Earlier this week, The Washington Post had one of those slice-of-life news features that took an everyday topic from real life and framed it in a way that put it on page one. The hot question of the day: Why are all of those girls wearing such slutty T-shirts to school? What's that all about, other than some kind of post-feminist libertarian mall-values revenge plot?
I mean, the shirts are getting so bad that the liberal establishment is nervous. Reporter Ian Shapira had lots of details and a solid set of summary paragraphs:
They're blatantly sexual, occasionally clever and often loaded with double meanings, forcing school administrators and other students to read provocations stripped across the chest, such as "yes, but not with u!," "Your Boyfriend Is a Good Kisser" and "two boys for every girl." Such T-shirts also are emblematic of the kind of sleazy-chic culture some teenagers now inhabit, in which status can be defined by images of sexual promiscuity that previous generations might have considered unhip.
The T-shirts, which school officials say are racier than ever, are posing dress-code dilemmas on Washington area campuses. School systems typically ban clothing that expresses vulgarity, obscenity or lewdness or that promotes cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or weapons. ...
But sexually suggestive T-shirts often fall into a gray area that requires officials to evaluate one shirt at a time.
Obviously, there are other issues swirling in the background, including several that did not get into this report.
For example, is banning a racy shirt the same thing as promoting a conservative stand on sexual morality? That's bad news, in an era in which courts tend to say that any promotion of conservative values on sex is the same thing as promoting conservative religious doctrines.
What about issues of race and class? Can school administrators strike back against the hip-hop bling culture -- in either its ghetto or suburban forms -- without being accused of discrimination?
And, as Shapira's story does note, some school leaders think the clothing issue should be handled by parents. But how many modern students have highly involved parents? What if young women set out to ignore or deceive their parents?
What do these shirts mean anyway? The Post notes:
The T-shirts highlight a paradox about this generation: Even as more teenagers absorb ubiquitous sexual messages, federal data show that they report having less sex than their predecessors. Although a recent National Center for Health Statistics survey found that more than half of all teenagers engage in oral sex, teen pregnancy rates have plummeted since the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high school students who reported having sexual intercourse dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2005.
"It's a puzzling picture," said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the District. "When someone sees a girl or boy in provocative clothing, they make a lot of assumptions about what's going on, which may or may not be true -- which really is the point, isn't it?"
Like I said, this was a solid story and -- noting how it has zoomed around cyberspace -- I hope the Post will continue to monitor this subject at the intersection of family life, education, pop culture, morality and who knows what all.
But I have to admit that I wished the story had included one other topic, perhaps in a sidebar. Do schools in and around the Beltway have policies that affect other kinds of T-shirts and the subjects printed on them? What about religion? What about politics? What about, well, social issues that tend to divide young people and adults?
For example, if hot T-shirts are hard to ban, is it actually easier to ban anti-hot T-shirts?
This story has made some headlines in the past in the Washington area, in part because of demonstrations led by the Rock for Life network. Not that long ago, The Washington Times covered this, including this summary:
Rock for Life's shirts feature blunt messages for young people: "Abortion Is Mean" or "Abortion Is Homicide" on the front, and the group's motto on the back: "You will not silence my message. You will not mock my God. You will stop killing my generation." Those messages have repeatedly put pro-life youth in conflict with school officials. In November 2002, a student wearing an "Abortion Is Homicide" shirt to Abington Junior High School in Abington, Pa., was told by the principal that his shirt was "inappropriate for display at school and equated the message on the shirt with a swastika," say Rock for Life officials.
In the Cleveland suburb of Chardon, Ohio, a student wearing the group's "Abortion Is Homicide" shirt was also told by his principal not to wear the shirt at Chardon High School because a girl had complained it was obscene.
Free speech is messy, but it beats all the alternatives. Or should public schools, at this point, turn to uniforms?
Stay tuned. I hope the dress-code story stays hot.