During these outings, however, I have been struck by signs warning of potential dangers, usually flooding at low underpasses. They invariably include two specific visual elements:
1. water, and
2. a woman who has fallen into it.
Broadly speaking, I am in favor of “caution” signs, because humans are stupid. That said, I’ve encountered more than a few that appear to have been issued by the state Department of the Obvious, and as such, are a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Because, really, what else would you do?
But, I digress. I observed, during my pedaling about, several different signs featuring the helpless-female-in-water theme, and not one featuring a man. Granted, one variation looks a little more like a thrilling theme park ride than a hazard, but still, it conveys the message that women are especially prone to falling into rivers or being swept up in flood waters.
We know these flailing people are women, of course, because of their attire. It turns out gender signifiers are important even in the world of stick-people, who you’d think would be more concerned about their lack of hands, feet and necks.
Women stick-people wear skirts, or sometimes — look closely — culottes. Men stick-people wear Dockers.
As I considered the matter, my mind spun back to the school-crossing signs of my youth which, I realized, are also the school-crossing signs of my middle age, because they have not changed one bit. They still feature a girl who apparently needs help (from a boy) to, uh … walk.
Maybe it’s the lack of feet, but he seems to be doing OK.
All of this was starting to seem a bit sinister in a burn-the-patriarchy way, and you know how that goes: I started seeing subtle signs of sexism everywhere.
Every pedestrian-crossing sign I encountered featured one person — obviously a man — striding capably and purposefully across the street, even without feet:
Then I realized that the deer-crossing warnings I have seen all my life demonstrate the same bias. Where are the athletically leaping does? Time after time, sign after sign, I saw only this magnificently bounding buck:
I had a point when I began this post, but it’s gotten murky amid all these caution signs. So let me say, at least, that we can do better, and it’s time we did: Male stick-people can now marry each other, so they can darn well help each other across the street. Same for female stick-people, and stick people who were drawn one gender but all their linear lives have felt they were actually the other, or possibly non-binary.
In fact, all genders can, and do, fall into rivers, get swept away by floods and fall victim to other pranks of Nature. So why not create gender-ambiguous representations of their dilemmas?
Take a look at this tsunami warning sign featuring an androgynous person wearing a bun and, possibly, diapers. What’s not to love?
Finally, after we’ve done away with rigid, stereotypical gender-signifiers, let’s give these stick-people what they really need and, after all this time, richly deserve: Hands. Feet. Necks.
Maybe then, they’ll stop getting into so much trouble.
A slightly different version of this post first appeared in July 2015.