The Plight of the Stick Figure Family

by Alan Reinstein, English Teacher

As I was driving home on my road trip from Maryland during this recent Thanksgiving weekend, I saw a decal on the rear windshield of a family SUV that read, “Screw your stick figure family,” and had a picture of a sun-glassed stick figure of its own, smiling with their middle finger defiantly positioned toward me and every other driver or passenger close enough behind them on the highway. Now, the car owner was not angry with me, I knew because our car didn’t have a stick-figure family decal, but the driver must have been angry enough at someone who had engaged in this rear-window-stick-figure-family practice to have gone online to buy this reply sticker for (I checked it) $4.95. 

In the 1980s, when “Baby on Board” car stickers (they’re still around) were affixed to rear windows of the cars of parents with infants, parodies popped up, among them, “No Baby on Board. Feel Free to Drive into Me,” to mock the voice of entitlement that some saw as implicit in the original sticker. When “My kid is an Honor Roll student at Tuckerman Middle School” arrived, we saw “My kid beat up your Honor Roll student” stickers (currently $3.48 online for one of these) that channeled resentment toward public expressions of family pride in academic achievement. Those criticisms I get: people like to take down the privileged and the braggarts. But a car sticker that happily displays the people in your family — why so infuriating? What’s the big deal? Which is what I wanted to ask the family-stick-figure hater in our imaginary meeting.

As it happened, we crossed paths again in the parking lot at the next rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. After his two teenage daughters climbed out of the backseat, he opened his door, and I caught up with him (he was in his fifties, like me, smaller, but tougher) and I said right away, “Hey, what’s with the ‘Screw your stick figure family’ car sticker?”

He seemed ready for me (he must have imagined meeting me, too) and said, “I hate those stick-figure families, telling me how happy I should be with my family. Those big grins on each family member, the kids, the pets, even the parents — especially the parents. Tell me, when have you grinned like that? And in the car? Give me a break.”

“I don’t think the sticker-family is ordering you to smile,” I said. “They’re just celebrating the joy of their family. Who knows, maybe they do grin like that sometimes. Why not let them have this happiness? Times are tough enough.”

“Let ‘em celebrate all they want,” he said. “Just keep it out of my face,” and he went off to the restroom. That was it. No great philosophical awakening for either of us. We got gas and went on ahead.

To be clear, this was not a veiled COVID-19-conflict, an angry anti-vaxxer Plandemicist warring with a rule-following Pollyanna mask-wearer, but I still couldn’t help but feel that the higher level of acrimony and distrust that has been a virus of its own during this past almost two years now had somehow lent this man the $4.95 to get that “Screw your stick-figure family” sticker and whisked him along as he put it on his car’s back windshield. 

Anger is always looking for a home, and it will force its way in if it has to. During this time of heavy angst over an invisible virus, we are constantly looking for enemies that can absorb and host our anger. The pandemic seems everlasting; it’s not surprising that there are so many middle-fingers around ready for an audience, even if the audience is a happy, innocent, grinning stick-figure family.