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Tee Is for Tits 

Periel Aschenbrand’s 100-percent-cotton awareness

Thursday, Oct 20 2005
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Periel Aschenbrand is a bad, bad girl. Author, artist, agitprop political activist, Aschenbrand designs sexy little T-shirts that say things like “Drug Dealer” and “Does ‘Date Rape’ Mean I Get Dinner?” and — her most famous — “The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.” The Bush T-shirt, part of Aschenbrand’s Body as Billboard label, has been worn by Susan Sarandon, Eve Ensler and Heidi Fleiss. It is also the title of her new memoir, for which she posed, naked, on the cover. The naked posing has gotten her into trouble before, like at last year’s Republican National Convention in New York, where she walked into the fray, protesting, wearing nothing but a printed tank top and panties. But instead of arresting her, cops asked if she had extra shirts to give to their wives and girlfriends.

The idea for the T-shirts came while she was teaching summer philosophy courses at Bennington and Amherst colleges. “Seeing my students, all those 16-year-old girls running around wearing Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, or ‘Mrs. Timberlake’ shirts, or ‘I Dated Ashton’ shirts, and all this fucking bullshit — it was ridiculous.” Why are these girls wearing A&F, she thought; are they getting paid to do advertising? She spent months with them, living in the same dormitory. “They were sexy, young teenagers, and they were living in a bubble. They had no idea they were being sexualized in our culture, no concept of what is going on in the world.” She and the girls went through magazines together in order to see how women’s bodies are appropriated for advertising. They discussed the works of Barbara Kruger, bell hooks, the Guerrilla Girls, Gloria Steinem. And then she had the kids make political tank tops to match the protest posters they were designing for their final projects. Aschenbrand made a shirt that said, “Rwanda, Rwanda, Rwanda, Rwanda.” A walking reminder of far more important things.

“I like the idea of appropriating a medium that’s generally used for garbage,” she says. “It’s an effective way to get people to see how our bodies are used” — and to use them for better purposes, such as awareness-raising campaigns tied to some of her shirts. All the proceeds from the “Drug Dealer” tee, for example, are used to buy medicines like anti-retrovirals for kids with AIDS, through the charity “Keep a Child Alive.” The corresponding Web site has a map that lets you follow exactly where the money is going, from pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. to manufacturers in India to clinics in Africa.

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Aschenbrand grew up in Brooklyn, but now lives in a sprawling apartment in the no man’s land between Koreatown and downtown. The apartment used to be office space. It has an old-world noir feel with its long hallway of wood and frosted-glass doors. In the room that serves as her work studio, she leans against an industrial steel desk and smokes a cigarette.

“James Baldwin talked about smashing taboos without being liberated from them,” she says. “That has a lot to do with where my head and my aesthetic is. You have all these crazy, crazy ads with naked girls, but we live in a completely puritanical culture, a completely racist culture. We don’t really talk about anything.”

She runs across the room and whips out a post card tucked somewhere in a bookcase. On the front is a naked Aschenbrand, licking a red, white and blue Popsicle, wearing boys’ tightie-whities printed with the Only Bush slogan. “I got so much shit for this. People said it was pornographic. Inappropriate. But these are the same people who go home and watch Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire? The same people who go around wearing Nike shirts made by 11-year-old kids in Haiti. And this is scandalous?

“For me,” she continues, “I’m not willing to accept it. I think it’s a lot of people not willing to put their money where their mouth is.” She leans forward in a conspiratorial way. Her voice lowers, slyly. “I mean, I’ve said this before, but we should put our tits to better use,” she smiles, “if they’re going to be stared at anyway.”

In person, she is petite and intense, with long brown hair, pale skin. Her aforementioned tits are pert and bouncy and just round enough to fill a champagne glass.


Aschenbrand definitely thinks we should appropriate Jessica Simpson’s ass. If it’s going to be gawked at by millions of people across America, then why not slap something on it that matters? Something like “Drug Dealer.” We can’t change the entire culture, she says, but we can turn it. Instead of joining a sorority, start an AIDS awareness group. Be choosy about where you buy clothes.

At that fateful summer philosophy class, she notes, the guys got defensive and combative when she pointed out the sweatshop roots of their sports gear. But the girls were receptive to her ideas about sexualization and advertising, and relieved to be able to identify and reject their fashion pasts. “There are women who have come before us who have put their asses on the line,” Aschenbrand says earnestly, lighting her cigarette. “There is a torch to be passed. And those women should be able to pass it. We should be making them proud.”

Now, if we could just get Laura to wear the Bush shirt...

Photo credits, from top: Mari Fujita (2), Amanda Friedman

Body as Billboard T-shirts are available at Catwalk, 459 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 951-9255; and at www.bodyasbillboard.com.

The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own | By Periel Aschenbrand | Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin | 197 pages | $10 paperback

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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