Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Go Where?: Gender and Ability, Intersectionality and Constructivism

In the massive response to my post, "Go Where?: Sex, Gender, and Toilets," a couple of issues were raised that I want to follow up on. There were a number of people who noted that I left out an analysis of wheelchair access signs. I offer that analysis in this post. But to do so properly, I first have to go back to the concept of the "universal male", and my assertion that some washroom signs depict men as "people" and women as "people in skirts." It seemed like readers took issue with that part of the post more than any other, so I offer further explanation and support for the argument.

The Universal Male Revisited

That the masculine can stand for the universal while the feminine cannot is uncontroversial. The masculine is the default, the female is the variation. This is evidenced in language: "he" is used as a generic pronoun; and phrases such as "mankind" and "all men are created equal" are used to refer to humankind, while the word "womankind" is not. 

When it comes to signifying men and women, men are the default, they can be "unmarked". Women, since they vary from the default, must be "marked" in some way. (These two posts do a good job of explaining the concept as it applies to race, in the context of animation). Again this is evidenced by language:
“Man” has for a millennium meant both “human being” and “adult male human being.” The word “woman” comes from a compound meaning “wife-man,” and denotes the relationship of the signified to that “unmarked” category, “man.” (Matt Thorn, "The Face of the Other")

However, this post is about signage, not language. The same concepts apply to how men and women are signified visually. The simplest possible way to depict a human being is with a stick figure. The simplest possible way to depict a man would be with the same stick figure. "Man" is an unmarked category. The simplest possible way to depict a woman requires that stick figure varies in some way from the default, as "woman" is a marked category. The webcomics xkcd and Cyanide & Happiness provide examples of this:

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @ Explosm.net

Note that there are two kinds of figures: Plain and unelaborated men, and women with hair. Unmarked and marked. (Please note that I am not condemning these comics as "politically incorrect". I am saying that their art reflects a social convention which privileges men as the default human beings).

It is well-established that the male, as the default human being, can be taken as the universal representative of the human race; while the female, as the variant, cannot. A number of readers disputed that these social facts are reflected in washroom signs. 

Frequently, they commented that it is meant to be assumed that the male figure is not simply a "person" but a "person who wears pants", as contrasted with the female as a "person who wears skirts". As an unmarked stick figure, one can imagine clothes on the male figure as one wishes. The fact remains that the figure is unmarked, it is the universal stick figure. It only represents one half of the human race in washroom signs because the other half has been carved away with a sign of their own. Some commenters insisted that the signs in fact depicted women as "people" and men as "people without skirts." This is a false conclusion. Absent the presence of the female figure, Mr. Sticky stands for all humanity, not the other way around. To illustrate this point, let's look at some of the many things that Mr. Sticky gets up to...

To start his day, Mr. Sticky likes to take walks...

... and and sometimes bike rides.

While walking he may slip and fall...

... off of a precipice... 

... and into the water.

Instead of falling down himself, occasionally things will fall on Mr. Sticky.

But if such disaster strikes, he is ready to evacuate people...

... or help them with their car trouble.

Though helpful, Mr. Sticky can be clumsy.

Not to mention reckless, standing in the middle of the street...

... and climbing up walls.

Really, he has need for adventure. Mr. Sticky goes mountain climbing...

... and boating.

But Mr. Sticky's favourite activity is visiting the zoo.

Mr. Sticky always puts litter in its place.

Occasionally, figures on signs are more detailed. Lo and behold, the implied pants appear - along with men's shoes, hats, and hairstyles. Since these signs are meant to speak to everyone, not just men, this supports the assertion that men are the default human being.

When people-with-skirts do appear on signs that are directed to people in general, they are accompanied by a default person.

Figures marked as female appear alone only when they are intended to specifically denote women.

The universal stick figure, and the figure on the sign for the men's washroom, are one and the same.

The male is just a person, the female is a person-who-wears-skirts.

Ability and Intersectionality

The universal human being is not just male. He is heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, and - in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand - white. We tend to conceptualize every deviation from the default atomistically, even though this does not reflect individual identities or experiences. So, for example, the experiences of a disabled woman of colour do not amount to the experiences of a white able-bodied woman + an able-bodied man of colour + a white disabled man. Her experiences are those of a disabledwomanofcolour. The different aspects of her identity cannot be separated out from each other. This truth - intersectionality - is not broadly understood among the privileged; among those who experience inequality along a single axis. We see people insisting that different aspects of identity can be separated, such as white class-privileged feminists demanding that women of colour ignore the racism they experience for the sake of gender solidarity.

This flawed way of understanding identity - each deviation from the default seen as a discrete layer - is reflected in the washroom signs indicating wheelchair access. Often, there is a male figure, a female figure, and a third non-gendered figure in a wheelchair. Disability is depicted as a discrete aspect of identity, to be layered on top of gender.

Wheelchair access: no. Toboggan access: yes! 

In the signs above, one might interpret the figures in wheelchairs not to be genderless so much as the universal male in a wheelchair, and only as genderless as the universal male is genderless. 

However, other signs make it clear that the figure in the wheelchair is neuter, be it with colour (red and blue taking on the gendered connotations of pink and blue in this context, and yellow being more neutral)...

... or by stripping away all possible gender markers, leaving the disabled figure strangely featureless compared to the other figures.

Instead of being a third, genderless figure, sometimes the disabled figure is pictured next to both the female and male figures, as though a "+" sign were between them.  Ability is an addendum to one's gender identity. 

I found one example where the disabled figures were as clearly gendered as their able-bodied counterparts. 

Other than that, it seems clear that as a society we define disabled individuals by their disability, to the extent of erase other aspects of their identity - in this case, gender.

The Construction of Disability

In the majority of signs pictured above, the figures are motionless, rigid and static. When this aesthetic is applied to a person sitting in a wheelchair, it communicates inactivity and a degree of helplessness. The effect is accentuated when the signs go for a minimalist design and omit the arms of the disabled figure.

Note that in most of these, the male and female figures retain their limbs. In the last image, both the disabled and the female figure are missing arms. This furthers the sense that disabled individuals are helpless.

As I was searching for images to use for this post, I came across the website of a designer who had re-worked the universal handicapped symbol to counteract and challenge the common perception of disabled people as helpless.

The sign is easily understood, and not too disconcertingly different from the image at the very beginning of the post. However, instead of simply sitting in a wheelchair, as though waiting for someone to push them where they want to go, this figure is dynamic and active.

Graphic symbols are designed to communicate a message quickly and clearly. To do so, it may be necessary to draw on shared cultural understandings and assumptions. As they are represented to us, the currency of those understandings and assumptions are reinforced. Signs construct our reality as much as they represent it. This is why it is important not to passively accept the ways we are represented, even in a medium as seemingly innocuous as washroom signs. Instead, we should challenge these representations, and, like the designer of the sign above, find ways to engage with and re-create our social world. 

Photo Sources:
because you value your soul
Dark Roasted Blend 1, 2, 3, 4
1 Design Per Day
Toilet Signs
Oddly Specific
Trek Earth
Small Bits and Pieces


  1. GREAT POST! Really interesting analysis. My uterus is singing to your words ;)

    1. Indian College Girls Pissing Hidden Cam Video in College Hostel Toilets

      Sexy Indian Slut Arpana Sucks And Fucks Some Cock Video

      Indian 3D Girl Night Club Sex Party Group Sex

      Desi Indian Couple Fuck in Hotel Full Hidden Cam Sex Scandal

      Very Beautiful Desi School Girl Nude Image

      Indian Boy Lucky Blowjob By Mature Aunty

      Indian Porn Star Priya Anjali Rai Group Sex With Son & Son Friends

      Drunks Desi Girl Raped By Bigger-man

      Kolkata Bengali Bhabhi Juicy Boobs Share

      Mallu Indian Bhabhi Big Boobs Fuck Video

      Indian Mom & Daughter Forced Raped By RobberIndian College Girls Pissing Hidden Cam Video in College Hostel Toilets

      Sexy Indian Slut Arpana Sucks And Fucks Some Cock Video

      Indian Girl Night Club Sex Party Group Sex

      Desi Indian Couple Fuck in Hotel Full Hidden Cam Sex Scandal

      Very Beautiful Desi School Girl Nude Image

      Indian Boy Lucky Blowjob By Mature Aunty

      Indian Porn Star Priya Anjali Rai Group Sex With Son & Son Friends

      Drunks Desi Girl Raped By Bigger-man

      Kolkata Bengali Bhabhi Juicy Boobs Share

      Mallu Indian Bhabhi Big Boobs Fuck Video

      Indian Mom & Daughter Forced Raped By Robber

      Sunny Leone Nude Wallpapers & Sex Video Download

      Cute Japanese School Girl Punished Fuck By Teacher

      South Indian Busty Porn-star Manali Ghosh Double Penetration Sex For Money

      Tamil Mallu Housewife Bhabhi Big Dirty Ass Ready For Best Fuck

      Bengali Actress Rituparna Sengupta Leaked Nude Photos

      Grogeous Desi Pussy Want Big Dick For Great Sex

      Desi Indian Aunty Ass Fuck By Devar

      Desi College Girl Laila Fucked By Her Cousin

      Indian Desi College Girl Homemade Sex Clip Leaked MMS

      ………… /´¯/)
      ……….,/¯../ /
      ………/…./ /
      (‘(…´…´…. ¯_/’…’/
      ..\’…\………. _.•´

  2. Well well well... Through many illustrations
    you convince me that men are the default human
    being because they have no feature identifying
    their gender.

    And then, surprise:

    "Occasionally, figures on signs are more detailed. Lo and behold, the implied pants appear - along with men's shoes, hats, and hairstyles. This supports the assertion that men are the default human being."

    Men have men's distinctive features, and
    that... proves that men are the default human
    being !

    So, anything or its contrary proves your
    point, no matter with what twisted reasoning !

    You remind me of that funny scene in Holy
    Grail : in whichever way, a witch !! burn !!


  3. "Figures marked as female appear alone only when they are intended to specifically denote women."

    So, so... What a wrong stereotype! So you think
    that all prostitutes are women?

  4. @Nemo
    The fact that some signs use figures with distinctively male features proves that men are the default human being because those signs are meant to communicate with everyone, both men and women.

  5. thank you for making me aware of something i was not even aware of - just took for granted. we should always question. the image of the dynamic individual in the wheelchair was refreshing and positive.

    when i was young in the sixties i took for granted the male's chauvinistic attitude towards women until i read "the female eunich" - always question the status quo.

  6. Yet another entertaining and informative post, thanks! I always find the [gendered stick figure] + [wheelchair-using stick figure] combo odd - especially when the styles are completely at odds. I'm also interested to see the much more dynamic last image - imagine, people with disability and agency!

    (Nemo, it's really annoying how Marissa backs up her assertions with so many examples, isn't it? I can't seem to work the piles of evidence to make them support any ridiculous and illogical assumptions, so I'll let you do the ignoring of it for me. So glad you could be here as the voice of trollery.)

  7. Interesting how women invest their time to fight huge injustices

  8. So, how should such signs be drawn then? This is not a snarky question, although I'm sure it sounds that way. I'm serious here. It's one thing in the mostly literate countries, we could just write "women" and "men" and there wouldn't be a problem... but in countries where this isn't the case... what then? Should the women be drawn as stick figures and the men have pants on?

  9. There is no perfect solution. Segregating washrooms is itself a problematic practice, so the signs for segregated washrooms are always going to be problematic in one way or another.

  10. So, how should such signs be drawn then?

    Women's washroom: the "woman symbol" (circle with a cross sticking out the bottom).

    Men's washroom: the "man symbol" (circle with an arrow emerging diagonally from the top).

    Unisex washroom: a circle with a diagonal arrow coming off the top and a cross protruding from the bottom.

    Unisex disabled washroom: as above, with wheel-spokes in the middle of the circle.


    Yeah, it'd take a little adjustment. But if kids can be trained that stick-figure-in-a-skirt means "female" (even though lots of women wear pants in real life), they can damn well be taught about the symbols for Mars and Venus.

    Off-topic: that one sign up above looks for all the world like two dudes fucking while bent over the hood of a car. "Mr. Sticky", indeed!

  11. read both your bathroom-sign-posts and I really liked them. have hit that subject before and from different aspects:
    people who want to get away from the binary sexes (woman and man) and, on the other side, people who want to be seen as a person who has a sex, like e.g. people in a wheelchair... not sure if your solution, meredith, would be the one for everybody...?

    something that came to my mind and might interest you is a picture i found some time ago:
    (it is a sign for pedestrian area with a sticker on it making the child say: daddy, may i have such a skirt too?')

  12. i really like the idea of the new design of the disabled symbol. thanks for sharing!

  13. not sure if your solution, meredith, would be the one for everybody...?

    There can't be a solution for everyone as long as some people want unisex washrooms and others want segregated ones. But my proposal is at least a start - it gets rid of stereotypes and simplifications like "women wear dresses" and "men don't have waists" at least.

  14. On the note of signs - one place I saw had a standing stick figure and a sitting stick figure (both looking like they need to pee) - and then only one toilet room. The idea being that it wasn't so much gender as how you went to the toilet that determined which cubicle to use. (I would like to say that they were also accessible toilets - but alas I cannot.)

    I must say I do like the new design with the active wheelchair user. Internationality is so important and so hard to explain. This is so true "as a society we define disabled individuals by their disability, to the extent of erase other aspects of their identity"

  15. i'd just like to point out that in general on xkcd, the main character (plain stick figure, who i think represents the author) is the only completely unmarked character. other male characters frequently wear clothing or hats, or carry objects to distinguish them from him. female character always have hair, though. cyanide and happiness, or the other hand, has always ticked me off with their blatant lack of female characters, and the things they're depicted doing when they *do* appear

  16. @ Baxter,

    I have noticed that about xkcd. And I love the comic in general. But in this particular one, both the male characters are unmarked, which made it a good example of what I was talking about.

  17. The restroom signs do need updating. Reminds me of an event about five years ago when a preschool girl who was wearing pants as most girls do these days entered the men restroom. The restroom door had a figure wearing pants. She screamed so loud that my hearing took a week to recover. Although I am a man I haven't worn pants for about a decade since a dress or skirt is so much more comfortable for the developed male body. Maybe some other way to distinguish restrooms other than the obsolete pants or skirts stick figures. Head shapes? Hats? Jock straps or Tampons? Stick figures of a penis or a vagina? We just need some fresh thinking since virtually everyone wears pants these days except the few of us that are smart enough to "think outside of the box". Those signs are clearly as obsolete as the horse & buggy.

  18. The signs may not be how people dress these days, but once learned they are an easy identifier. You don't need to be able to read in order to differentiate between the two. If one said Men and another Women, then not being able to read would mean they're stuck.

    Same goes for the disabled signs. We don't make the disability a defining part of them by making easier access and disabled only restrooms, although simply making it easier for them could be seen as offensive.


    For instance.

    So yes, in the quest for equality where females are dominant (guys don't get maternity leave' :P) we may need new signs to appease the over sensitive generation of today. Problem is, what are we going to put there?

    On the subject of stick figures and hair, I'd like to point out that people treasure their hair with all their heart. They absolutely hate losing it, so to give females hair is a recall back to ye olde day of chivalry. Females get the hair, guys are inferior and thus suffer. Funny how things turn around when you get bored. :P

    Last note because it's boring repeating myself on every post such as this, the only way for true equality and to avoid offending everyone except the old is to remove all barriers between male and female. As in there's no gender limited restrooms, everyone shares the same facilities. It would solve the problem of signage. And so as to not define a disability as the person we will remove all disabled restrooms, they can share or go without.

    Problem solved in the easiest possible manner.

    Although if your entire world view is defined by your perception of a sign on a toilet door then we have bigger problems then why the female is wearing a dress.

  19. I have just installed iStripper, and now I enjoy having the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.


Comments = rainbows, kittens and hugs.
No comments = sad bloggers.

Don't be an obvious troll!

I would prefer if you don't post as "Anonymous". You don't have to sign in to comment, so just pick a name and stick with it. Just so that I can have a better idea of who's commenting. Thanks!