I have a soft spot for bad signage.
I grew up north of Toronto, very close to a motel notorious for its large and lamely worded road sign. Written and revised regularly by the motel owner, the sign displayed jokes that were rarely funny, and kernels of wisdom that were rarely wise. For example: “To err is human, but to really screw up you need a computer.”
My father and I loved the sign. We drove past it nearly every day on the way to my school, and groaned, happily, at whatever wacky message it conveyed. This was in the early 2000s, before the Internet evolved into an outrage factory; anyone who found the sign off-putting or offensive probably scowled and kept on driving. Most important, nobody posted a photo of the sign to social media, producing either mass mockery for its author — or columns, like this one.
But times have changed. For proof, look no further than New Annan, P.E.I., where John Mellish, the owner of Mellish Motors, a used car dealership, is facing widespread social media scorn because of a sign that appeared outside his business last week: “Women are like snowflakes. They can’t drive.” Mellish, 55, found the joke on the Internet. “I’ve been putting up signs for nine years,” he said. “I poke fun at everyone.”
But the last laugh may be on Mellish himself. The Internet teller of the joke, it turns out, is feminist comic Megan Amram, who was using it to illustrate the inherent inanity of most sexist comedy. When printed out of context on the side of the road, though, the nuance of her joke was lost on many — including Mellish himself.
“I thought it was cute,” he said.
Decidedly, the hundreds of women excoriating him on Facebook did not; nor did Josie Candito, owner of Master Mechanic in Toronto, who this week responded to Mellish via her own road sign: “Mellish Motors. My Canada includes respect for women! #Womencandrive.”
If you’re a high school English teacher, take note: this story serves as a perfect lesson in the meaning of irony. To wit: a feminist parody of a sexist barb is re-appropriated and interpreted literally by the wider feminist world — thus sparking a social media flame war, in which hundreds of women passionately contest that yes, in fact, they can drive. Mellish doesn’t appear fazed by the backlash against him. In fact, he seems oddly philosophical. “My sign is like the Seinfeld show,” he said. “It’s a sign about nothing.”
Except it isn’t. The snowflake joke, if interpreted literally, is convoluted and incredibly dumb. Anyone hearing it for the first time assumes it’s going to involve a play on the word “drive”, but it doesn’t. For snowflakes you could substitute apple pies or barbells or rainbows, and it still works, because none of them, it’s true, can actually drive a car. Hilarious, no? But the joke is also an example of the kind of sexism that’s notoriously hard to combat: the sexism of lazy stereotypes. These stereotypes are considered by a lot of people to be so benign that anyone who objects to them must be a humorless scold. But stereotypes are almost never benign; they’re the tip of a larger iceberg.
Candito said she is used to hearing stories from other women who haven’t been taken seriously in auto shops on account of the myth that they are ignorant about cars and bad at driving. “I’m trying to take that perception away.”
Yes, social media has made us annoyingly reactionary and at times painfully earnest, but it’s also helped to ensure that casual sexism, even in its most seemingly harmless and foolish form, doesn’t go unnoticed and unpunished. And this is a good thing for girls everywhere — especially those who enjoy cringing in the car with their dads at bad signage on the side of the road.
Although truth be told: I really can’t drive.