An Aug. 10 Style article contained an incorrect Web address for the site of author Periel Aschenbrand. The correct address is www.bodyasbillboard.com. (Published 9/7/2005)
She's in Potomac, sitting in the Greaseman's basement radio studio, he of the lecherous sound effects and the oft-offensive politics, and he's pulled out a picture of Periel Aschenbrand's book cover, which features her in the altogether -- well, there is a fig leaf -- holding an apple, all very Eve-like, and the title, "The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own," stretching across her bare breasts. The Greaseman looks at the cover and growls into the mike, "I liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike it."
"Perhaps we're becoming more politically aligned," Aschenbrand murmurs, a curtain of highlighted hair falling over her face.
Or perhaps not.
"I'm getting the feeling, little girlie," says the shock jock, aka Doug Tracht, who broadcasts on WDMV 700 AM, "that this is an anti-Bush book."
Well, sort of, in that President Bush figures in the Queens native's seriocomic memoir as a side figure as she recounts protesting at the Republican National Convention last year, wearing undies and a tank top that read, well, the same thing about not trusting the president. She was also holding a "100 Reasons Not to Vote for Bush" poster, which featured snapshots of 100 women wearing the aforementioned T-shirt, among them Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, "Vagina Monologues" writer Eve Ensler and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
Since then, she's launched "Body as Billboard," a line of agitprop T-shirts intended to raise awareness of some of her pet political projects: her "Drug Dealer" tee, the proceeds of which go to buy AIDS medications for children in African countries; "Knockout," to fight domestic violence"; and "What Would You Give for a Great Pair of [four letter word for breasts]," for breast cancer research. (The one that reads "Does Date Rape Mean I Also Get Dinner?" isn't such a big seller.)
Aschenbrand, in town yesterday to promote her book, studied poetry as a grad student at the University of Arizona while working as a cocktail waitress in a strip club.
"We've got to take back our [expletive] values," says Aschenbrand, 29. "People ask me if I'm a writer or a fashion designer.
"I've been writing for years. It just so happens that when I put my words across my chest, people are much more interested."
Aschenbrand's activism began a couple years ago, when she was teaching modern philosophy at summer academic camps at Bennington and Amherst. She was appalled to see her students, bright young girls, coming to class wearing T-shirts that read "Mrs. Timberlake," "Juicy" and "Abercrombie & Fitch."
"As Americans, we're exposed to 1,000 advertisements a day," she says, "And we don't even notice it. Why are you walking around with Abercrombie & Fitch across your [expletive expletive]? Are they paying you?"
As a class project, she had her students write political slogans based on the works of James Baldwin, bell hooks and Noam Chomsky. From there, one of her students designed a T-shirt printed with "Rwanda" on the front. Then they took to the streets and observed the reaction their body-billboards received.
Then, one day, Aschenbrand meandered into a Los Angeles boutique wearing her Bush shirt. The boutique owner ordered a batch, and other trendy shops followed suit. (She also sells the shirts for $35 on www.bodybillboard.com.)
You could call it T-shirt activism. You could call it in-your-face feminism.
She calls it post-gender politics. Which means that she a) sleeps with both boys and girls but doesn't dig the labels, and b) is an acolyte and former student of the late French "philosophical superhero and hard-core lesbian" Monique Wittig, who taught her the power of words to shock and empower.
Wittig also taught her, she says, to look at gender identification as a construct of the heterosexist regime. She will discuss issues like this at length with earnestness -- and in the next breath, say, extol the virtues of a good lap dance.
"It's sex-positive feminism," says feminist author Carol Queen, director of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco, of Aschenbrand's philosophy. "Pro-sex feminism doesn't see what's wrong with having sexuality and sexual attractiveness be part of the message."
This explains why, on her "100 Reasons" poster, you'll find Aschenbrand's mom alongside strippers and sex workers. The sex-positive message, though, sometimes gets misconstrued. By, for instance, the man who showed up at her Boston book signing the night before and suggested that they get together for a bagel and what the Greaseman would euphemistically refer to as some "doo-da" rubbing.
That's almost as bad as the proctologist whom she describes in her book as being a little too enthusiastic about examining her.
As sex writer-feminist Susie Bright sees it, every generation has a young woman who brings a certain spark of charisma and sexuality to the discussion. And every generation has its slogans, its buttons and T-shirts and bumper stickers. Bright says she is heartened to see that not all young women are held in the sway of Britney Spears and MTV, that there are still "rebels" out there.
Still, Bright says, "There's also this sadness that we focus on the accessories of revolution when there is not revolution. This isn't critical of her. It isn't her fault that there aren't thousands of women in the street."
But there are women in the streets wearing Aschenbrand's T-shirts, even though she's vague on the business part. How many has she sold?
She shrugs. "Thousands?"
For that reason, she's bringing in some business partners. She'd rather focus on designing her slogans and writing more books.
"I feel a responsibility to the people who were before me," Aschenbrand says, "like the Guerrilla Girls, like bell hooks, like Gloria Steinem, to make sure their work was worth something. They put their lives on the line. I take that responsibility totally seriously."
"It may be the only thing I take seriously."
Periel Aschenbrand, creator of the "Body as Billboard" line of T-shirts, went on the Greaseman's radio show yesterday to discuss her new book.