What Sex Is Your Crossing Light? Check the Mural

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A plywood construction wall in New York is papered with 99 blown-up photos of pedestrian crossing light icons from around the world. They feature a number of interesting life-size men. Only three of the icons are clearly female.

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Maya BarkaiNEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--In and around Berlin, his name is "The Ampelmann," or little traffic light man. He wears a hat.

In Fredericia, Denmark, he is known as the foot soldier and carries a rifle. In another part of Denmark, he's the silhouette of Hans Christian Andersen, the beloved 19th century author of fairly tales, and he wears a top hat and carries a cane.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the image changes gender and goes by the name of "Sophie," sporting a ponytail and heels.

Joachim Rossberg, who has produced traffic lights with female images in Germany, said the Netherlands adopted its female icon "Sophie" from his country, according to the U.K. news site Ananova. Pedestrians pay more attention to female icons because the curvier form reflects more light than sparer male figures, Rossberg said on Ananova.

Pedestrian traffic light icons, it turns out, can have male and female traits and a diversity of identities, including being in a wheelchair.

A photography mural "Walking Men 99"--on the wall of a New York construction site at 99 Church Street, right across from the Women's eNews office--makes that clear with a display of large-format photos of 99 traffic icons from cities around the world.

The art installation went up in January 2010 and will last through the year.

The idea for the project came to Maya Barkai, a 29-year-old New York-based Israeli freelance photographer, from the various traffic icons she encountered at intersections around the world.

"I paid attention during my travels a lot, and I saw that it's different here and it's different in Jerusalem," she told Women's eNews while walking around the project. "It's different wherever I went, and I started to collect."

Collecting Global Icons

She photographed some of the icons herself and asked friends to email what they came across through her Web site. Her files now contain about 150 images.

One signal she hopes to add soon is a female pedestrian icon now being substituted for male icons in intersections around the parliament building in Wellington, New Zealand. The figure steps out in a knee-length dress, arms in a static swinging motion and a pageboy haircut straight above her shoulders.

Barkai says she also likes Sophie's ponytail and heels, as well as the female icon adopted by the Spanish city of La Coruna, who wears a knee-length skirt and ponytail.

However, she says she hadn't noticed the scarcity of female pedestrian signals--three out of 99--in her project and that she didn't intend to make any statement about an apparent preference by city traffic light administrators for male figures.

Lisa Wade, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, has commented on gender aspects of the traffic light signal images on her Web site, Sociological Images: Seeing Is Believing, and viewed the mural online.

"The 'Walking Men 99' exhibit really illustrates something we take for granted in nearly all arenas of life: the use of men to symbolize humanity," Wade said in an e-mail interview. "We tend to feel comfortable allowing men and masculine things to represent everyone, but women and feminine things are seen as just for women."

Wade said the exhibit privileges manhood as the human experience through its name and the preponderance of male figures.

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