we saying that we made a mistake? Are we unconsciously alarmed by the fact that our girls are mean and aggressive? And if so, do we think we can dress them into submission? If the age-old adage is true and cloths make the girl, we should be careful lest we re-make our girls into women who stuff their bra’s rather than burn them.

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Pam de Montmorency a freelance writer who divides her time between New York and Toronto.

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