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Toronto Star Newspaper

The shock value of profane T-shirts

Slogans labelled racist and sexist
Desire to be edgy, a cry for attention

The Toronto Star, TRISH CRAWFORD, LIFE WRITER, Jan. 24, 2005

It's certainly not your grandfather's T-shirt.

Internet mail order houses, custom shops in malls and do-it-yourself kits have spawned an unprecedented deluge of shock shirts. They can be racist, sexist or profane, sporting bloody hammers, rude gestures and gory photos from the news pages.

They get our attention with message such as "Jesus is my homeboy,"  "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them," or, teen singer Charlotte Church's contribution, "Barbie is my crack whore."

"It's getting very difficult to shock people now," says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business. "Part of what young people are doing is using the shirts to establish themselves as different from the majority. The role of fashion has always been to create points of difference."

Once the "in your face" ghetto/crime fashion started to fade, with all its jailhouse references to pimps, whores, gangstas and bling, young people looked for something else with which to upset the older generation, says Middleton.

"These shirts are aimed at those who want to cause a little bit of annoyance. These are not young people who would walk up to older people and yell at them. But they will put on these shirts among their friends, or at a rave, as a way to make a statement."

It's a statement that is not worth making, argues Len Rudner, community relations director for the Canadian Jewish Congress.

He says the Canada Border Services Agency erred when it allowed into Canada a shirt bearing a slogan that used profanity and racist slang to slag every ethnic group out there, except one, which it supported using equally offensive language. The message read: "I f------ HATE (slurs for almost every ethnic group) — But I love (slur for blacks)!"

The board decided earlier this month that the shirt didn't violate Canadian hate laws because it didn't incite others to action, such as with the phrase "and you should, too."

Rudner says this is absolute nonsense and the statement is definitely hateful.

"The last time I looked, there was nothing funny about calling a Jew a Kike," he says, adding that he can't imagine what would possess someone to want to wear such a shirt.

"I understand civil liberties but this is like we have taken leave of our senses."

Some symbols and words are so strong in our culture that they absolutely violate community standards, says Rudner, citing the case of England's Prince Harry running afoul of public opinion for sporting a Swastika at a costume party.

Although he understands kids who might wear a Swastika, including Prince Harry, are "just wearing it to be cool," it is extremely upsetting to many Jews and others who fought Hitler.

Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae, who is broadminded enough to argue in favour of a downtown billboard by fashion retailer FCUK (French Connection United Kingdom) in spite of the name's closeness to a profanity, is offended by the "I HATE ..." shirts. But he adds he has yet to see one on the street.

Last year, a St. Catharines store was picketed by women's groups for selling a shirt with a bloody hammer that said, "She was asking for it." At the time, it was defended as being "ironic" but was ultimately pulled from the shelves.

There is nothing funny about women dying, says MPP Marilyn Churley, (NDP-Toronto-Danforth), who mentioned the offending shirt during a Dec. 6 memorial for the victims of the Montreal Massacre. She notes that a St. Catharines woman died of blunt force trauma shortly after the shirt stopped being sold.

"These shirts validate racist feelings and validate violence against women. It's ugly. I think it can be harmful," says Churley.

Ryerson University student council member Derek Isber says he hasn't seen any shock shirts on campus — students usually wear their school or team T-shirts to class. However, while walking to work in Toronto in the summer, he saw a man in his 20s wearing a shirt with a racist slur against Jews.

"Edgy is okay but that is way too much. It disgusts me," says Isber. "I recoiled. It ruined my whole day."

At the University of Toronto, history student Dylan Rae says it is common to see the FCUK shirt, which he describes as "edgy but not offensive."

"It's done for shock value but you see it a lot."

Rae, a member of the student council, says it is okay to make fun of yourself with a T-shirt but not others and that he can't imagine anyone wearing a racist shirt on the multicultural campus.

Toronto printer Stacey Case says one reason we are seeing a proliferation of offensive T-shirts is anyone can buy a $50 home kit and silkscreen their own creations. The technology is not difficult, says Case, whose company Merch Guy makes rock band T-shirts and custom-order items.

In some cases, computer printers can turn out an excellent original transfer that is then ironed on to a shirt, he says. Because of this, anyone can put anything on a shirt without fear of censorship. (Kiosks in malls often state they will not print offensive or profane sayings on shirts.)

The only time Case printed an offensive T-shirt, was for costumes being worn in a CBC drama about white supremacists. He made shirts for both the white power group and the anti-racists.

Case, 37, understands the yen for creating something truly distinctive to set yourself apart from the crowd. That's why he developed a whacky tribute shirt to Billy Van's Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a TV show he watched as a kid.

"I wear it to show I am a fan."

The Internet has dozens of mail order T-shirt companies including T-Shirt Hell, the maker of the "I HATE ..." shirt. Interest in the shirt has picked up since it was stopped at the border, says director of operations Gary Cohen, "It's like the old saying, there is no such thing as bad publicity."

`This is like we have taken leave of our senses' - Len Rudner, Canadian Jewish Congress

He says kids think, "I saw it in the papers" and want to buy it.

The shirts are meant to be funny and the sentiments are so over-the-top that no one could possibly think they are serious, he argues.

People send in pictures of themselves wearing the company's shirts, which it displays on its website, and there are pictures of white men with black wives who wear the "I HATE ..." shirt, Cohen says.

"It's a goof and they get it," says Cohen. "You have to have a sense of humour to wear our shirts."

The company's bestseller is the "I support single moms" shirt, according to Cohen, which displays a pole dancer. Strippers buy it, he says.

The company is facing two lawsuits over shirts targeting Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the late actor Christopher Reeve. It has been ordered to stop producing "I (expletive deleted) the Olsen Twins before they were famous" and "I bought Christopher Reeve's wheelchair on eBay."

It pays $200 to anyone suggesting a shirt the California-based company ultimately makes, says Cohen.

Recent additions to its roster include mocking the tsunami disaster ("I surfed the tsunami 2004"), celebrity divorce ("I broke up brad and jen") and pictures of the Abu Ghraib prisoners being tortured ("Play! Co-ed Naked Blindfolded Twister").

When asked how torture could be funny, Cohen says the humour comes "from the dichotomy of the images and the descriptions." He then went on to defend the photos saying, "These are not Boy Scouts."

Who wears these shirts? College kids, he says, as high school kids aren't allowed to wear them at school and their parents intervene at home. But college kids wear them hanging out with their friends "for a laugh," Cohen says.

At $18 (U.S.) the shirts are cheap and easy to buy anonymously. All of the items are sold by mail order to individuals, not to stores, Cohen notes.

This anonymity allows the shock stuff, says Dierdre Sullivan, who owns the I'm With Stupid T-shirt store on Queen St. W. in Toronto.

"I don't want to get into anything degrading or tacky. I don't want kids buying stuff here and then having to deal with outraged parents. I live in the community," says the 42-year-old mother of three.

While most of her merchandise is licensed rock band shirts featuring groups such as Motorhead and Jimi Hendrix, her most popular shirt is a picture of the local Parkdale neighbourhood.

After the publicity last fall around the "She was asking for it" T-shirt, a number of people inquired if she sold the item.

"I was shocked people were asking for it."

Sullivan's customers are mostly 25- to 40-year-olds who still love the bands of their youth. Sullivan, who picked the name of her store from a saucy shirt slogan of the '70s, says she is mystified by the "I HATE ..." trend.

"I don't understand it. I don't get what some people think is funny."

Shock shirts are a cry for attention, says pop culture analyst Bart Testa, who teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto's Innis College.

"It is announcing and expressing yourself in a loud way. It is being visually noisy."

It is important for young people to have radical T-shirts "and not the kind of T-shirt being bought by Mom and Aunt Gladys," says Testa. While older consumers will keep their T-shirts for years, the young will toss them away when they are no longer provocative.

The Read More ..mething "shows a complete lack of taste," the Read More ..ovocative and therefore desirable it is, he says.

These things go in cycles, he warns, with death and occult symbols, heavy metal bands and now shock shirts all taking their turn as the cool thing to wear.

"The fact that you are writing about it means that the fad is about to die," says Testa. "Who knows what is next. It might be flowers."

He warns about making too big a deal out of the whole thing.

"It's only a T-shirt."

Just not your grandfather's.

National Post - Canada

The mean T-shirt: From the Stupid Factory
Todd Goldman says his popular boy-bashing T-shirts are simply funny.

So why are retailers having second thoughts?

The National Post, Georgie Binks, Saturday Post, May 29, 2004

Three teenaged girls, ponytails swinging, riffle through the T-shirts at a Bluenotes clothing store in Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre. They giggle when they spy a T-shirt with the words, "Boys Are Stupid, Throw Rocks at Them" emblazoned on the front. Lisa Sanzo, 16, shakes her head, "They're pretty stupid, kind of childish. I would never buy one."

LA Chain Agrees to Pull 'Boys are Stupid' T-Shirts After Storm of Protest from His Side Listeners

Men's News Daily
January 6, 2004

The campaign began Sunday evening at 9 PM, and by 9 AM the next morning, it was all over.

Men's and fathers' issues radio talk show host Glenn Sacks declared a campaign against Tilly's clothing store, which sells T-shirts which say "Boys Are Stupid, Throw Rocks at Them" , during the Sunday, January 4 broadcast of His Side with Glenn Sacks in Los Angeles and Seattle. The shirts depict a little boy running away as several rocks come flying at his head.

The next morning Tilly's, which has 32 locations in Southern California, was deluged with angry e-mails and phone calls. Sam Mendelsohn, Tilly's Senior Vice President, issued a statement Monday morning saying he had "immediately instructed the removal of merchandise in question [throw rocks] from all locations." Mendelsohn expressed his "sincere apologies regarding the merchandise." Read More ..

National Post

The mean T-shirt: From the Stupid Factory

Todd Goldman says his popular boy-bashing T-shirts are simply funny.

So why are retailers having second thoughts?  Read More ..