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The G-Bomb and the natural limits of t-shirt satire

by Andy Davis / 20.02.2014

“Hey bru, that’s pretty gay!” I’ve said it often enough. Normally while bantering with jocks. I actually said it quite naturally in a conversation this morning and then caught myself and made a mental note not to say that, again. In my mind, my usage of “gay” in this sense has almost entirely been scrubbed of any homophobic intent. It just means “lame”. The term, the diss, definitely comes from a less LGBT friendly time, a kind of knee-jerk, puerile intolerance of homosexuals, but today its usage has become so ubiquitous that it has made it into the common parlance of some straight people. People who have never been prejudiced against for their sexual orientation. The term, seemingly to us non-gays, has been stripped of its bigotry, hurtful intent and homophobia. It is cleansed and acceptable. Just ask any American high school jock. And because we hear it in the media, in movies and on TV; we sports and vagina-loving straights, tend to make the mistake of thinking that it’s okay. That it doesn’t hurt.

But therein lies the rub. The term gay is only an insult if you mean it as an insult. It assumes that being gay is all those things, weak, lame and pathetic. But the shifting, organic nature of language makes it weird and kind of complex. In the past, I’ve even been comfortable using the term “gay” amongst my gay friends, in reference to the kind of “lame” shit we encounter every day. But after dropping the G-bomb, it always kinda sticks in the craw. You can laugh it off, pretend that there wasn’t that millisecond of discomfort, but if we’re honest, it was always there and my gay friends are just kind and magnanimous enough to accept me for the fun-loving, unthinkingly bigoted, cock-rocking jock that I am.

Now if a gay person chooses to use the G-bomb, to describe the weak, lame and pathetic shit we encounter in every day life, well that’d be fine. It changes the nuance, like a jew owning heeb, or a black owning nigger, or a coloured owning klonk – it’s an act of reinterpreting a hateful term in a way that gives them control and agency over it. When gay people use the term gay as a diss, it often means the same thing as when jocks like me do it, but that’s their right, not mine. I’m the privileged otherer, they the othered minority.

But it’s complex. Before gay referred to homosexuality, everyone was having, “a gay old time”? I had a great aunt whose name was Gay. Back in the day being gay just meant you were happy, carefree and upbeat. It could also mean frivolous, showy and unconventional. But then by the 1950s, the term gay had shifted even further “left” and became more associated with idea of being carefree and from there morphed towards hedonistic and uninhibited. Chuck in a liberal and somewhat camp “showy” dress sense and it’s just a small, bumble through the murk of bigotry to homosexual.

The offending T

And that brings us to Laugh It Off (LIO) versus Jay Jays. In December last year, I was at Lanseria Airport and a freshly raged matriculant, heading back to his new life in JHB was wearing what I recognised as a rip off of the Laugh It Off shirt. For the whole of 2013 Mahala shared office space with Laugh It Off, so we know what their product looks like. I took a picture and sent it to Bartlett, the CEO of LIO, knowing that that guy likes a good scrap with an offending corporate behemoth. And this looked like a pretty clear cut case of wholesale theft and mass reproduction of the original LIO WTF panda t-shirt (itself a spoof of the World Wildlife Fund’s pomping panda logo). The offence here is that Jay Jays aren’t contributing anything to the creative debate, they’re just ripping off someone else’s creativity and mass producing it on cheap Chinese t-shirts for their own profit. Which I think we can all admit, is a pretty kak vibe.

What happened next was predictable, Laugh It Off, who famously beat SAB at the Constitutional Court, and thereby enshrined our right to spoof big brands on t-shirts under freedom of speech; came out all guns blazing and produced a spoof of Jay Jays, as Gay Gays. They attempted to mitigate the uncomfortable homophobia of this statement by saying, ”we don’t mean that in the awesome, homosexual sense, but rather in the lame, weak and creatively bankrupt way“. Unfortunately, there’s just no divorcing the bigotry inherent in calling someone gay as a diss. As a commentator on our Facebook page said yesterday, “it’s like saying Jew Jews, But not in the ‘people descended from the Israelites’ sense, but in the greedy, taking stuff that doesn’t belong to you way.” The Daily Maverick described Laugh It Off’s Jay Jays spoof as “spectacularly misguided”. Which is generous of them. And you can understand it. Everyone wants to love the underdog and hate the big, bullying, thieving corporate. But right now, in this instance, LIO are hard to love.

And that brings us to the natural limits of spoofing brands on t-shirts. You can see the LIO conundrum clearly. When we were sharing offices, Bartlett would often complain that the more nuanced satirical t-shirts like Toyi-Toyi instead of Toyota or Googlethu for Google, just don’t sell as well as the dumb jock jokes like a spoof of Spar as Sperm, or Balls instead of Bells whiskey. Creatively, calling the Ackerman’s corporate giant Jay Jays gay “in the lame, weak and creatively bankrupt way” for stealing their original design is just the low-hanging fruit of t-shirt satire. But that shit has worked for LIO in the past. The Jay Jays brand only lends itself to LIO’s satirical jiu-jitsu in certain ways. It still needs to be recognisable to the original brand for the spoof to have any effect. The collateral damage in this case just happens to be the LGBT community. A group that is, to our great collective shame, facing a rising tide of violent homophobia in our country and on the African continent.

At the end of the day, LIO’s Jay Jays spoof was a giant mistake, so big that it basically lets Jay Jays off the hook for stealing and exploiting the originality of another broke creative and puts the focus straight back on Laugh It Off, the homophobes. You can almost hear the machine gun crackle of a thousand high fives coming from the Ackermans building. And now we’re trading in offenses, while the moral high ground is being occupied in the comments section.

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