Do we need gender equity for traffic light icons? This is an actual debate going on in Germany right now. The northwestern city of Dortmund is currently proposing to introduce a 50/50 gender balance in its pedestrian traffic signals. This means that for every green man that flashes on to tell walkers it’s time to cross, there will one day be a corresponding green woman doing the same elsewhere in the city. In the daily run of city business, this issue might seem like small fry, but it has unleashed a wave of commentary that the newspaper Die Welt has indelicately described (in English) as a “s**tstorm”.
At the center of the storm is a pictogram Germans call the Ampelfrau—simply translated as “traffic light woman." A squat, girlish figure with pigtails and a broad skirt, the Ampelfrau was first introduced in the Eastern German city of Zwickau in 2004. She’s distinctively different from the usual anonymous figures found in most countries. She has since spread across much of Eastern Germany, on whose already popular male crosswalk signal she is modeled (more on that later). Her migration has also reached a few crossings over in the West, but Dortmund’s plan is the first time the Ampelfrau will be rolled out across a district as an equal partner with her male counterpart. But for Dortmund’s governing Social Democrats and Greens, this isn’t just about giving women equal billing: Thanks to her flared skirts, the female crosswalk stencil is broader than the current skinnier male version, and thus emits a clearer, brighter light.
Not everyone shares Dortmund’s enthusiasm. The WAZ newspaper has lampooned the potential silliness of the move by calling for compromise “crosswalk couples." Meanwhile, the country’s Christian Democrat Young Union has damned it as a “senseless, red-green world-improvement daydream”—in other words, pointless crunchy pinko nonsense. This seems a little harsh since the move won’t actually cost extra money. The plan is only to replace male stencils with female ones as the former wear out, creating a very gradual gender balancing of the urban landscape.
It’s not just the right who are skeptical about the Ampelfrau though. Earlier this year, Berlin’s Senate rejected introducing her in the city, deeming her pairing of Pippi Longstocking braids and a swinging skirt as an outdated cliché. It also ruled that un-distracting uniformity was a safer bet for traffic safety. They may have a point, though the female figure has been introduced in the region surrounding Berlin without yet causing the deaths of pedestrians momentarily stunned by her striking silhouette. So far, the country remains divided as to whether the Ampelfrau is a sensible strike for gender equality, a silly PC sideshow, or an unwelcome throwback to a retrograde vision of femininity. For outsiders looking in, the discussion seems like more evidence of Germans’ love for sweating the small stuff.
Still, symbolic issues are usually windows into something deeper. Right now, Germany is also debating whether to ditch gender-specific titles—such as professor/professorin—that the United States largely jettisoned a while back, and the Ampelfrau discussion hinges on a similar issue. This isn’t even the first time that traffic symbols have gotten caught up in a wider national argument. In the 1990s, the different crosswalk pictograms used by East and West Germany had their own heavily debated showdown.
The fight revolved around which of them, if any, should become reunified Germany’s national standard. The Western version was a bland, anonymous male figure, a silhouette resembling a G.I. Joe with his kit stripped off. The Eastern version, by contrast, was an old-fashioned looking but characterful design classic: a squat, quizzical figure with a jaunty wide-brimmed hat and one freakishly long arm. He might seem cutesy to some, but East Germany’s Ampelmännchen (“little traffic light man”) had a harmless, refreshing playfulness that won people over.
After reunification, the little traffic light man was still given his marching orders. Berlin started covering over eastern crosswalk signs with standard EU-wide stencils (at a cost of 20 DM a time) in an attempt to harmonize the city’s two sectors. This caused an outcry among Easterners, who saw it as more than just a waste of money; to them it was a microcosm of Western arrogance, an assault on the small print of their Eastern identity that falsely assumed default superiority for Western imports.
The stencil switch was then cancelled, not least because West Berliners agreed that East Germany’s little man was kind of adorable. The hat-wearing Easterner then started to colonize Western Germany, to general public approval. The Ampelmännchen became a national icon, his outdated hat successfully evading the fashion-police treatment that has greeted the Ampelfrau’s skirt, and there’s even been discussion of introducing him across the EU. This older fight to see a crossing light shaped like a man with a funny hat on may seem unimportant, just like the current fight to see a woman-shaped light in the same place. But this sort of stuff has an uncanny knack for getting under people’s skin.