Yes ‘Tee’ Can!
The 2008 American election was a big deal for my family. Like many people around the world, we were transfixed by the personalities, the drama, the historical precedents broken and the opportunity to start anew after eight years of Bush. As a family of political junkies, with two newspapers daily, CNN constantly on the TV and my filling my parents in on what the blogosphere was saying, we were particularly obsessed. During the long primary process, my family’s support was evenly divided; my Mom, a dedicated feminist, supported Hillary Clinton, while my Dad and I favoured Barack Obama. This led to some light-hearted rows in which both candidates’ main spin lines would be repeated ad nauseum and my Grandmother, thinking we were all nuts, would attempt to change the channel to country music.
I want to put my Obama tee-shirt into context. When I finally bought it the summer before the election, I was not doing so out of any jump-on-the-bandwagon trendiness. This would not be a repeat of my misguided Che Guevara tee-shirt circa 2002. I had thought long and hard about my support for the senator from Illinois and as a Canadian ineligible to vote or even to donate money south of the border (my Dad looked into it), I wanted to show my support the best way I knew how: through fashion.
I went to Queen Street and had a tee-shirt made with a pixilated portrait of Obama smiling handsomely. Only when it was finished did I discover that the design was in white and was just barely visible on the light blue tee-shirt I had picked out. The iconic face only became recognizable on close inspection (something like the Shroud of Turin), but I came to appreciate that this would be an Obama tee-shirt no one else had. I wore it proudly, always aware that someone might start a fight with me, but confident that I could defend my candidate and tee-shirt choice.
The last weekend of summer, my family and I were half out the door for our cottage when I read online that John McCain had announced his running mate. “Who the heck is Sarah Palin?” I thought as I grabbed my backpack and headed down to the car. A week later, I reluctantly watched the Republican National Convention to get the scoop on Alaska’s governor for my parents who were still on Lake Simcoe. I watched Palin’s confrontational and sarcastic speech gape-mouthed. “She’s making fun of community organizers!” I cried to my Dad via cell phone. “She’s just… awful!” Eventually, I had to change the channel.
The very next day was my first at the University of Toronto. I knew many of my fellow grad students would want to impress by dressing smart but casual, in button up shirts and corduroy jackets. When I woke up, the “traditional Alaskan wind song” (as Tina Fey would later call it) of Palin’s voice was still seared into my brain, and in protest I grabbed my Obama tee-shirt. “On this day of all days,” I thought, “I am proud to wear this!” The backlash from my new peers, either for political reasons or because my political sincerity was undeniably nerdy, never materialized. Instead, some of the first friends I made in the program approached me because of the shirt and indulged me as I ranted about Palin’s speech the night before.
On election night, there was only one choice of what to wear, but weary of jinxing the outcome, I covered it up in a hoodie. (“Watching CNN will be insufferable if they don’t elect him,” I said. “If they don’t elect him, CNN gets turned off…forever,” my Dad replied ominously.) When they announced Obama’s win, early in the night but years in the waiting, I couldn’t believe it was all over. As my family opened sparkling wine, I added to my tee-shirt a button that said “Yes We Did.”
A year and a half later, the tee-shirt hangs in my closet, a memento of that exciting time. President Obama’s first year in office had its ups and downs, and while my support for him has never wavered, I don’t know when I will wear the tee-shirt again. Showing support for a candidate during an election is one thing; wearing a tee-shirt with the person who now heads the American government signifies something completely different. A tee-shirt supporting the president seems thuddingly uncool, even when the president is cool himself. Perhaps I will wear it again when he runs for re-election and I feel he needs my support again against whichever climate-change denier gets the Republican nomination. And if I keep the shirt long enough, it may accrue hipster status, like memorabilia with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, although the diminishment of Obama into a camp relic would be depressing to any of us who got excited in 2008.
A friend recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. and told me of tee-shirts being sold in the airport which said, “Don’t blame me, I voted for McCain-Palin.” “Oh my god!” I exclaimed, “I would totally wear one of those.” Then I felt the need to add, “As a joke, of course.” What a difference a year makes.