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"the sorry state of “default” imagery"
July 24, 2014 4:46 PM   Subscribe

no more “put a skirt on it”
In a historical vacuum, we would not project gender onto images with no visible gender signals. But we’ve inherited, and perpetuated, the idea that a blank person is a Man. Unless you add decorations. Then you have yourself a Woman. Yes, it’s 2014, many women have short hair, pants, and no makeup. We know this intellectually. But it doesn’t seem to translate into how we actually represent men and women.…

Good news: the next time you draw a person or create a user avatar, you have an opportunity to fight the sexist patriarchal bullshit! Like many instances of patriarchy-smashing, it’s not actually that hard once you get the principles down.
posted by Lexica (51 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man + decorations = woman.

This explains so much!
posted by divined by radio at 4:54 PM on July 24 [7 favorites]


Utilikilts, dorky as they are, made this restroom sign.
http://twitpic.com/4qlclr

It should be noted that may folks who are male and own utilikilts also have boobs. Or 'hoobies', as some call them.
posted by poe at 4:58 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Isn't the ubiquity of these icons their major selling point?

Shall we decry the save icon and the folder icon as well for their anachronistic and skeuomorphic insensitivity?

I would say ditch the icons altogether, but then you're stuck with cultural insensitivity for those who can't read and understand the words.

Guess we could always just stick with ♂ and ♀.

Oh, and ☿ and ⚥ and ⚧ and ⚦ and ⚨ and ⚩ and ⚪ and ∅ . Yep, that'll be much clearer.
posted by anarch at 5:02 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]




I would say ditch the icons altogether, but then you're stuck with cultural insensitivity for those who can't read and understand the words.

It's not that hard.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:06 PM on July 24 [24 favorites]




It's not that hard.

But then you're being culturally and religiously insensitive to those who require gender separation.

It is that hard.
posted by anarch at 5:12 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


even if it's hard, that doesn't make it unworthy of consideration or discussion.
posted by nadawi at 5:17 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


But then you're being culturally and religiously insensitive to those who require gender separation.

It is that hard.


How is a single-occupancy loo culturally and religiously insensitive? If you're the only one there, you should have all the gender separation you need.
posted by polymath at 5:19 PM on July 24 [29 favorites]


Would this work, or would we end up on an icon treadmill where whatever new things were commonly used to denote femaleness as opposed to maleness would end up with the same connotations as lipstick, bows and skirts?
posted by jacquilynne at 5:20 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Probably just use a square. If it means everything, the world's your oyster. Every door will be surprise. Bathroom or pirate gold? Both?
posted by angerbot at 5:38 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Would this work, or would we end up on an icon treadmill where whatever new things were commonly used to denote femaleness as opposed to maleness would end up with the same connotations as lipstick, bows and skirts?

Much of the FPP is about how the default icon is often explictly male. In the vast majority of situations, the default icon need not be gendered at all. So it's about designing icons that are not explicitly gendered.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:39 PM on July 24 [9 favorites]


If there is really going to be moaning about losing our precious, precious iconsssss, then I despair over making real change.

(Okay, not really, because real change when it comes to sexism and gender stuff has happened in my lifetime - the world I live in now is really different in important ways from the one I grew up in - but still. Oh no what about the icons? Changing some icons will slippery-slope us down to changing ALL THE ICONS?!?! Sigh.)
posted by rtha at 5:42 PM on July 24 [11 favorites]


Changing some icons will slippery-slope us down to changing ALL THE ICONS?!?! Sigh.
Somewhere in the underworld, Thoth is already kicking Steve Jobs' ass, forever.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:46 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Well, my problem is that the assumption is that items denoting femaleness are inherently bad and shameful and somehow "lesser" than items (or lack thereof) denoting maleness.

Many people who identify as female wear skirts, and many people who identify as male do not. This is limited to my culture, true, but it's the one I got. A skirt isn't bad - what is a problem is identifying traditional female markers as something bad or to be eliminated. It's the flip side of enforcing gender stereotypes (making everything pink to denote it's for girls, for instance) - both are seriously problematic.

Girls can wear skirts, but don't have to. Either choice is valid, and signifying a stick figure with an item culturally associated with women is fine, as being a woman is not a bad or shameful thing.

We can start putting neck-ties on figures denoting men, tho the iconography's not as visually clean as the skirt-triangle.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:46 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


Toilets look different in different parts of the world, of course.

[]0[] could be a squat toilet. Or a boom box.

San Francisco (and other cities, I'm sure) could use an icon that changes into a guy peeing in the sink while someone else throws up on his shoes at a certain time of night.


In other news that sign for "caution a 1950's housewife and her children are crossing the street" is the same in India, but they are running
posted by poe at 5:48 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


From the article: "in my dream world all bathrooms are gender-neutral and indicated with a 'smiling pile of poo' emoji."

The downside is that some people looking for chocolate soft-serve ice cream are going to be very disappointed.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 5:54 PM on July 24 [14 favorites]


Tooth people! What a great, simple doodling tip. She's right; they're way more fun than stick people.
posted by straight at 5:54 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


It really, really isn't that hard. Or, at least, no harder than any other everyday design problem. I think the article lays out a nice path.

1. In many situations your default icon doesn't need to signal gender at all. Use a smiley face, non-gendered tooth person, egg, or whatever else. Give it a second glance to make sure you didn't accidentally male-ify it.

2. If you do need or want gendered icons, think it through a bit and don't be lazy. Don't have one male and one female. Don't use goofy stereotypes. Consider people who would prefer not to be gendered. Fallen London does a nice job -- you have a variety of options, some male, some female, some androgynous. The variety includes some that are more traditionally feminine or masculine and some that are not.
posted by feckless at 5:55 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


I suggest that the "default person" icon from now on should be a skull, because we all have the same thing inside, where it counts: a skeleton desperately struggling to escape its cocoon of flesh and shed its bonds of sinew, biding its time until its shell of meat becomes complacent and it can burst forth in its true charnel glory.
posted by Pyry at 6:01 PM on July 24 [34 favorites]


I've told this story on the blue several times, but it's never been so on-topic:

When my daughter was 3-years-old, we were on an airplane and I took her to the bathroom. She got a little bit upset saying, "This is the boys' room." She pointed to the sign that had a stick figure person showing where to put trash, but of course the stick figure for "person" was identical to the usual symbol for "men's room."

Sometimes I tell people that was the day I became fully committed to using inclusive language.
posted by straight at 6:02 PM on July 24 [18 favorites]


But how will we know which ones have trouble drinking water?
posted by blue_beetle at 6:03 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


But we’ve inherited, and perpetuated, the idea that a blank person is a Man. Unless you add decorations. Then you have yourself a Woman. Yes, it’s 2014, many women have short hair, pants, and no makeup.

What these icons demonstrate is: women are the only ones who are allowed to have "decorations." That's why a stick figure whose only distinguishing feature is a dress or skirt is clearly a woman. Men are stuck just being "blank." Women have more freedom to be however they want.
posted by John Cohen at 6:22 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


My two cents: if your icons must distinguish between genders, then don't bother trying to come up with a decoration-free lady icon. Just even out the decorations. Men get, say, mustaches, while women get, say, bob haircuts. Don't offer a blank icon which is presumably a man.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:31 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


I think it's very straighforward: if the hips are wider than the shoulders, then it's a woman. If the shoulders are wider, it's a man.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:34 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Women have more freedom to be however they want.

this is laughably not true. i get the argument that we can wear pants when men aren't given the same freedom to wear dresses (although they should! dear men, your legs look fucking great in skirts) and that we get more color options in our clothes (although, that isn't really so true any more), but women are very much not more free in general.
posted by nadawi at 6:39 PM on July 24 [17 favorites]


I like her tooth people a lot. Definitely an improvement on stick figures.
posted by zompist at 6:41 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


but women are very much not more free in general.

Clothing is just one example of a larger fact: women are allowed to act how they want. It's much more socially accepted for a woman to act either masculine or feminine or somewhere in between — depending on what she wants — than it is for men to act feminine.

I know: that's a result of underlying misogynistic attitudes. Yep. But men can still bear the brunt of those attitudes.
posted by John Cohen at 6:54 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


fun fact, actually those are transmisogynistic attitudes and its not men that bear the brunt of them
posted by thug unicorn at 6:56 PM on July 24 [12 favorites]


Women have more freedom to be however they want.

hahahaha You've never had to buy PPE as a woman, have you?

You've never had to buy outdoor clothing and all you want is some fucking pants that aren't purple or capris, the kind of things that last outdoors and are regular outdoor colors...like all the guys pants in the next aisle over where they have 20 different varieties to the ladies 2 (in teal OR eggplant! in stretchy nylon! but no pockets for you, because as a woman you obviously don't need them!) And you can't buy the guys' because you actually have hips.

You've never oh wait I can't finish this because I have to drive over 50 miles tonight to stay in a state park in a fucking tent because I'm working in North Dakota and there's all kinds of room in the man camps for the guys but if I stayed there hohoho that'd be a huge mistake, and hey hey and by the way I'm typing this from the truck stop I stopped to take a shower at while I'm waiting for it to stop with the thunderstorming before I get in my wet tent, and then get up at 2:30 in the morning in order to be on the job site by 4 while the guys roll out of bed at 3:30. And shit if I'm late the cracks about needing extra time to put on my make up or "my face" and other "girly" things will start, on top of all the snide remarks about how the work shack smells too "girly" and that they're allergic to perfume (I use the soap on the fucking wall of the shower, yeah, perfume, whatever).

freedom to be however we want my ass
posted by barchan at 7:21 PM on July 24 [58 favorites]


I think it's very straighforward: if the hips are wider than the shoulders, then it's a woman. If the shoulders are wider, it's a man.

I am a narrow-hipped woman and have dated a wide-hipped man. We exist. Body types vary by quite a lot in both XX and XY folks.

Ya'll really should look at the symbols suggested in the article, they are great and present a nice variety of figures, some clearly male or female, others that could be either.
posted by emjaybee at 7:28 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


My two cents: if your icons must distinguish between genders, then don't bother trying to come up with a decoration-free lady icon. Just even out the decorations. Men get, say, mustaches, while women get, say, bob haircuts. Don't offer a blank icon which is presumably a man.

This makes the whole thing make a lot more sense to me. Thanks for summarizing it this cleanly.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:35 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


I was at a hotel waterpark the other day with my two children. My daughter (age 6) has been just about living in a bathing suit the last few weeks of vacation and at some point she became jealous that her 8 year old brother only had to pull on shorts any time we headed to the pool or the lake. So she decided to just wear the shorts of her bathing suit. Fine with me.

But not with the staff member at the pool who first pulled my daughter aside to ask her her name, and then (with the evidence of her name presumably enough to = female) asked me why she wasn't wearing the top of her bathing suit.

I took great pleasure in saying "Because she doesn't want to".
posted by Cuke at 7:39 PM on July 24 [15 favorites]


Clothing is just one example of a larger fact: women are allowed to act how they want.

Please stop with this asinine derail. Instead, maybe go read some of the recent and excellent JulybyWomen posts that talk about pervasive and structurally-embedded sexism against women is.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:58 PM on July 24 [14 favorites]


Ack! Proofreading fail - how pervasive...etc
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:07 PM on July 24


Man + decorations = woman.

Exception to the rule: facial hair.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 8:22 PM on July 24


How about a compromise: in order to avoid the "default icon is male" issue, all men's bathrooms will be marked by a stick figure with a large, visible dong.

Armed with sharpies, America's 13-year-old boys (and it's 13-year-old-boys-at-heart) will be invaluable for retrofitting existing bathroom doors.
posted by Itaxpica at 8:29 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


I'm for it. But I'm pretty sure that 13-year-old girls are not actually 13-year-old boys at heart. Rude graffiti for everyone!
posted by asperity at 8:37 PM on July 24


So what do the bathroom icons in Fiji and Scotland look like?
posted by 445supermag at 9:03 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I think it's very straighforward: if the hips are wider than the shoulders, then it's a woman. If the shoulders are wider, it's a man.

How about a compromise: in order to avoid the "default icon is male" issue, all men's bathrooms will be marked by a stick figure with a large, visible dong.

We could do with less cissexism (even jokingly?) in this thread...
posted by lisp witch at 9:17 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


This was a fabulous lightning talk at Double Union a couple of weeks ago, by the way!
posted by geeklizzard at 9:25 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


But how will we know which ones have trouble drinking water?

I don't... I mean... ... ... Why in the world, if you were trying to dump water so that it runs down your body from your head (presumably to cool yourself off), would you dump the water on your mouth, rather than on the top of your head where it could actually do some good? Or, if you don't want to get your hair wet I suppose but have no qualms about getting your clothing wet, just pour the water on your shoulders?

posted by eviemath at 9:45 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


It's easy to tell from the comments here who actually read the article and who just let their knee-jerk response do the typing for them.
posted by harriet vane at 11:52 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Ok, I should have added: the reason I'm disappointed in the standard derail is that the article isn't just a complaint about a common design problem. It analyses the processes that produce the problem in order to generate and present three useful and practical solutions. Non-gendered icons as used on Twitter (another example are the monsters Gravatar uses), a set of diversely-gendered icons, and/or tooth-people instead of stick figures. I'd love to see these ideas put into practice and will be promoting them to the interface designers I know.
posted by harriet vane at 12:57 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


I agree with the comment on PPE, my partner has a whole lot of trouble finding site work pants that have somewhere to put her hips, but I have been banned from wearing my civil constriction issued pants out of the house as they made me look like a clown so I have a suspicion that neither gender can buy trades clothes that don't look ridiculous.
posted by deadwax at 1:10 AM on July 25


But then you're being culturally and religiously insensitive to those who require gender separation.

Frankly, fuck those people; it's not our responsibility to cater to bigots. If someone's cultural or religious values are threatened by gender equality, then they need to go home and reevaluate their values.
posted by polychora at 3:43 AM on July 25 [4 favorites]


Ha ha! Some years back, I was amused/annoyed by Disqus' default avatar, which you can see toward the bottom of this page, under Alternate Avatars.

It wasn't just arguably generically male. It was aggressively and very intentionally male identified, with the broad shoulders and the lantern jaw and the little, um, beanie or something, and it was their only default avatar. I can only assume the full-body version included a large, erect, fertility god style* penis as well.

So, in the interest of community service, I sent them a heads up, saying, "Hey, this is kind of weird and messed up that your only available site avatar is so obviously male looking, so that people have to take extra steps if they don't want to be identified as male," and they did that thing that I hate where, instead of saying Thanks or Fuck you or whatever, they ignore what I just said and act like I asked a really stupid question. So they told me how to upload a personalized avatar.

But hey, it looks like they finally replaced it with one of those tooth avatars. I guess you can have a cookie now, Disqus, but you're going to have to make it yourself. I'm not going to help you anymore.

* And there's an idea. If you have a legitimate need to differentiate binary gender, just say what you're saying and use Kokopelli and the Venus of Willendorf or something.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:58 AM on July 25


divined by radio: Man + decorations = woman.

This explains so much!
Genetically and biologically incorrect.

Men are women with decorations (specifically, external gonads and gamete delivery tubes).

Unless you're only looking at their DNA, in which case men are minimalized women (break a leg off that X-chromosome, et voila!).
posted by IAmBroom at 9:03 AM on July 25 [2 favorites]


I'm just going to leave this here: Bathroom Signs are the Worst
posted by bartleby at 4:24 PM on July 25


-_-;; Not all men have penises and testes. Not all women have uteruses or breasts. Not all men are XY. Not all women are XX. Biology is a lot more complicated than that.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:38 PM on July 25 [2 favorites]


Oh, wait. You mean what I said? But gender isn't actually a binary, so my offhand fertility suggestion was referring to of biological sex (which now that I look, I did say gender, so my bad). It would be impossible to find iconography that effectively and inclusively represented the spectrum of gender identities and expressions of those.

The point is that I can't think of a situation in which you'd legitimately need to distinguish a binary unless it directly related to primary or secondary sex characteristics, probably in a medical context.
posted by ernielundquist at 5:59 PM on July 25


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