Friday, July 11, 2008

Is "Men At Work" Sexist?

No, not that great 80s band fronted by Colin Hay.

In Atlanta, the government is replacing 50 "Men Working" signs with ones that say "Working Ahead." This is the result of a campaign by Cynthia Good to change the signs -- which she believes are sexist.

The exact phrase Good uses regarding the "Men Working" signs is "subtle forms of discrimination."

My questions to you -- Are these signs sexist? Do you think subtle forms of discrimination have an impact? And, using this logic as a yardstick of what is acceptable, can we (should we) carry this viewpoint into our superhero comics? How would we do that? Should we?

Basically, I think gender equality was a legitimate enough reason to change the signs -- if, as Good says, there were women working along men on those sites, a sign that only recognizes the men seems a little backward.

On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that anti-feminists love to point out as "taking things too far." Doesn't mean I think Good was wrong to campaign to get rid of the original signs. I'm just saying that I know how this sort of thing plays out on Fox News.


  1. Those "too far!" attitudes are the sort of thing that really rankle me. Sure, there isn't a need for a PRIORITY to be made here, except for the fact that you know what? Language controls how people think. & "working ahead" is in no way less communicative than "men at work." Summary: soak your head, sissies. All change for the better is good change.

  2. Also, I've said it before, I'll say it again: back in the olde englishe days (or middle english I think?) "man" meant human-- it was modified to "wereman" or "wifeman" (werman/wyfman/whatever) to show gender.

  3. um. I have always just assumed both genders in those situations where the masculine plural was used.

    But the sign changing doesn't seem to be over the top. The term Police Officer seems more commonly used than policemen. Firefighter more than firemen. So it seems to be a subtle and slow shift to the gender neutral terms.

    But I draw the line at calling ottoman an ottoperson. :)

  4. Maybe I am not being sensitive enough to the matter at hand but my first thought to hearing about this was...

    Who cares?

    Should the whole "Men At Work" thing be changed sure...but it just seems to me like there are bigger fish to fry as far as gender equality and the like goes.

    I mean....half the time when I see those signs all I think is...Oh guess I better get outta the way people are doing some kinda construction.

    I say all of this from the male perspective however so I don't know, maybe I am over-trivializing this

  5. "Sexist" seems too strong for what the signs are; though it is a subtly sexed message ("discrimination" is also too strong: its not like the signs stopped any woman from working in the streets if she so chose.)

    My basic reaction to such things hitting the news is to ask why don't people have anything better to do than police language for subtle discrimination.

    Its fine the signs were changed. I just jump ship when people attack the generic third person collective pronoun ("every child should wear his coat") and mankind and man as generics for humanity. If that sexing is subtle, it's subtlety I approve of.

    Superheroes? Not sure: heroes are male and female and its usually obvious. Is the Legion of Superheroes sexist because its not the Legion of Superheroes and Superheroines? No, since "hero" is sufficient to cover both: as is actor and waiter. That the culture also retains knowledge at some level that those are all gendered nouns is fine subtle discrimination: of the sort that REMINDS us that the current newspeak is New, and not the heritage of mankind/humanity.

    FWIW I was intrigued by Terry Gross's interview with the Wall-e co-writer Andrew Stanton, and how he gendered the robots Wall-e and Eve: for Wall-e, he's pretty "open"
    and you can figure out how he works, but Eve is smooth, her workings are mysterious, like females. At one point Gross describes Eve as "ovular" and then says "I did just say ovular, didn't I". I'm amazed that we can "know" Wall-e's a boy robot and Eve is a girl robot by those kinds of cues (besides vocal tone: though maybe that's necessary).

    So is the WAY the female is a superhero different than the way the male is? I would hope so, or I'm not reading about humans, I'm reading about males (or females) wearing different avatars.

  6. I don't think it's too far to go, but I do think it's to far to immediatly replace all of the signs, especially when you factor in the cost. Atlanta is already having financial issues and replacing Men Working signs is a silly way to spend our money. Can't we just make all new signs say "Work ahead" and let it phase itself out? What's the lifespan of your average construction sign anyway? Are a couple of month/years really going to cause that much more damage in the grand scheme of things, compared to the PR damage of demanding immediate change in the signs?

    Also of note, I live about a mile or so from the Georgia governer's mansion, and during the roadwork in that area, someone went out and spray painted "wo" in front of all the "men working" signs.

  7. "during the roadwork in that area, someone went out and spray painted "wo" in front of all the "men working" signs."

    --that would be the woman who complained to the city council and got the signs removed.

  8. "Who cares?

    Should the whole "Men At Work" thing be changed sure...but it just seems to me like there are bigger fish to fry as far as gender equality and the like goes. "

    Heh, I was just about to make the very same comment. Yeah, that wording reflects old-fashioned assumptions about men and women, and should be changed at some point (I like dreadful rauw's suggestion). But there are more serious and insidious examples of sexism that should be addressed first, in my opinion. I am curious as to why the plaintiff picked this particular issue.

    As for superhero/-heroine, I'd actually like to see that distinction dropped, along with actor/actress, waiter/waitress*, etc; it's completely unnecessary. After all, no one has used, say, the term prosecutrix in a long time (so long that spellcheck thinks that's a misspelled word).

    *I once overheard a man trying to hit on a woman, but when she described herself as a waiter he began giving her a hard time, right up until he realized he was not about to get her number that way. He changed his opinion right quick.

  9. That makes sense. I can't access the original article.

    As far as waiter/waitress goes, most restaurants have gone with the gender neutral "server"

    And inside most or the entertainment businesses I've been associated with, the word "actress" is only used during award season.

    "An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor, I can play anything." - Whoopi Goldberg

    I think that's the tack that should probable be taken here. words like waiter, actor, and superhero are only masculine when you have words like waitress, actress and superheroess to compare them to. So why not eliminate the feminine terms, and restore gender neutrality to the orignal word, which, at its root means "one who waits/acts/saves reporters(reportesses) from mad scientists(scientesses)"?

    Sure, this won't work on "men working" signs, but hey, we've licked that problem now, right?

  10. Why is it necessary to *eliminate* the word "superheorine"?

    What acts are needed to be taken to "eliminate" such a word, and what are the repercussions and downsides of the actions needed to eliminate a word?

  11. Anonymous4:00 PM

    Having only lived in Michigan and Arizona, the only signs I've ever seen are of "Road Work Ahead" variety. The fact that there is road work ahead strongly implies that there are people so slow the **** down. In Michigan those signs are always accompanied by "fines doubled" or "$7500 + 5 years in prison" warning signs for those that want to keep doing 95 through the work zone.

  12. Oh, and I wrote that whole comment without even thinking of the, um, name of Our Esteemed Host(ess?)'s blog.

    So there's one downside to eliminating the word: we have to start reading "Occasional Superhero".

  13. You know, maybe it's just because I live in Minnesota, but why don't they have "road work up ahead" signs? That's what we have here.

  14. Yeah, I think they should just buy some "Road Work Ahead" signs and be done with it. There's no point in using specifically gendered nouns when people of both genders work in a certain industry.

    It's not something I would've thought or complained about, but since someone did and got it changed, I say, "Right on. Let's have some accuracy/fairness here."

    Are there bigger fish to fry? Certainly, but why not fry the smaller ones you have on hand before trying it with the larger ones that are just out of reach for now?

    And those people who point out feminists "taking things too far" tend to label almost ANYTHING feminists do as too far. And they tend to use the term feminist itself almost exclusively pejoratively, so screw them.

  15. I'd say that if they can come up with a gender-neutral substitute that doesn't sound ridiculous, then they should start producing the new signs and phase out the old ones as they wear out over time.

    The current signs aren't perfect, but they aren't egregious. It's not a bad idea to stop making them, but I don't see the point in spending a bunch of money to change them all out at once.

  16. It is true that this is the exact type of thing that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and all the various media arms of the RNC love to go gaga over in order to scare people. "Oh my stars and garters the man hating lezies are coming to YOUR neighborhood to change YOUR road signs that have been a tradition since america's founding! Will these american hating wymenists stop at nothing?!"

    But if we've learned nothing else about conservative media in the past fifteen years... they run on faux outrage. That's all they have. Faux outrage and blondes in tight sweaters. That's their entire game plan. So it doesn't matter what is actually happening, they'll find a way to get outraged about it. And if there is nothing that fits the mold, they'll make something up. I once saw them do a story on a Flordia teacher accused of teaching wizardry. "Can you beLIEVE that the libers want to teach YOUR kids SORCERY!"

    So if they're going to get outraged about something anyway, might as well do some good while you're at it.

    And were the road signs sexist? Yeah. In a small non-malicious "I never really thought of it like that" way. I don't think it was an overwhelming feminist issue, but I have no doubt there were some girls and women who saw that and felt an alienation. A sense that there are places that women don't belong and this happened to be one of them. And on the flip side, I can't see what would be gained by keeping the signs as they are. I doubt any of the workers took a sense of pride or even interest in the signs.

    So sure, change the signs. And Fox news et all will grouse and rage until the next news cycle when they find something new to fake outrage over. And most people will forget, except for the few people who now feel less alienated.

    Seems like an overall win in my book.

  17. I'm jumping on the bandwagon of just finding this sort of thing annoying because I pay taxes to the State of Georgia. The most embarassing element of this faux controversy is that I get the impression from the other posts that other states already made this change and Georgia is the last to catch on. In a related story, Georgia does less than any other state to promote corporations being more environmentally considerate and has dumped its untreated sewage down-river to Alabama and Florida for the past 60-70 years.

    Here's the thing. The Governor's mansion is in Buckhead, one of the most affluent areas of Atlanta. This lady who was outraged about the whole men at work thing is another overprivleged socialite with too much time on her hands. Pretty much the essence of the women George Carlin used to say oppose abortion but you're not going to catch them having crack fetuses transferred into their uteruses.

    Anyway, this is just another example of the right people making an issue out of the wrong things because they'd hate for people at large to really figure out that the problem isn't about the words on street signs but about the fact that the wealthy corporate elite that own everything in this country sold us out decades ago and they've kept us distracted by idiotic debates about chairman versus chairperson in order to keep us distracted. It's all a game and we're being played like suckers while our economy tanks, incomes crash and cost of living skyrockets. Damn the man.

  18. But what about people who can't read English? Practically speaking, a visual sign works better for non-english reading people to understand that there's a impediment in the road ahead...

  19. "um. I have always just assumed both genders in those situations where the masculine plural was used. "

    I thought the same thing, but about 20 years ago, I changed my mind completely.

    The problem is that you have the male word form representing both males and females. You might think these are just words, but they represent a problematic assumption.

    For example, medical research has assumed that gender makes no difference so a study that uses only males assumes that the research applies to women as well. As it turns out, there are several diseases that are different between the genders.

    While we might not see sexist ads like Valerie posted today, there's still this idea that the male is the same as both male and female, diminishing the importance of the female. Is the sign itself small potatoes? Yes. But it's part of a larger problem, so drawing our attention to recognizing women is no small thing.

    And if you're thinking, "Well, that's hypocritical--women want to be treated as equals but also want to be treated differently," that's a simplistic reduction of the two different points. It's one thing to treat women as fairly as men. That has nothing to do with recognizing women and not letting "men" be all inclusive. How offensive is it?

    Just 8 years ago, when my wife and I bought a house, the legal papers had my name and the Latin phrase "et ux" ("and others"). We asked about that and was told it was a common legal way of saying "and wife." We're not talking about the 70s, 60s, or some removed sexist time but the late 90s. My name was used to represent her name as well, reducing her to the role of my rib, so to speak. An attachment. A subordinate.

    As a man, I have to take women at their word when they say that something is offensive. Arguing that it isn't is stupid and insulting.