What’s in a T Shirt

What's in a T Shirt

Why do we get so up in arms about a t-shirt? Because we value t-shirts and what’s printed on them more than we think we do.

Yale Daily News recently published a piece about another scandal at Amherst, which details a campus fraternity’s offensive t-shirts. The shirts show a scantily clad woman, who looks somewhat beat up, being roasted like a pig over an open fire while an actual pig smokes a cigar. It’s done in a very cartoony style, but it’s caused some very real outrage. Detractors can claim “it’s just a t-shirt”, but beyond the ink and fabric a t-shirt can act as a window into the opinions of its wearer. This isn’t the first time gender prejudiced T-shirts have been highlighted on Mookychick. That’s because sometimes it’s more than a piece of clothing. It’s a portable flag.

This T-shirt was criticised for its images and slogan. Photo by AC Voice

The Institution

Amherst is a private school, but it’s a large institution. In both public and private universities, there’s a lot of money at stake. Money means jobs and jobs mean people. Keeping that money flow is essential to everyone, so sometimes the institution becomes a little less ethical in order to assure its continued survival. It’s not right, but it happens. Colleges afford students great education and excellent life experience, but they’re far from pristine places of academic purity, as this t-shirt reflects.

The Culture

I think a lot of people’s immediate reaction here will be to blame the fraternity and write it off as “a fraternity thing”. I’ve known some very good people who are fraternity members, and none of them would have made or worn a t-shirt like this. These shirts came from a larger culture that is and was hostile to women. That’s not to say your average student, administrator or faculty member at Amherst or Penn State is a misogynist; teachers want to provide a great education and students want a brighter future and administrators want to make sure the whole thing happens smoothly.

The problem is that these examples of gender prejudice and misogyny are deeply ingrained in the “old university” culture. Covering them up becomes essential to the institution’s continued survival, and something absurd like “addressing the problem and trying to fix it” isn’t something they usually consider because it might stir the pot too much. This isn’t about fraternities; fraternity members are students and they’re also prone to suffering from the effects of negative university culture.

This is an important conversation to have, because these students will be the people who alter the college culture on a fundamental level when they become administrators and professors themselves. They’ll be the people who fix it, and I have no doubt that they’ll succeed.

The Meaning of a T-Shirt

This brings us back to t-shirts. The Amherst frat’s shirt is offensive, but one piece of fabric isn’t the real problem – it’s a window into the problem. T-shirts, whether we realize it or not, are a huge part of our lives. We’re always craning our necks to see what’s printed on someone else’s shirt, and we always make observations about that person based on what they’re wearing. “Oh, he likes heavy metal” or “she’s a geek” or something similar. We use t-shirts to create personae in our minds, and we use them to judge the people wearing them.

T-shirts are a blank canvas that can express our love for art, music, culture or just a really great dive bar. The fact that people no longer wear Big Dog or Big Johnson t-shirts tells us just how far we’ve come since the 1990s. We view the spreading of messages via t-shirts as a positive thing, so it shocks us to our core when we see a message like this being spread. An offensive, crude t-shirt being worn by a fraternity at what is held to be one of the most prestigious and liberal arts institutions in the world is emphatically telling us there’s a bigger problem here.

It’s great that students are taking initiative because these underlying attitudes simply have to be fixed. If it takes an offensive t-shirt for an issue to receive any attention on a national or international level, then so be it – we, as members of modern society, use t-shirts as one more news and opinion surface, and because they’re so everyday, we can forget the power of the smoke signals they send.

Yes. Messages on T-shirts are powerful. We love you, Bill Bailey.