Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Street Signs and Stick Figures


I'm a bit late on this one, but apparently a community within Madrid has voted to replace street signs that currently feature traditionally male-ish, 'blocky' stick figures with some stick figures sporting skirts, ponytails and ribbons. There has already been lots of discussion about this at Feministing, Pandagon and Shakespeare's Sister.

The Stick Figure
It's claimed by some of the commentors that a stick figure is a 'genderless' sort of representation. I think this is one of those ideas that is touted as 'common sense' which doesn't really match up to the way the world is, or our daily experience in that world. First of all, there is the problem of whether we can currently see people, or representations of people, as 'genderless'. This makes me think of the automated computer-voiced announcements for incoming and outgoing trains on the BART train system here in the SF bay area. There are two distinct voices, one that I think most people would categorize as 'male' and the other as 'female'. It's hard to imagine a voice that one didn't put into one of those categories, even in the case of the voice being completely a computer generated sort of thing.

Gender and visual cues can be just as difficult to separate out, I think, though it is much more complex. One commentor says that a stick figure doesn't have a 'male' gender assignment because you don't see a swinging dick there in the picture--as if that were how one would represent a man with a stick figure. There are also women commenting who think that the stick figure isn't male or female--but I wonder how many of them would walk into a bathroom with a stick figure that was skirtless (so to speak). Men, of course, would not often walk into a room marked with a stick-figure-with-skirt...because that's not gender neutral--it indicates a women's restroom. So, I think that those who are advocating that the stick figure is gender neutral are ignoring the day-to-day workings of things.

Which is not to say that the stick figure couldn't be gender neutral. A stick figure could be a gender-neutral sort of signifier, but it doesn't happen to be, given the preponderance of men-as-norm in our conceptual reality.

One can see that it isn't gender neutral when we then try to 'genderize' the 'neutral' stick figure. If it's neutral, how do we show that it is masculine? One suggestion (and something that was done in Germany for a while, apparently) is to put a top hat on it. In a strange way, this would probably work--in what culture do women wear top hats? (Although I suppose it could be confusing in a girls-only bar.) But what else would signify it as 'male'? I think it's telling that it's much easier to 'genderize' the stick figure as female--we can add a ponytail, a skirt, long hair, or even, as one commentor suggested, boobs; that it's easier to provide the stick figure with a more explicit gender in the case of representing women shows that the man-as-norm conceptual reality is a pretty strong sort of thing. We can't as easily dress the stick figure as masculine because masculine is the default, conceptually. At least that's part of the reason why.

Skirts and Ponytails
I also think that this 'simple' act of changing the street signs points to the relative complexity of dealing with deeply-rooted sexism. Given that in our culture stick-figure representations are not gender neutral, but rather represent the male-as-default conception of representations, how do you change things? Well, if it were easy, you'd wave a magic want and have the deeply-rooted sexism go away--then perhaps you could just use some stick figures which would be gender-neutral. But, given the lack of magic wands in the world, you'd want to do practical things that may raise awareness and maybe even change some people's minds. One way to raise awareness of the male-as-default is to change the male-as-default stick figures to not-male-as-default stick figures. But this ain't easy, really. Dressing up the stick-figures reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, to some degree, and when you're trying to (in part) bring awareness that those stereotypes aren't universal traits 'found in nature' (i.e. some men have ponytails and some women don't wear skirts), you've got your job cut out for you.

I wonder if changing a sexist society necessitates doing so in a couple of stages. First, we change the signs to ponytails and skirts, and then we eventually go back to the stick figures, once we change lots of other stuff such that the stick figures are, then neutral?
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