Body screen/body politic: The uses of political t-shirts in the digital age

Joel Penney, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines political T-shirts—defined as those which feature printed graphics (i.e. words and/or images) referencing any aspect of politics writ broadly—as a participatory form of mediated political communication. Over the past few decades the political T-shirt has become a fixture of the visual landscape of everyday public life, reflecting the increasing hybridization between politics and consumer culture, promotional culture, and popular media entertainment. By studying how everyday people use this medium to achieve a range of goals, we can better understand an emerging form of citizenship which adapts to this broader set of conditions and refashions popular culture as a site of political engagement. Furthermore, we can gain a sense of the shifting role played by physically embodied displays of political sentiment within the largely mediatized sphere of political communication in the digital age. This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews with fifty four U.S. citizens who wear political T-shirts, and draws upon their experiences and perspectives to map the multiple and overlapping functions of this expressive practice. To contextualize their accounts within broader social, cultural, economic, and political trends, I also outline the history of the political T-shirt industry using archival methods. The respondents represent four comparative case studies (wearers of pro-Obama, conservative, LGBT, and environmentalist T-shirts), and my analysis works to identify common patterns of use which cut across their accounts. These are grouped into three overarching themes: definitional, persuasive, and interactional uses. The first examines how citizens use T-shirts to tangibly anchor their positions within the complex contemporary political environment, and explores both individual projects of self-making and the ritual reinforcement of group bonds in assembly contexts. The second looks at how citizens deploy the signifying resource of their bodies to participate in the promotional culture of contemporary politics, and theorizes the emergence of the ‘citizen-advertiser’ as a complement to the ‘citizen-consumer.’ The third addresses how citizens use T-shirts to facilitate political talk, and explores the dynamic interrelation between embodied visual expression and Habermas' dialogical public sphere. I further highlight the unique social risks incurred when making one's politics boldly conspicuous in public.^

Subject Area

Anthropology, Cultural|Speech Communication|Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

Penney, Joel, "Body screen/body politic: The uses of political t-shirts in the digital age" (2011). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3485619.