Sneaky Sexism: Some Quite Literal Tell-Tale Signs

Sneaky Sexism: Some Quite Literal Tell-Tale Signs

Signs, they are a good thing right? Useful. There for the benefit of civil society, to point you in the right direction. Which is why at the moment I am wondering why there are some questionable, sneaky signs lurking around...

Let's take this one for example:


Hilarious, right? Such subtlety of language. Witty ‘banter’, I assume. However, if anyone called me a bag, I would be furious. If I heard anyone refer to their female partner (and as much as I turn this phrase around in my head to see if it could ever be aimed at a man, I am sure that the slur remains towards women and probably older women at that) I would think that person was sexist and misogynistic. So why is it okay to put this sign up in a central London pub?

Another sign that bothers me more and more is the one in shops pointing you in the direction of tampons and sanitary towels; feminine care as they so delicately put it. You can imagine when supermarkets started to become more prominent a group of middle age men around the table discussing what words they could possibly hover over the aisle so that women could find the necessary sanitary products but men wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with seeing.

’Feminine care’ for me is a mash of words that just don’t match the experience. The Oxford English dictionary states that the word ‘feminine’ describes something as, ‘ Having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness’. Now of course it also simply means relating to women however it is the sense of delicacy that the word invokes for me. I don’t know about you but my periods aren’t delicate, and they certainly are not pretty. I feel like ‘Feminine Care’ shames us for bleeding monthly. I recently saw a sign in a toilet that seemed so embarrassed about the thought of menstrual blood that it couldn’t bring itself to even mention any related words;


Maybe the sign for please don’t bleed in our vicinity had sold out.

Then last week I was gobsmacked to see the latest Transport for London signs that aim to promote people to use the system more thoughtfully. I was stood on a busy tube and saw a poster with the words ‘Little Miss Stubborn was too stubborn to move down inside even though she knew other passengers needed more space. This delayed everyone’s journey.’ Little Miss Stubborn sounds like a bitch, right? The whole series of books is obviously highly gendered, the fact that it is Mr Men and Little Miss gives it away. I wonder why it wasn’t Mr and Mrs books - that would've been the first thought surely when ten years into drawing the series Roger Hargreaves decided to add female characters. Or when he decided to go for Miss, why chose Little Miss? To a contemporary audience the gender portrayal sounds too unbalanced. And yet, Transport for London, an organisation that allows the one of the busiest cities in the world to travel, with over 3.8 million people using it everyday, decided to go with a brand that compounds gender stereotypes. On seeing the Little Miss Stubborn sign I worried that the language it is using will undermine women and girls, in the same way that ‘bossy’ is used to beat down female assertiveness. Of course people not moving down on transport is annoying but by playing to stereotypes they are gendering the problem.

Then the next poster I saw was Mr Strong holding open the doors of a tube, which for me is definitely one of the most annoying things when travelling through London as it delays everyone’s journey. But TfL let me know that he was just ‘being polite’ in ‘holding the doors open for Mr Busy’. The message was coming through. They are not all as bad but I can’t get my head round why they didn’t see the dangers with putting these imbalances into their signs especially when they’ve been running a strong anti-sexual harassment campaign for the last year. To me, referring to a woman as stubborn and a man as polite for equally annoying traits is in the same palette as when a man calls you a bitch if you refuse his advances of grabbing your bum on a night out. His actions are rational, your’s are rude at best. Messages are read through these public signs and those that publish them should not be allowed to fuel the fire of sexism.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the male equivalent of the Little Miss Stubborn poster is Mr Daydream, he just ‘forgot’ to move down...

Words by: Laura Atherton
Credit: Top four images as part of the'Old Bags' Project, 2011. Lori Petchers, 57 and Faith Baum, 63.
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