A few years ago, politicians in Berlin made headlines for their attempts to bring gender equality to their city’s crosswalk signals. They wanted to create an “Ampelfrau,” or “traffic light woman,” a female counterpart to the iconic “Ampelmann” invented in East Germany in the 1960s. It became clear right off the bat that Ampelfrau would be laden with biases and complications that Ampelmann escapes. In her motion requesting Ampelfrau, Social Democrat District Leader Martina Matischok-Yesilcimen specified that the figure should represent a self-assured, modern-day woman, yet without any “sexist stereotypes” — meaning no ponytails or skirts, and definitely no high heels or mini skirts — according to the Local.
Sofie, Ampelfrau and other female-designed crosswalk symbols do challenge a male-centric worldview just by existing. They occupy a crucial space in our roadways, where we are required to look at them in their skirts and ponytails, reminding us that there are people besides men and perspectives besides men’s perspectives. However, they simultaneously highlight the difficulty of dismantling that worldview.
For Wade, creating female crosswalk icons — even if it requires us to use imperfect, clichéd markers of femininity — is inherently valuable because it challenges the male-centeredness of our public space.
“It would force men to see themselves in that ‘walking woman,’” she says. “That is actually a really profound thing, because it requires men to see female people as human beings, just like they are.”
So are Amersfoort, Valencia and others wasting (albeit minimal) resources on feminized crosswalk signals? Are these cities attempting to treat a symptom of sexism and hoping it will cure the disease?
So if there is a perfect feminist crossing signal design, we may have many more streets to cross before we find it.