Rather puzzling is the fact that across sizable swaths of upscale suburban communities, car owners seem eager to share their domestic demographics with the rest of us. They have converted a portion of their rear windows into a platform for publicizing their family structures. Employing clear plastic cartoon and stick cutout figures, several inches high, which adhere to the glass, they’ve aligned a display of both their human and animal household inhabitants. So you will see a window decorated with cheerful representative figures of a man, a woman, and a boy and a girl, or another with two parents, a teenager, a baby and a dog, etc., etc., The larger the family constellation the more expansive the display.
Why are people assembling these public displays? While these are not strictly bumper stickers, we can identify a long and lively history of such in America ranging from innocuous commercial stickers, those proclaiming college affiliations, candidate preferences and controversial public policy positions (war, abortion, guns, religion, etc.). People who might otherwise be reluctant to offer their opinion in public seem more comfortable presenting them anonymously along the rear ends of their automobiles. Indeed, a case could be made that bumper stickers have long represented a unique and irrepressible public forum, albeit with issues often reduced to abrasive slogans. Nevertheless, people have been speaking up, letting others know where they stand, what they are thinking – and then quickly driving on.
I suppose we have to regard these family “portraits” in the current context of declining personal privacy in America and the willingness of many people to reveal much about themselves, information once considered “no one’s business”. One should also recognize an egotistical component as well. It began many years ago with the display of college stickers on the back windows of cars. Surely some part of the message was “We’re sending our kids to college (especially the elite institutions) – and you’re not.” (Until recently, fewer than three of ten Americans of college age were enrolled.) Then there were also the bumper stickers that announced that a child of theirs had been designated an “honor student” by his or her school. Bragging rights surely were among the motives behind these mobile announcements.
This brings us to the current crop of family figures. Why go to the trouble of adorning your rear window with representations of household occupants, unless there’s a message you intend to convey? So what’s the pitch? It may be, strangely enough, a desire to proclaim their ordinariness. At a time when family structures are undergoing unprecedented “deviations”, these stickers assert that you’ve maintained the “proper” course, remain a traditional nuclear family, its standard components intact (no grandparent figures appear). Here is both an expression of stability, pride and defiance and together with smugness that implies superiority.
As always, bumper stickers provoke reactions. Among those recently on view was one featuring window stickers, all skull and cross bone figures, while another declared defiantly – “No one cares about your family stick figures!” Please check rear windows for further developments in this ongoing “dialogue”.