Latest outbreak of sexism: Hurricane Katrina T-shirts

October 08, 2006|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Staff

It used to be that young women visiting New Orleans' notorious French Quarter had no use for T-shirts whatsoever. But when Christine Mallinson and a couple of her friends from graduate school toured the tourist traps of Bourbon and Decatur streets last March, the Hurricane Katrina T-shirts hanging in windows or on street kiosks grabbed their attention.

The shirts, the women felt, ridiculed storm victims:

I survived Katrina and All I Have Left is this Lousy T-Shirt

(Seriously ... this is it ... )

They made light of local politics, depicting Ray Nagin as Willy Wonka, ruler of another "chocolate city."

They celebrated looters:

I Stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and all I got was This Lousy T-Shirt, A New Cadillac and A Plasma TV

The shirts also celebrated something that rhymes with "looters." They depicted Katrina as a well-endowed party girl or a prostitute, describing the storm's wrath with verbs typically reserved for sex acts.

The shirts elaborating on this misogynist theme were the ones that that really infuriated the graduate students, Mallinson explained during a talk Tuesday night at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she was recently hired as an assistant professor of research methodology in the Language, Literacy and Culture Program. One of her specialties is the study of language and gender.

Her presentation, titled " `Katrina That Bitch!' Interpreting T-Shirt Slogans in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," was adapted from an article by the three women that is being considered for publication in a scholarly journal.

The trip was planned around a Southern Sociological Society conference, held in New Orleans this year, and "we had all brought with us our feminist sociological training," said Mallinson, who is 28. Now, many women bound for the Big Easy might have elected to leave their feminist sociological training at home, but it served the trio in good stead: Once they realized that the T-shirts were a golden research opportunity, they took off half a day from the conference to cruise souvenir shops, alarming clerks by racing in, scribbling down raunchy slogans and snapping pictures, and racing out.

Decency forbids reprinting many of their findings here. Suffice it to say that Katrina and her hurricane friends Rita and Wilma were frequently portrayed as Girls Gone Wild, wearing slutty dresses and slurping hurricane cocktails. It turns out that the satellite image of a swirling hurricane, duplicated and strategically placed on the chest of a T-shirt, gives rise to a rather pornographic effect.

As Mallinson described the project, a bright red blush spread across her cheeks.

"I don't want to seem like an angry feminist with no sense of humor," she said after the talk. To her credit, when the audience - about 20 graduate students and professors - tittered helplessly at a T-shirt slogan, she almost always managed a small, brave smile. But her disgust was palpable.

After the lecture, Mallinson invited an open discussion, which was peppered with academic buzz words: hetero-normality, post-Third Wave feminism, the status of the word "dude" as a lexical item.

Several men - one of whom claimed that women in Girls Gone Wild videos enjoy "a lot of agency" - asked the tough questions.

"From a feminist point of view, where are the lesbians on this?" one wanted to know.

And when talk turned to the naval meteorologists who, Mallinson said, decided to name hurricanes after women in the first place, another man said to himself, "How are you spelling `navel'?"

The session began to draw to a close when someone asked if anyone in New Orleans had been seen wearing a Katrina T-shirt.

Actually, yes, Mallinson said. Three people had been spotted. All were women.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com.

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