Urban Outfitters stores are currently stocking a t-shirt that bears the legend, “Erin Go F*** Yourself.” The words are presumably intended as a pun on the common Irish language motto “Erin Go Bragh” which means “Ireland Forever”. The chain has previously been criticized for t-shirts that have been held to reinforce derogatory stereotypes about Mexicans and Jewish women, among others.
Among the people upset by the “Erin” t-shirts are two young Irish Americans, Keara Frizell, a 26-year-old Brooklyn-based actress, and 27-year-old engineer Clare Graver of Roosevelt Island. While not calling for a formal boycott of Urban Outfitters’ stores, both women believe that people should think carefully before spending any money with the chain.
“Especially in the United States, it’s often the case that the strongest vote someone has is with the dollar in their pocket,” Graver told the Echo.
The two women are friends. Frizell’s ancestors hailed from the counties of Down, Donegal and Mayo, while Graver has County Clare roots. Frizell first spotted the t-shirts in the Urban Outfitters store located at the intersection of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. By her account, she returned to Brooklyn, told her roommate about her shock at the slogan, but went to bed that night thinking that she might have been over-reacting.
“When I woke up the next morning, I realized it was still bothering me,” Frizell said, “and I thought I should use the right that everyone has to speak up about something that has that effect on them.”
She returned to the store with Graver, where the latter took a photo of the offending t-shirt. The two women also said they approached a female staff member with their complaints but did not feel their objections were taken seriously.
Neither Frizell nor Graver could accept the idea that the t-shirts should be regarded as a relatively harmless, if profane, joke.
“I don’t take it as something that is light-hearted,” Frizell told the Echo. “I think it is very insulting and it promotes a very unsophisticated worldview.”
“They might say it’s a joke, but it’s not,” Graver asserted in a separate interview. “It’s a very direct, aggressive statement.”
Graver also noted that the t-shirts seemed to have been released to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day. “A statement that is empty and hateful is being made at a time when a lot of people are celebrating their Irish heritage,” she said.
Several calls to Urban Outfitters’ headquarters in Philadelphia seeking comment on the controversy were not returned. The manager of the 14th Street store, who identified himself only as John, would not say whether he had received any other complaints about the t-shirt and directed all inquiries back to corporate headquarters.
Urban Outfitters’ trademark slogan tees have often riled sensibilities. Last summer, trenchant criticism followed the introduction of a t-shirt that bore the slogan: “New Mexico. Cleaner Than Regular Mexico.”
On that occasion, Barry Morrison, a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote to Urban Outfitters’ CEO Richard Hayne in protest. Morrison argued that the garment was “an inappropriate and unnecessary disparagement of [Mexico], and people identified with the country should not be subjected to this type of ridicule and debasing reference.”
The same organization also objected to an earlier t-shirt stocked by Urban Outfitters that carried the motto: “Everyone Loves A Jewish Girl.” The problem was not the slogan but the design that surrounded it, which was comprised of dollar signs and purses.
The chain backed down in that instance. It withdrew the t-shirt from sale, citing internal and external concerns and the sensitivities of the Jewish community. It also promised that, while t-shirts bearing the slogan might re-appear, there would be no controversial embellishments surrounding them.
The retailer also became enmeshed in a row about another t-shirt slogan that read: “voting is for old people”. But perhaps the most infamous furor of all was provoked by its decision to sell a board game called “Ghettopoly”, a spoof on Monopoly that was deemed offensive by many African Americans.
The game involved players acting as “pimps” and included game cards that bore messages like “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50 from each playa.”
The Ghettopoly board also included intentional misspellings of the names of black leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. After widespread protests, Urban Outfitters withdrew Ghettopoly from its stores.
The controversies may, of course, help the chain maintain its edgy image. But some people wonder whether its willingness to risk offending some shoppers may end up damaging its bottom line.
“Maybe their intention is always to put themselves in the headlines,” Clare Graver said. “But eventually they are going to alienate each of their customer bases, one-by-one.”