Michael Jackson, Power Girl, and the Deeper Meaning of Chests

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I just took a walk outside on the rare lunchtime spent in the company of fresh air — well, as fresh as it gets in urban Manhattan, anyway — and I can report back, with almost no mean degree of inaccuracy, that this is going to be the summer of the Michael Jackson t-shirt.

michael jackson t-shirtI’m serious. For a while, I thought that Barack Obama was going to take the cake — I mean, the t-shirt stores and bridge-table vendors near Times Square have been selling BO t-shirts and baby tees since January, and back then no one was even wearing t-shirts — but things change, and the stakes are raised. After all, nobody expected the King of Pop to die.

And then I start wondering, where did we get this idea to wear our heroes on t-shirts in the first place? You didn’t find the Children of Israel wearing I Heart Moses t-shirts, and how many times did he save their lives? More than Michael Jackson did, for damn sure.

Recently, in Israel, a clothing manufacturer started selling baby t-shirts that bore Rabbi Akiva’s summary of the Torah, the words V’ahavta l’recha kimocha — literally, “love your neighbor like yourself” — written across the bosom. As much as Rabbi Akiva probably didn’t linger too long on the free-love double entendre of his core principle, it’s not a bad thing to go spreading to the rest of the universe. And, hey, it encourages various rereadings and reinterpretations…which is the essence of Torah commentary in the first place, right?

When I started working at MJL, there was a dress code. I suppose most day jobs have one. But, being as though I’d spent the past three years doing single days at law offices and anywhere that needed something typed, I wasn’t used to having to do something that didn’t require my one tie and single pair of fancy pants.

I learned pretty quickly, however, that the MJL dress code didn’t cover much — basically, it was no t-shirts with writing on it. It sounded pretty simple at first (I mean, the last thing that fosters a productive work environment is an ALOHA FROM MAUI shirt, or one of those ITHACA IS GORGES joke t-shirts that nobody really understands but everyone spends hours looking at, trying to figure out) but I soon came to have a different understanding of the rule. Wearing a word on your chest, whether it’s “Sexy” or “Rock Star” or “I Voted for Fred Thompson,” it’s making a statement. It’s limiting you. Even if the word is as simple as “hope,” it’s still setting a direction for your day. And the beauty of us as human beings is, our days can go anywhere.

power girl and supermanIn DC Comics, there’s one superhero, Power Girl, whose uniform, in place of a Superman “S” or a Batman bat logo, has — to put it delicately — a lack of fabric. For years, it was never mentioned. Then, in a recent issue of Justice Society of America, it was called attention to rather vividly (and, at first, rather indecorously). At the end of the issue, however, there was a blazing monologue that caught me off guard: “Superman can wake up every morning, put on that big ‘S,’ and he knows exactly what his job is,” she said (I’m paraphrasing). “Batman can wear a bat and strike fear into people’s hearts or whatever. But I don’t know what my mission in the world is, yet. I’m not ready to limit myself to one thing. So I have to keep searching.”

Which is the biggest reason (though certainly not the only one) that I’m not going to wear a “V’ahavta l’recha kimocha” t-shirt. But even if there’s nothing across my chest except for a blank shirt and a couple buttons, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Posted on July 27, 2009

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