What I had hoped would be a passing fad has now become an everyday, in your face reality. Armies of stick-figures stuck onto the rear windows of vehicles smile dumbly back at me as I drive. I spend a lot of time imagining the best ways to scrape their stick limbs and triangle dresses off the glass. Should I use my fingernails? A chisel? Douse them with a bucket of Hydrogen peroxide? Or is a more toxic substance needed to obliterate the image of the white, middle-class, all-American Family from my world?
Here’s why I hate your stick family. In one word: heteronormativity. Your stick family leaves no room for variation. It doesn’t allow for the myriad of definitions and ways people understand family. It adheres to the stereotypes and structures our society has about what family means and looks like. Through my windshield I am given a clear message from your stick family; this is what family is. And for some reason, I’m given the same definition from each collection of stickers.
Let’s talk about hierarchy first. Hierarchy is order, is a ranking, is placing people and things in a sequence according to their worth or importance. In an English-speaking society that writes and reads left to right, hierarchy can be displayed from left to right as well. Which member of the stick family is always, always, displayed first? The father figure. Quite simply put, the father figure is displayed first because they are the head of the normative family. They are the most important, and the most valuable. If there was no father figure, there would be no family, right? Hmm. Then comes their wife. If I wanted to talk about sizing as well, I would mention that the wife figure is always slightly smaller and shorter than the husband figure. She takes up less space in the world, requires less than her husband, and can easily be over-powered by him. After the wife comes the children in order of age, also displayed by size. And occasionally there is a dog or cat at the end of the line.
If we were to look at this hierarchy as a vertical display instead of a horizontal one, the husband would be placed at the top, the dog/cat at the bottom. So the dog comes after the last kid, just like the wife comes after the husband. Well, at least she still comes before the dog, right? Next let’s talk about gender. How many women wear dresses everyday of their life? Or even just the majority of the time? Why then, do we keep depicting females as wearing dresses? This is the same problem many people have with bathroom signs, and has lead to women jokingly or not re-conceptualizing the triangular dress as a cape.
Another way stick men are differentiated from stick women are the symbols of hobbies/jobs they supposedly have. The husband often carries a briefcase, symbolizing his occupation outside of the home. The wife usually has shopping bags, or in some cases wears a tiara. This can symbolize her conformity to female stereotypes. Even the stick kids are covered with gendered images. Male kids (the one’s with short hair and no clothes/shorts) have basketballs, soccer cleats, hockey sticks, or other sporting goods. Female kids (the one’s with triangle capes, pony-tails/pig-tails, and sometimes tiaras), wear ballet slippers, are dressed as princesses, or have cheerleader pompoms. Another message is clear; males participate in certain types of activities, while females cheer their male counter-parts on.
Finally, let’s talk about family structure. Besides the hierarchical order that stick families invariably adhere to, the make-up of these families is incredibly heteronormative. Does our society’s understanding of family really only include one cis-male father, one cis-female mother, and a number of children? I have yet to see a stick family with two mothers, or two fathers. I have never seen a stick family with polygamous parents, or with polyamorous parents. Do drivers include their step-kids in their stick family? Do they include kids from past marriages that they no longer have custody of? Why are stick families always focused on nuclear families? What about Grandparents, godparents, favourite Aunts/Uncles, best friends, favourite teachers? The stick families I see are always white, and while this may not be an intentional choice, would it not be better to offer a rainbow of coloured stick people to be more inclusive?
My brother told me of a car he was driving behind who had only a single stick person on the rear window. The stick person had an unhappy face. Can there not be a single stick person who is happy being their own family? My problem with stick people families is that they ascribe to stereotypes, they perpetuate an idea of the “ideal” family, and they are not inclusive of all family types. So until I see more variation and less heteronormativity, I am going to continue fantasizing ways of obliterating those sticker symbols.