Her sexy T-shirt says "Kitty Not Happy" -- is that OK at work?

I know this young woman has problems at home, but I think she might need a good slapping!

Published June 14, 2007 10:24AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

At my place of work there is a very nice, attractive young woman in her early 20s. She is a no-kids, no-drink, no-drugs, sings-in-the-choir-and-plays-the-piano kind of girl, and I know her parents, who, for what it is worth, are solid citizens.

She has been married for about three years and recently announced at work to all and sundry that the marriage was not going well, and that while she had not asked for a divorce, she had told her husband that if he wanted one, she would not object.

Yesterday at work she was wearing a T-shirt that bore the legend "Kitty Not Happy." I pointed out to her that this was possibly in contravention of the company dress code, which forbids personal ads on clothing. She informed me that Kitty was a cartoon character. I replied that what she was saying might very well be true, but there was an obvious double-entendre (double meaning). She responded by telling me that I was really sexy when I spoke French.

(I should say that I am more than double her age and very happy with my current partner, so there is no question of me having a romantic interest in her, though one of my younger male co-workers has expressed interest.)

I made her immediate supervisor aware, but she seemed unconcerned. The supervisor normally has reasonable judgment, and as evidence of this I can cite the fact that she named her youngest child after me.

So the question is this: Is it now acceptable for a young woman in the workplace to have "Kitty Not Happy" written across her breasts? Am I a hopeless old fogy? Do I need to get real?

Personally, if I were her husband and she went out of the house wearing this, or even wore it at home, come to think of it, I would want to give her a good slapping. Am I a bad person?

Cat Not Amused

Dear Cat Not Amused,

This question must be a source of great, dark mirth to any woman who has endured the soul-crushing authoritarianism of the modern office.

As to the question of whether it is now acceptable for a young woman in the workplace to have "Kitty Not Happy" written across her breasts, my question to you is, Can you accept it?

I hope you can. For you responded as an individual to her T-shirt, and that's between you and her. Moreover, as I will shortly explain, even if there are rules against her T-shirt and even if her T-shirt is a distraction in the workplace, I would, somewhat perversely, regard that as a good thing, not a bad thing.

For in a culture in which wives face a "good slapping" for dress-code noncompliance, women must and will find subterranean ways to express their longing for fair treatment, respect and emotional realism.

Ironically -- or inevitably -- one such medium is a cartoon character on a sexy T-shirt.

May I tell a brief story to shed some light on why I feel the way I do?

I was a very naive young man when I left school in my early 20s. The first thing I noticed when I began working was that the workplace was profoundly undemocratic. If I hadn't been so naive perhaps it would not have shocked me, but it did shock me, for I realized that people outside of the academic world spend nearly all their productive time working, and if they are not working in a democratic setting then they are not practicing democracy in the most important arena of their lives, and so, for all practical purposes, they are not living in a democracy. They are living under authoritarian rule. They vote about large issues outside of the workplace, true, but in their daily lives they have no vote. They have no vote over who will lead them in the office or what the rules will be under which they labor.

The people who actually rule their daily lives are called "bosses." True, one is free to quit. But wherever one goes, there is another boss who is not elected and who is not subject to the will of those he or she rules over.

Yes, yes, I was naive. But this is how I experienced work -- as a shocking example of authoritarianism.

I also found that work was really tiring, and that people after work did not have the energy to work on their projects. This too shocked me. Whatever art or writing or sports they might be doing, they let these things go, because they were tired. So I saw a nation of people whose energies were being wasted.

This sounds sillier and more naive all the time. And yet it was my experience.

So I thought, not me, that will not happen to me. I will work but I will not allow it to tire me out. I will write, and make music and live my life, even though I am working in an authoritarian organization in the daytime.

But I did not have the strength and endurance to do so. I lost the battle. I took refuge in addiction, so shameful was my failure to be an artist in America and also a worker in America.

So I do harbor a good bit of rage against the system. I think that many of us live terrible lives in the workplaces and offices of America -- terrible lives because we do not rule over our own conditions, we do not elect our own workplace leaders, we do not decide our own workplace issues, and we do not do the work that is most suitable to us, the work at which we would be most brilliant and productive.

Instead, we live like slaves.

I know that may sound crazy and naive, but it is how I feel. I feel that far too many of us live like slaves, and I do not understand why that should be so in a country in which we are supposed to be free to govern ourselves. It seems to me that if we are to govern ourselves we should govern the conditions under which we labor for survival.

But anyway, I got through that! Lucky me, like a man shipwrecked: I'm a survivor! Now at middle age I am blessedly free to do this interesting, challenging work on my own schedule, in a setting of my own choice, for a salary, with health benefits! I am blessedly lucky that Salon employs me and allows me this opportunity. But I will never forget those early employment experiences, because it has only been with much difficulty and luck that I have been freed. And yes I do say "freed," and I do say "luck," because obviously there are many, many people with literary and empathic gifts who could do what I am doing, if there were only more companies with the wisdom to employ them in this kind of work.

And what is this work? This work is democratic dialogue work. This work is the many speaking; this is the work of a national dialogue. That is what we are doing. We are, in essence, every day as we converse in the letters section and compose intimate portraits of ourselves for critique and commentary, creating the kind of country we want to live in.

And so what kind of country do I want to live in? I want to live in the kind of country where a woman doesn't get slapped for wearing a "Kitty Not Happy" T-shirt.

Can you see, then, why I identify with this woman, who is trying to pursue her art, is basically not being heard, is lost, has no voice, and feels herself without options, threatened with reprisals for speaking her truth?

And, sure, OK, maybe her T-shirt is a problem in the workplace. Who would deny that? I will say this, too: It is a good thing for problems such as this to come up in the workplace. It is a good thing for the workplace to be interfered with by such problems. It is a good thing for the workplace when such things as humanity interfere, when actual human beings with actual problems express them openly. It is a good thing for the workplace to momentarily grind to a halt when something like reality rudely intrudes.

Otherwise, if in our daily lives we deny the humanity of our fellow workers, we are not living in the country we say we are living in. We are lying to ourselves.

And we have lied enough as a nation already. We have gone already too far in the direction of authoritarianism. We have strayed already too far from democracy. It is time we began acknowledging the tiny individual voices of simple human dissent among us.

If kitty is not happy, we need to ask why.

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