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Teacher's protest of tasteless T-shirt creates a teachable moment

Garfield High teacher Lynn McGonigle doesn't tend to get worked up about what her students wear to class.

But she couldn't ignore two boys in separate classes on different days wearing bright red T-shirts with a giant photo of a buxom, bare-chested young woman in heels, fishnets and thong. The woman's eyes were  covered by a sign that read "hoes" and her body plastered with the slogan "WE ENJOY THEM BUT WE NEVER LOVE THEM."

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To their teacher, the shirts violated more than the school's dress code.

"Heartbreaking," McGonigle called the image and message. She told the boys not to wear the shirts again, but she didn't leave it at that.

She visited the Montebello store that sold the shirts and researched the company that made them. "I started thinking about whether they would allow a neo-Nazi message or a racist word," said McGonigle, who's been an English teacher at Garfield for 27 years.

"Why would they allow one group of people — women — to be degraded when they wouldn't allow other shirts like that?"

McGonigle complained Thursday to mall officials that students and teachers "find these shirts offensive and insulting" and suggested they might boycott the mall. A mall rep agreed they were inappropriate and ordered the shirts pulled from the sales floor.

She emailed Street Dreams, the company that created and markets the shirt, and received a mea culpa the same day: "Sorry if we offended you. Yes obviously this shirt was made in bad taste," an email from the company acknowledged. "We are just clearing what's left and this shirt will no longer be available in stores."

McGonigle was surprised by the response. "I felt they would laugh at me. I thought if they could make a shirt like that, I'm not a person they would take seriously."

But her satisfaction was tempered by the conversation that unfolded when she talked about the T-shirts with her freshman class.

"The boys were laughing and being silly," she said. "They mocked the girls a little bit: 'Oh my God. I can't believe you are being so serious. It's just funny.' Some kids were disgruntled that we were even talking about it in class."

A few girls raised their hands and acknowledged that the T-shirts bothered them. But several others lined up with the boys, defending the message and the image.

It wasn't aimed at girls like them, they said, so why should they be offended?

"They're talking about 'hoes', the girls who put themselves out there [for sex] and don't have any self-respect," one girl said.

Those girls' message was as clear as the slogan on the shirts: If you're courting sex, that makes you a hoe. And hoes don't deserve respect.

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I wrestled with mixed feelings when McGonigle shared her story.

Are those unbothered ninth-grade girls affirming a return to old-fashioned morals that value chastity? Are they part of the slut-shaming crowd, desperate to stay on the "good girl" side of the line?

Or, as Garfield teacher Monique Ulivi suggests, are teenage girls so accustomed to being labeled and crudely objectified, that a skanky T-shirt doesn't seem worth getting worked up about?

"Some felt we'd made an issue of a non-issue," said Ulivi, who talked about the T-shirt flap in her American literature class. She used McGonigle's crusade as a lesson in the power of a single voice to propel change, a theme of the course this fall.

"I thought it was a really cool teaching moment," Ulivi said. She may have learned as much as her students.

The class discussion made Ulivi think about the messages society sends to young women — even through something as benign as the routine loudspeaker announcement, warning girls to dress modestly in last week's searing heat.

"Whenever we talk about the dress code, it's always geared toward girls and what they shouldn't be wearing," she said. No spaghetti straps, no short dresses, nothing that shows too much skin.

Yet one of those boys from McGonigle's class had walked around campus all day with the image of a near-naked woman splayed across his chest.

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Street Dreams' founder Ernest Edwards understands why McGonigle got upset. "It was supposed to be funny and eye-catching, like a parody shirt," he said. "But I know where the teacher was coming from. She felt like we were dogging women.

"That's why we pulled the shirt. I don't want anybody to think the brand is about that."

The brand reflects a young, urban culture in which a Chris Brown song with the word "hoes" in the title and "bitches" in the chorus sold more than a million copies this year.

"Young people don't get hung up on the word," said Edwards, 27. "We perceive it differently."

Edwards said he'd like to talk with the teacher and explain his take on youth culture. I think he ought to meet instead with girls from McGonigle's class who can explain why his shirt felt sexist and demeaning.

"They spoke up in class," McGonigle said, "even though people were laughing at them."

And after class they asked the teacher to help them launch a campus feminist club — one with a name that won't offend and an agenda that embraces everyone.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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