Re-de-signing people

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

—Cheris Kramrae and Paula Treichler

Reading “People Signs”

”People signs,“ seemingly inoffensive, utilitarian directives, guide us along daily routes and routines in Asia and everywhere else. They help situate us by indicating which toilet to enter, where to cross the street, where to best access public areas if physically challenged, where to optimally exit a building in case of emergency, etc. They fulfill a function: to inform. And like most codes inundating the cultural environment–from daily language to all instances of visual culture–”signs“ can also misinform.

Based on the explicit use of male figures to re-present the norm for ”people“ in ”people signs,“ a pedestrian might derive the following conclusions:

The vast majority of women are brightly colored (usually red) and wear triangular dresses that accentuate (or define) the girth of their lower bodies.
Women generally do not ride elevators, escalators without a boy, use stairs, trash bins or wheel chairs.
Women never cross streets.
Women do not ride or in any case need to purchase tickets for public transportation
Or have to clean up after their dogs
Or return library books
Women are blessed with no other ’infirmities ’ or ’disabilities ’ than pregnancy and motherhood
Women never walk or work or run
Women do not indulge in recreation
Women need not worry about exposure to radiation
Women are never in the company of other women.
”What preposterous mis-readings of the signs,“ says the voice of popular reason. ”The male figures in these signs are not really male, they are generic and universal, representing people in general,“ or ”Who ’s to say that some of them aren ’t women wearing men ’s attire“.

Clearly, the problem lies with our pedestrian: She is reading the signs when, in fact, she shouldn ’t notice them at all. (”She would be much better served to simply forget about the gender of the symbol in the sign and cross the street safely.“) Her other problem, admittedly, is that she is reading superficially, when in fact, she should be ”reading“ the signs interpretively, acknowledging the power of visual culture to endorse ideology, as deeply coded and influential as it is elusive. And then she should be considering which aspects of ideology are decipherable in these supposedly innocuous street ”signs“ and what types of power structures are being reflected, governed and preserved in them. Only then might she realize that, in fact, her reading was absolutely right: the signs, do, indeed, ”normalize“ the male signifier so as to all but erase women as ”people.“

Considering Pseudo-generic Language

The issues at stake here parallel problems in the English (and Japanese) language, which, like most languages of the modern world, partake in the male-is-norm ideology. They therefore and help constitute sexual inequality (Cohen, 2003). As Julia Penelope Stanley (1977) has shown, males occupy nearly all of the positive semantic space of English. The [+male] category is unmarked and assumed to be the norm, and only a relatively small group of nouns carries the [+female] feature. This smaller group, Penelope continues, ”contains those [nouns] which refer to the socially-defined activities and functions of women. At the center of the female semantic space we might place wife and mother, both nurturing and supportive, and subordinate roles.“ But, she points out, ”when women move into activities outside their roles of wife and/or mother, we move into negative semantic space, semantic space that does not exist for us, because it is already occupied by the male sex … and special linguistic accommodations must be made.“ These accommodations include such terms as ”woman doctor“ ([+female] ”doctor“), ”lady lawyer“ ([+female] ”lawyer“), ”girl band“ ([+female] ”band“), ”actress“ ([+female] ”actor“), and ”comedienne“ ([+female] ”comedian“). All are derivative references that underscore the fundamentally anomalous linguistic position women occupy vis-à-vis the masculine standard. Moreover, pseudo-generic masculine word-forms, e.g., ‘he’, ‘man’, ‘freshman’, ‘guy’, ‘gay’, ‘fraternize’, patronize’, contribute to “the framing of human experience in terms of males’ experience and the concomitant neglect of women’s” (Gibbon, 1999, p. 42).

Spotting Pseudo-generic ”People Signs“

In order to recognize the preponderance of [+male] and, therefore, unmarked symbols that signify ”people,“ an appropriate place to start would be the public toilets. There, ”people signs“ have the double task of highlighting a public service while simultaneously dividing users according to sex (or in any case gender). The demarcations are usually clear: ”Ladies ’“ latrines are symbolized by a red ([+female]) ”person,“ often wearing a dress, ribbon or other [+female] accoutrement. The ”men ’s,“ as one would expect, are largely contrapuntal: a ”person“ of dark [+male] coloration (usually black or blue) and often but not always donning some sort of supposedly [+male] garb (a hat, a bow-tie, a suit, or a combination thereof). The gendered stereotypes here (e.g. women wear dresses and accessories, men wear suits and ties; women like bright colors, men dark) are arguably unavoidable to some degree as (over)simplifications intrinsic to schematic language. The fact that this particular schema is built around a heterosexual norm (e.g. women defined in contrast and relation to men, and vice versa) introduces yet another problematic that goes beyond the scope of this article.

Where the symbolism of the latrine ”people signs“ becomes infinitely more interesting is when it ventures forth to service other public spaces: elevators, escalators, special-needs facilities, street crossings, etc. Out and about town, the symbol for ”male“ unequivocally assumes the ”universal“ status of ”person,“ at the expense of ”females,“ who all but disappear! Behold: the elevator sign is one, two or three men in a box that moves up and down; the escalator a diagonal band carrying a man up or down; a wheelchair, a cleverly rendered circle in which a man is seated. There are, in fact, wheelchair signs explicitly for females which service very specific facilities and, thereby, serve to highlight female disappearance in general. Perhaps the most revealing signs–even strangely comic, in a sinister way–are the hybrids, as, for example, one sign indicating both female/male toilets (with the usual symbols) and an elevator (a box for carrying ”people“ but graphically containing two men). The visual contradictions are alarming… even more so because, in light of dominant patriarchal structures, they are not contradictions at all.

Fixing Signs?

Nor are ”people signs,“ like any other form of language, constant; changes creep in on a regular basis, perhaps reflecting intentions to yield some visual/cultural space to women. But such shifts are a far cry from the more radical measure of feminist linguists, who have proposed compensatory strategies for combating masculine gender normativity in verbal language usage. Deborah Cameron (1994), for example, has proposed the use of female generics, explaining that:

. . . rather than actually excluding or marginalising men, [using ‘she’ generically] draws attention to the way women are excluded and marginalised by the traditional convention; by undermining our normal expectations as readers and listeners, it forces us to ask why we take those expectations as natural and therefore to acknowledge sexism for what it is… If a time ever comes when feminine generics do not violate anyone ’s sense of what is natural, normal and right, that will be the time to abandon the visibility strategy as outdated . . . .

Compared to Cameron ’s bold moves, shifts in ”people sign“ design are better described as cosmetic fixes, each with its characteristic shortcomings. Slim chance, indeed, that all ”people signs“ will feature [+female] symbols to represent ”people.“

The shifts in signage that are apparent are best described as perfunctory, possibly quaint. Since 2000, for example, the city of Osaka has implemented elevator signs in numerous subway locations that depict the tell-tale ”people-carrying-box,“ only occupied by: a female, a male and a child. One obvious drawback is that the child, in a truly Spartan way, is male. The other weakness is that the elevator mirrors ideological models of the well-balanced nuclear family, even though it lacks a living-room and has no space for a pet. A similar gesture at reconciliation would be the proclivity of [+male] ”people“ symbols wearing hats and/or suits. Generously thinking, this could be read as an attempt to restore gender neutrality to the good ol ’ gender-neutral, stick figure ”person“ by marking male symbols with [+male] clothes, in proportion as the female ”counterparts“ are shaped up with [+female] dresses. The obvious problem here is: well and fine, but how many female ”counterparts“ are actually used to designate street crossings, blind walkways, wheelchair access points and emergency exits, etc.? Finally, praise be to the triangle (and occasionally other geometric shapes) for their willingness to help in ill-fated attempts at unmarking coded ”people signs.“ Unfortunately, the triangle is not only a graphic simplification of earlier forms (e.g. a stylization of the [+female] dress), but would result in substantial communication problems in general usage. Imagine, for example, an elevator depicted as a box containing triangles… clearly, a cargo elevator!

Naomi Klein (2000), author of No Logo, has argued for popular, global resistance to the ideologies of corporate rule and concomitant hegemony of advertising culture. One strategy, ”culture jamming,“ which she sympathetically describes as ”semiotic Robin Hoodism,“ (281) represents a populist, grassroots attempt for consumer/civic activists to reclaim public space from corporate advertisers/marketers by defacing/adapting/subverting ads. A similar approach to ”people signs“ has taken small but noteworthy hold, though not without meeting some resistance. In one photo, the ”people-jammer“ is attempting to steal back positive space and redistribute it to disenfranchised women. It ’s a pity that such an important mission involving the addition of hand-drawn dresses on the ”people“ in an elevator ”people sign“ was rebutted with a half-successful attempt at erasure.

Indeed, identifying, resisting and subverting hegemony has never been simple, and if there is hope, it resides in recognizing what is at stake in a passive acceptance of ”people signs“ as they now exist. As Maria Black and Rosalind Coward (1998) point out in the conclusion to ”Linguistic, Social and Sexual Relations“:

The women ’s movement takes its existence from the fact that however differently we are constituted in different practices and discourses, woman are constantly and inescapably constructed as women. There is a discourse available to men which allows them to represent themselves as people, humanity, mankind. This discourse, by its very existence, excludes and marginalizes women by making women the sex. Our aim in not just to validate the new meanings of women but to confront men with their maleness. This is not just about masculine behavior, but about discursive practices. It is about making men take responsibility for being men. Men are sustained at the center of the stage precisely because they can be ’people ’ and do not have to represent their masculinity to themselves. (118)

In this case, the dominant ideology is tantamount to female erasure, precisely because it is manifest in signs that are too often overlooked. In reality, every flashing crosswalk ”man-in-a-hat,“ every red ”person“ in a dress at the latrine… is a resonant call to action.

Sources Cited:
Black, Maria, and Rosalind Coward. 1990. ”Linguistic, Social and Sexual Relations: A Review of Dale Spender ’s Man-Made Language.“ In Deborah Cameron (Ed.), The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Cameron, Deborah. 1994. ”Problems of Sexist and Non-Sexist Language.“ In Jane Sunderland (Ed.), Exploring Gender: Questions and Implications for English Language Education. Great Britain: Prentice Hall International English Language Teaching.
Gibbon, Margaret. 1999. Feminist Perspectives on Language. New York: Pearson Education Inc.
Klein, Naomi. 2001. No Logo. London: Flamingo.
Stanley, Julia Penelope. 1977. ”Gender Marking in American English: Usage and Reference.“ In A. Pace Nilsen, Haig Bosmajian, H. Lee Gershuny, & Julia Penelope Stanley (Eds.), Sexism and Language.Urbana, Ill.: NCTE.

We would like to thank Akemi Terano and Masaki Masahiro for their help in collecting the photographs featured in this piece.