If you take a close look at the stick figures in your life, you’ll notice that the “generic” stick figure is actually a great example of the way many of our societies center the male (as in, it’s generic insofar as the male is the generic human and women are, well, women). That’s why the bathroom symbol for “men’s” is the same one you see virtually everywhere representing “person.” Unless, of course, children or cleaning are involved and then they weirdly sprout skirts.
Today our Facebook friend Tamar G. sent us one we couldn’t resist sharing. It’s a playground sign from Goettigen, Germany featuring an adult and child. As is common, the adult has been carefully altered to be identifiable as female because the sign is in reference to caretaking kids. Someone in Goettigen found this as annoying as we do, however, and scribbled upon the sign: “Daddy, I also want to wear a skirt.” What a fabulous way to fight back against rigid gender rules.
Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains. The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces. Gender mattered, but not how you might think.
The findings were counter-intuitive to me. Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects. The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source). For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite). Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.
Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary. We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.
A new symbol to represent people with disabilities is being introduced in New York City. The symbol, designed by a team at Gordon College, looks like this:
We’ve posted previously about the politics of the symbol and its history. The notable changes here are the moving of the arms to the wheels of the chair, suggesting that the person is pushing themselves, and the forward-leaning angle, suggesting active motion. It tells a story about independence and ability, instead of dependence and disability. A very nice change.
The phrase “social construction” refers to the fact that things, symbols, places, sounds — basically everything — is devoid of meaning until we, collectively, agree as to what something means. Once that happens, it has been “socially constructed” and we can refer to it as a “social construct.”
The fact that gestures have any meaning at all, and that they can have different meanings in different places, is a simple example of this basic sociological concept. Enjoy this one minute compilation of examples!
Clearly depicting a sexual encounter between two women, this billboard — posted on Doheny Drive in Los Angeles — looks like it would undermine heteronormativity: an invisibility of same-sex sexual and romantic relationships.
In fact, I don’t think it does. For one, the aim of the advertisement is to appeal to male consumers. The women’s appearance is in conformity with the demands of the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. They have long groomed hair and are wearing sexy lingerie and make-up. They are arching their backs and sticking out their busts and butts. The performance of male gaze-compliant femininity is clear, making the male viewer an implicit part of the advertisement. This enforces heterosexuality and promotes heternormativity instead of undermining it.
Moreover – and stay with me here – that implicit male manifests himself symbolically in the shaft of the champagne bottle. The woman’s hand gripping the bottle turns this image into a depiction of a threesome rather than a lesbian encounter. This billboard, then, reinforces heterosexuality instead of disrupting it.
Sianni Rosenstock is a freshman at Occidental College. She is an intended Sociology major and Studio Art minor.
Instances of this phenomenon have been a fun series on the blog; we featured another one just this past weekend, on how (not) to write obituaries. Then today SocImages Contributor Philip Cohen sent along another great example that we couldn’t resist sharing. The graphic below, released by Bloomberg Business Week, is meant to help us understand who is in and out of the labor force. While 3% of Americans want to work but can’t find a job, large proportions are also permanently or temporarily out of work on purpose: they’re retired, in college, in the military, disabled, or a stay-at-home parent.
For our purposes in this post, what’s interesting is the way they illustrate the categories. See what you see:
In all cases but one, the stick figured is either non-sexed and therefore implicitly male (e.g., the newspaper reader and the disabled) or explicitly male (the business-suited full-time employees, the mustachioed retiree). The one exception, of course, is for the stay-at-home parent. Suddenly the stick figure is a female. We see this all over. As soon as parenting or housework is involved, all those neutral/male stick figures sprout skirts.
I featured the two-page ad below in one of the first posts I ever wrote for SocImages (it was October of 2007 and we’d written less than 100 posts; today we’re approaching 5,000, but I digress…). It’s still one of my very favorite images.
I use it in Sociology 101 when I argue that race, class, and gender are, among other things, performances. Activities, items, and behaviors carry class, race, and gender meanings. In order to tell stories about ourselves, we strategically combine these things with the meanings we carry on our bodies (a gendered shape, skin color and hair texture etc., and signs of economic wealth or deprivation).
The ad for PhatFarm deftly balances Blackness (the body), upper-class Whiteness (the sailboat), and femininity (the pink sweater). In strategically using culturally-resonant signifiers, he challenges popular representations of the Black body.
This happens in real life too. Journalist Brent Staples powerfully discusses how he adds a signifier of upper-class Whiteness to his large Black body in order to avoid the discomfort of frightening people on the streets of New York.
…I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
“It is my equivalent to the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country,” Staples adds, referring to the fact that being perceived as dangerous can itself be dangerous, as we know from the example of Trayvon Martin and Rodrigo Diaz, who was shot in the head in January when he accidentally pulled into the wrong driveway thinking it belonged to a friend.
Thinking of class, race, and gender as performances gives us credit for being agents. We don’t have control over what the signifiers are, nor how people read our bodies, but we can actively try to manage those meanings. Of course, some people have to do more “damage control” than others.
What is interesting for our purposes, though, is this Chinese language example from Bangkok, Thailand:
Do you see it? In case you doubted it, the fact that the fourth panel includes a stick figure in a skirt (1) proves that the non-skirted stick figures are implicitly men and, on an entirely different note, (2) reminds us that men do not take care of children.
Similarly, these two pictures of warning signs for moving sidewalks (snapped in the Dublin airport) feature “neutral” stick figures, unless a child is involved:
Amanda C. sent in another example from a hotel in Sydney. When the stick figures are housekeepers, suddenly they sprout skirts!
Sophie pointed out that in Holland, bike traffic lights only include images of what most people would recognize as a “men’s” bike, with the bar across the top, thereby managing to gender the traffic signals without including any figures of people at all (images found here and here):
For what it’s worth, here’s a counter-example from Malmö, Sweden:
Emanuelle, who took the photo and submitted it, says it’s the only time she can remember that she’s seen a silhouette figure like this with a kid where the figure isn’t clearly marked as female. We’ve a fun collection of traffic lights featuring female stick figures.