Pop-Culture | Posted by Peg T on 11/4/2011

School Crossing Signs

You’ve seen the signs I mean – silhouette figures of two children about to cross the road: one boy, one girl. (How do we tell? One’s wearing a skirt.) (That’d be the girl.) (Really, do most girls still wear skirts to school?)

So, yes, let’s emphasize sex. Boy and Girl. Ms. and Mr. Nothing else matters.

And nothing else is possible.

Note that the boy is taller. ‘Oh, but they are.’ Not at that age! Taller suggests older which suggests more mature, wiser. And just in case you miss this not-so-subtle suggestion of male authority, look, he has his hand on the little girl’s shoulder – guiding, protecting, patronizing. It will be there for the rest of her life.

Just to make sure of that, we have this social understanding that in a couple, the man should be two or three years older than the woman. Such an arrangement gives the illusion, and the excuse, of the man being in a position of authority over the woman – after all, he’s older. (But since, as they say, women mature two years ahead of men, such an arrangement merely ensures the two are ‘equal’. If they were the same age, they’d see in a minute that the woman should take the lead, being more mature intellectually, emotionally, and socially.)

And to really really make sure the message of male authority gets through, mothers encourage their boys to be the man of the house. So a fourteen year old boy comes to consider himself more knowing, more capable, than a woman twice his age (his mother). Is it any wonder that at eighteen, he assumes he’s more knowing, more capable, than all women?

Now I confess that if the crossing sign had things the other way around, a taller, older girl guiding a younger boy, I’d protest the nurturant mommy-in-training role model. Which just goes to show we can’t win. As long as we insist on pointing at everything and saying ‘male!’ or ‘female!’ As long as we live in an apartheid of sex.

The ironic thing is that the signs point the way to (or from) school, the institution at which we supposedly become educated, enlightened. Looks like we just learn how to colour – in pink and blue. (In black and white.)

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  • Ferrette @ at 12:24 pm, November 4th, 2011

    Never thought I’d say this here, but I think this is reading way too much into a sign. For my part, I always assumed it was a parent walking with a child.

    I don’t doubt by any means the oppressive gender roles we’re forced into, and the double standards evidenced everywhere.

    But sometimes, a sign is just a sign

  • The K. @ at 1:05 pm, November 4th, 2011

    Ferrette, I also thought it was an adult figure. But I agree with Miz Peg here.

  • Katie @ at 3:04 pm, November 4th, 2011

    I think it’s weird about the skirt, but I always thought it was a parent (a mother, actually, wearing pants but carrying a purse) and a girl child.

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 4:26 pm, November 4th, 2011

    It may be reading into it a little bit much, but it certainly is a manifestation of our sexist society.

  • Mercedes @ at 6:29 pm, November 4th, 2011

    I feel like you’re digging too much into the sign. The reason why signs nowadays include a silhouette of a skirt to indicate a female is because is the simplest way we can have that message displayed. I remember once someone telling me that the purpose of imaged signs was to get a meaning across fast enough for drivers to register it while driving. So when a driver sees this sign, I don’t think they’re going to think, “My god, what an oppressive and sexist world we live in!” They’re going to think “Okay cool. I should be careful because children cross here.”

  • Ariel @ at 7:51 pm, November 4th, 2011

    I’m with Talia on this. I noticed the signs back when I was a kid and realized even then that there was something not equal about them. Now I get it.
    (Also this type of thing can be seen in relationships where its assumed that a taller guy is the boyfriend and the shorter guy is the friend of the girl they are walking with. [I work at Jewel and have heard such comments about tis type of thing] It acutally on average turns out to be right, but sometimes a really tall girl will come in with a short boy and they will be dating and I can’t help but feel like something about that is just as right is people of opposite hight differences or equal hight. (I have no point its just an observation on relationshps.)

  • Vanessa @ at 4:24 am, November 5th, 2011

    Excellent post!

    I know. I mean, all my girl friends (most of them are very mature) look at me like I’ve grown a second head when I say that I kinda like a guy who’s a year younger than me. UGH.

  • Red @ at 9:39 am, November 5th, 2011

    I always figured it was because the “guy” was in the foreground…

  • Emma E @ at 11:06 am, November 5th, 2011

    Yeah, I don’t think she’s reading too much into it. Some people might say ‘It’s just a sign!’, possibly not-even-acknowledged sexism has seeped into the design. Grr. I am now pissed at the universe.

  • Cate @ at 5:55 pm, November 6th, 2011

    I wouldn’t take the fact that the same sign with roles reversed would also offend you as showing that women can’t win, so much as showing that you need to adjust the way you see the world. If every mention, depiction, or acknowledgement of people or characters with an identifiable gender reminds you of something you feel you ought to protest, then you’re going to find something objectionable in any society of animals that reproduce sexually.

    Maybe all our illustrative signs should feature plant life or fungus?

  • Catherine @ at 11:37 pm, November 8th, 2011

    Has anyone here heard of Marilyn Frye’s birdcage analogy of sexism? The sign could be considered an example of this.

    The idea is that the sign isn’t such a big deal, yeah, it has sexist undertones, but it isn’t that big a deal. And they are right, the sign alone isn’t that big a deal, but it isn’t the sign alone, its the sign and the stud/slut dichotomy, the expectations, the ‘chivalric’ behavior, and all the other things that make up oppression

  • Peg Tittle @ at 9:17 pm, November 9th, 2011

    c’mon Ferette, the K., Katie, can’t be a parent – the figure’s carrying a book, not a purse, and the height difference would be far greater (unless the mother is guiding her 16-year-old across the street!)

    Red, excellent point about the foregrounding – i hadn’t noticed that!

    Mercedes, if it was just to say ‘slow down, kids crossing’ then why not show a silhouette of a bunch of kids, gender-neutral, no ‘hand on the shoulder’…?

    and i laughed at Emma’s ‘okay, now i’m pissed at the world’ b/c this is from a book called “Shit that Pisses Me Off”!

    Catherine, tell us more about Frye’s birdcage analogy?

  • Renee @ at 6:42 pm, November 11th, 2011

    I’m sorry but FUCKING WHAT! Is it a slow news day? I know as a feminists I’m suppose to take the most insinificant mole hill and make it a mountain…but this?!?! I Just…
    ITS a SIGN one whoses design has not changed since it’s goddamn invention…you sound like one of those nitjobs conspirators who think the floors of the capital building is something ultrasignificant…this. Is. Just. Ridiculous.

  • Nommee @ at 9:45 am, November 13th, 2011

    Here in Australia, this isn’t a school crossing sign, it’s an elderly people crossing sign. Big difference!

  • kate @ at 8:59 pm, November 14th, 2011

    I think I can clear up the bird cage analogy. Frye uses the bird cage anaology to explain oppression towards women. She says if you look at the cage as a whole you can’t see why the bird wouldn’t just fly out of the cage. You have to look at each bar microscopically. She states “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers”. If you look at the bars close up they start to look like a solid wall because of their relation to eachother.
    The example Frye gives is the act of a male opening a door for a woman. She explains although the act of holding the door open for a woman isn’t oppression itself. But it leads to several patterns that could be considered oppression. For example, the idea that woman are incapable of holding the door for themsleves.
    Hope this was helpful!

  • Peg Tittle @ at 2:09 am, November 19th, 2011

    Wow, Renee, where did you get the idea that THAT was what being a feminist is all about??

    That the sign hasn’t changed since forever is part of the point.

    Nommee, I looked it up – in the sign for elders there’s a cane, not books. And the two figures are stooped. Big difference.

    (And, by the way, Renee, people are analyzing that one too and finding it pretty objectionable – see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1046975/Beware-elderly-people-getting-crosser-OAPs-demand-revamp-insulting-crossing-sign.html
    Are they being ridiculous too?

  • Renee @ at 12:31 pm, November 22nd, 2011

    The point I was making is that the sign was made during a more sexist time and as a result SO THE FUCK WHAT. I mean maybe I’m just under the idea that it doesn’t fucking matter because lets just say that the sign gets changed now what? Is my role as a second class citizen magically reversed? Do I all of a sudden have reproductive rights? Can I now walk the streets withoutt the fear of rape? NO NONE of that. None of the actual important injustices that happen to women on a daily basis are gonna change or be better if we change/boohoo/complain about this sign.
    @Talia yes we live in a sexist world and this sign is a resul of it but booohoooing and crying “the patriarchy is just sooo mean!” isn’t going to change anything.
    @Peg that molehill comment was based on an observation of mines and I belief (that I sometimes have) that this aspect of feminism isn’t really helping fight the patriarchy in anyway what so ever.

  • Peg Tittle @ at 8:07 pm, November 26th, 2011

    Signs, pictures, images are part of our mental environment. They affect us. Like billboards. Porn (not erotica).

    See something often enough, in enough versions, and people think it’s the norm, it’s acceptable. Acceptable for men to treat women like little girls, for instance.

    All the other stuff is important too. Just because I point out this problem doesn’t mean I’m not addressing others as well.

    And I do think they’re connected. People are less apt to give rights to those they consider subordinate. People rape those they consider subordinate. And so on.

    I wasn’t just boohooing and crying the patriarch is just so mean. That’s what you got out of that? I was raising awareness, pointing out something people may not have seen, may not have thought about.

  • Victoria L @ at 7:25 pm, March 6th, 2012

    I always thought that that was a parent……but if it is two children then those signs are truly shameful and sexist!

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