A few years ago, I worked a boring office job while I was in grad school. It was about the most boring job imaginable, with an equally boring 23 minute commute. During the 46+ minutes I spent driving each day, I devised all manner of games to keep myself occupied. Many of these centered around the other cars and their licence plates, bumper stickers, etc. This was during the height of the Stick Figure Family craze in suburban Wisconsin. Most mornings during my commute, I would find myself driving behind at least one SUV or minivan that had one of these ‘families’ displayed on it.
As a person with Strong Opinions™ about most things, you might think that the following piece is going to be a diatribe about oversharing or kitsch or the aggressively normal culture of the Midwestern suburbs. You’d be wrong. A recent conversation with Amandoll made me realize that it is quite possible that I have seen a somewhat unique sampling of Stick Figure Families. During my insipid commute, I may have actually become an unwitting Stick Figure Family connoisseur. As I’m sure you’ve ascertained, this has clearly been a lifelong dream of mine.
Most of the information I have found online indicates that this article would have been more timely in 2014. However, since suburban Wisconsin is an average of 5-7 years behind the times (and more in some places), I still often see Stick Figure Families when I go home to visit. I haven’t seen much since I moved to Colorado, which leads me to believe that it’s a regional phenomenon.
One of the most important things you must realize about Stick Figure Families is that there are multiple different types of Stick Figure Families. I will now discuss some of the most common ones:
The Basic: This is the type of Stick Figure Family that you see the most often. Usually it’s just a bunch of stick figures. Sometimes they will have faces. If they do, the faces will always be smiling. Usually the figures are assertively gendered. Sometimes the child stick figures will be wearing sports uniforms or playing instruments. Less often, the adults will also have some indicator of their hobbies. This is probably because personalizing stick figures of their family members on the internet has become their hobby.
The Oversharer: If you’ve ever passed by a Stick Figure Family with information on it that has made you wince, or has made you stop and go, “that seems like a good way to get murdered,” as I often do, you’ve probably encountered an Oversharer. These folks have no concept of privacy, or if they do, their concept of privacy was formed after the advent of social media. There are two primary types of Overshares: the “Single and Looking” (SAL) or the “Share Everything About My Family” (SEAMF).
SALs have always perplexed me the most. These are the people who have a Stick Figure Family, often with several children and pets, and then an empty space where their co-parent would be. Sometimes, the co-parent will still be there, but there will be a large arrow and the phrase “Position Available” written above it. I guess this is a way for people to determine someone’s sexuality and relationship status from their automobile. Whenever I see these, I can’t help but I wonder if anyone has considered that essentially putting a personal ad on the back of your car might not attract the best kind of people. I also wonder if this has ever worked as a viable dating strategy. If I were a single mom, and someone came up to me in the middle of a parking garage and asked me to go out with them, because they saw my Stick Figure Family, I don’t think my first instinct would be to accept. I think my first instinct would be to pepper spray first and ask questions later.
SEAMFs, in contrast, are the type of people who post literally every single aspect of their lives on Facebook. If they are parents, they not only talk about potty training their offspring, they post pictures of them on the toilet and talk about their bathroom habits. If they work in an office, they will gripe about their coworkers in VERY specific detail and make no effort to change names or facts. How does this translate to Stick Figure Families, you may ask? Well dear reader, SEAMFs are the type of people who include multiple things about themselves and their families on the back of their car. These Stick Figure Families include first and last names of parents and children, lists of schools, sports played, and jersey numbers. A few years ago, law enforcement officials kept issuing statements about these sorts of people. Basically, police said that SEAMFs shouldn’t include personally identifying information on the back of their cars for literally anyone in the world to see. The image below is just one example:
And while I do think it’s probably a good idea to avoid putting your child’s name, blood type, and social security number on the back of your car, I also think a lot of these things overemphasize the dangers of Stick Figure Families. Consider the following:
- Dad could just be a paintball enthusiast, or enjoy cosplaying as Metal Gear’s Solid Snake
- Football isn’t a year-round sport, unless you live in Texas. And I’m not 100% confident that Joe Criminal is going to have an innate knowledge of how long your kid’s sport season lasts.
- Why does it specifically matter if the baby is female? It’s not like a male baby is going to do a significantly better job of protecting the family or themselves from a criminal.
- If you’ve ever been a person around dogs, you’re probably aware that little dogs can be vicious. Furthermore, they often bark. Also, maybe that was the only size of dog sticker the place had.
- The biggest takeaway from the Ballad of the SEAMFs is that parents should be aware of what personally identifying information they’re sharing about their kids. But, I also think that this mass panic about pedophiles abducting children based on what’s on the back of their parents’ cars is probably fairly (if not entirely) overblown.
The Niche Interest: Although these people have stickers that technically qualify as Stick Figure Families, they are usually not actually stick figures. Instead, the family group is represented by one or both of the parents’ interests. Usually this is something like Star Wars, where Dad is Hans Solo, Mom is Leia, and the kids are Chewbacca, R2D2, etc. (Yes, I know that it would make more sense if one of the kids was Kylo Ren, but a lot of these stickers came out before The Force Awakens. Don’t @ me, nerds).
However, there are other Niche Interest Stick Figure Families. Some are cute. Some are downright frightening in their implications. For example, a former coworker of mine was a father with two young children. He was also an avid deer hunter… you might be able to see where this is going. If not, I will tell you: he was a buck, his wife a doe, and his two children were fawns. Now, I am neither a parent nor a hunter. I am also not universally opposed to hunting. That being said, I am a lover of true crime, and the unintentional subtext of these stickers haunts me to this day. If there was an animal that I (and thousands of others) hunted and ate, I feel like I would be reluctant to depict my children as said animal. But I don’t know; I’m not a parent. Maybe implying that you’re going to annihilate and then cannibalize your family is Normal Parental Behavior™. In some cases, the interest depicted by a Stick Figure Family is actually so niche that it actually becomes the following category.
Inscrutable: As you may already be aware, people have strong opinions about Stick Figure Families. A few years ago, I asked a friend of mine why she disliked them so much. She told me it was because they were “so heavily gendered and heteronormative.” I can understand that, but for people like her, there are options! I once saw an SUV that had a Stick Figure Family consisting of a big turtle, a big flip flop, a little turtle, and a little flip flop. I can tell that this was probably meant to be gendered, but I’m still not sure what those genders were supposed to be. Highly gendered symbols already confuse me, but these have me baffled. If you are reading this and immediately know that turtle corresponds to male and flip flop corresponds to female, for example, I would really like to know the thought process. The only thing I can think of is ‘shoe’ equals ‘female’ because ‘women like shoes’. But if that’s what you’re basing your assumptions on, I would like to point out that “women be shopping” is even more dated than writing an article about Stick Figure Families in 2019.
Edgy: Some people are going to disagree with me about this, but all of those “Zombies ate your stick figure family” stickers and their ilk are still a type of Stick Figure Family. It might not be a Stick Figure Family that’s meant to represent your own family, but it’s still a Stick Figure Family. When someone has one of those stickers on their car, it generally means that they (and/or their family) think they are ‘above’ Stick Figure Families. It’s an expression of identity. It might be meant as parody, but they are still putting a sticker on their car to make fun of other people putting stickers on their cars. This is not a judgement, just an observation. You can put whatever you want on your car, it’s just funny to me that this is how some people choose to express their displeasure with a particular trend.
By now, you should have a little more background on Stick Figure Families, and how to identify them in the wild. It’s quite possible that you’ll never need to use this field guide, but if you’re planning a visit to suburban Wisconsin, hopefully it’ll prove a handy reference. If nothing else, maybe it gave you a way to avoid making eye contact with someone chatty as you waited for the bus. And that’s really all any of us can ask for.