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Boys can't take a joke, throw rocks at them

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Todd Goldman's T-shirts say, "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them." He does not sell rocks with his shirts, but this forbearance is lost on his enemies.

In the past week, three chains have bowed to a campaign by a men's rights advocate and banished Goldman's T-shirts from their shelves. It remained for Goldman to offer the most unusual pleading heard in many a day: "You're taking a T-shirt out of context."

Ordinarily, the context of a T-shirt is a human torso and that is that. But this is the age of the oppressed white male. T-shirts are no longer clothing. They are attestations of ideology, even vanguards of gender-based pogroms.

Goldman, 35, of Clearwater, Fla., is chief designer for David and Goliath Inc. His target market is teen girls who enjoy silly, over-the-edge humor. The shirts feature primitively drawn characters. There is "Trendy Wendy," who makes fun of a hapless boy named "Todd." The shirts include messages such as: "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them" and "Boys are smelly, throw garbage cans at them."

"I'm sorry to sound like a humorless zealot. I just don't get the joke," said Glenn Sacks, a Los Angeles radio host and champion of his gender. Telling a joke Glenn Sacks doesn't get would seem to be a dangerous proposition.

Sacks used his talk show, "His Side," to launch a campaign that has chased the shirts from the shelves of Bon-Macy's and from the 2,800 stores of the Claire's chain. They have even been removed from the shops owned by Universal Studios, producer of such sober studies in inter-gender decorum as "Animal House" and "Scarface."

I called Goldman to suggest he cynically capitalize on all the free publicity, but it was too late.

He has a network cartoon in the works, tried to sell his comic strip to my newspaper and said he imagines the "Boys are stupid" T's will be back in the stores when the campaign cools.

"I'm already a millionaire," Goldman said. When boys are not stupid, it would appear people throw money at them.

Goldman's cartoon program is tentatively called "The Stupid Factory." The theme comes from one of his T-shirts, "The Stupid Factory: Where Boys are Made."

This suggestion of boys and girls as separate species should have been a large clue to anyone suspicious that an anti-male campaign was aborning on the chests of adolescent girls. The female outwitting or mocking the male is a theme older than Aristophanes and as familiar to Western culture as Lucy yanking the football away just as Charlie Brown prepares to kick.

The implicit message is founded on the understanding that men have power and women must find ways, subtle or bold, to get past it. Goldman's shirts are subversive, but they subvert an idea that has it coming.

I got a sense of this much when Sacks explained how his campaign is helping girls.

"When boys are insulted, boys are humiliated, boys feel trashed upon, that's going to boomerang back around on girls. One way or another, by creating this kind of hostility in boys, that's going to boomerang back on girls," he said.

As if it has ever been any other way. Already the distinction between sexual attraction and sexual predation has been blurred. Music now airs in which girls are "ho's." Shops peddle low-rise pants and high-rise shirts to fourth-graders who exit the dressing rooms indistinguishable from ladies of the street.

Some girls are wearing clothes that say "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them," but half the clothing on the market already is telling girls, "Boys are stupid, throw yourselves at them."

"I don't disagree with you on that," Sacks said. "I can't create Middle East peace with my radio show. I've got to pick a battle I can win. I think it's a battle worth fighting."

But this battle is likely to lead nowhere because, in the end, it's about messages that fit on T-shirts. The larger context, in which the genders fight devious little battles like the characters in "Spy vs. Spy," is writ large in the culture, and nobody's found a way to change it.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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