November 24, 2003

A Brief Note on Parody and Self-Parody

When faced with a perhaps overly simplified either/or decision, do you:

1. Choose one or the other option (the one that comes closest, say), even though you don't really or entirely agree with the way the options have been framed; or

2. Resist the binary logic, even if it means a bladder infection?

Nate Claxton, a panelist at a discussion of "the need for gender-neutral bathrooms" at the University of Chicago's Center for Gender Studies, claims to know people "who had contracted bladder infections because choosing a gender bathroom bothered them so much that they did not go to the bathroom all day."

For pity's sake, people. There is nature and there is culture. Please don't ignore the call of nature even as you work to change the culture. A bladder infection can be serious.

Ogged wonders if this is a parody. I wonder if it's a right-wing plot to discredit:

a. feminism
b. gay marriage
c. tolerance and decency more broadly
d. all of the above

No, not really. And please don't send me hate mail.

But damn. I was in the midst of a blog entry on Roger Kimball's caricature of the Enlightenment, but I've lost my momentum. It's not always easy to a liberal. You want to resist the right-wing attacks on the academy, which too frequently involve grossly inaccurate caricature and grossly unfair parody. And then you come up against this sort of self-parodying gesture:

'Going to the bathroom is a moment where definition is very important in choosing a door,” said Mary Anne Case, one of the panelists.

She pointed out that many women’s restrooms have a caricature of a person in a dress on it. 'Going into it implies that we are willing to be associated with that image. There are only two [images] to choose from. This moment involves an act of self-labeling.'

But I'm not so easily defeated. Look for my critique of Kimball in the next day or so.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 24, 2003 09:24 PM

I agree, if you gotta go, you gotta go.

That said, in Female Masculinity Judith Halberstam reports that she and other masculine women are often on the receiving end of suspicion and outright hostility on entering the "women's" bathroom.

Posted by: jean at November 24, 2003 09:43 PM

Apologies for the incomplete URL above - I don't claim to represent hypertext@rmit.

Posted by: jean at November 24, 2003 09:47 PM

I am usually toward the head of the line poking fun at the extreme "sensitivity" of job postings, etc. that say more about middle-class etiquette than they do the needs of the people ostensibly represented in liberal rhetorical. But I think the troubled position of a gender troubling individual deserves to be taken seriously in matters of public restrooms. I have several friends who confront this problem every day and it is no joke to them.

Would this be funny if the context was shift to a "color" bar on bathroom use rather than the gender test that remains invisible to those of us whose identities do not trouble the boxes those restrooms insist we occupy?

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at November 24, 2003 10:35 PM

Agreed, when you gotta go, you just gotta go. There is, of course, the issue of lines, which should be much more a concern than the little characters on the bathroom doors.

Posted by: DM at November 24, 2003 10:35 PM

Ghost: yes, if we take seriously the idea that gender is a social construct that is to be distinguished from biological sex, then we have to take seriously the testimony of transgered and intergendered individuals that neither bathroom feels like "their" bathroom. And there is the real issue of safety, as hinted at above - particularly for MTF transgendered people.

Posted by: jean at November 24, 2003 10:42 PM

I take it the above comments are a continuation of the parody?

Posted by: pat at November 24, 2003 10:43 PM

Not on my part - and I have to say I didn't sense any in the original comments from the seminar either.

Posted by: jean at November 24, 2003 10:54 PM

"Would this be funny if the context was shift to a 'color' bar on bathroom use rather than the gender test that remains invisible to those of us whose identities do not trouble the boxes those restrooms insist we occupy?"

No, it wouldn't be funny. There's precious little humour to be found in a lynch mob.

The "color" bar was a ritualized enactment of the power dynamics of a system of institutionalized violence and brutality deliberately designed to deprive one group of human beings not only of material resources but also of the basic human rights to dignity and autonomy. A student at the University of Chicago (of whatever gender) either is or is on the way to becoming the member of a cushioned elite, and can scarcely be compared to African Americans under Jim Crow or South African blacks under apartheid.

As a woman, and a feminist, I've got some issues with some of the social, cultural, political and economic structures and practices of my own society. But I would never compare the lot of affluent, white college-educated women to that of African Americans (of whatever gender) under Jim Crow. I find such comparisions morally dubious, intellectually dishonest, and deeply offensive.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 25, 2003 12:31 AM

Here in Portland a big local tavern change has all bathrooms unisex, and some small individual places do too (I think Starbucks too). Doesn't work with bigger places where one room serves dozens of people though.

I've seen unisex bathrooms spoken of as shocking and disgusting or as strenuously PC, but no one thinks anything about it at all. I think that there is a rule, though. I think unisex bathrooms have to be clean, whereas gendered bathrooms don't.

Posted by: zizka at November 25, 2003 12:57 AM

"Change" = "chain"

Posted by: zizka at November 25, 2003 12:58 AM

My family is so PC that I grew up with unisex bathrooms. They were clean, too.

Posted by: clew at November 25, 2003 01:01 AM

When I was installing equipment in a Naval facility a few years ago, the tiny building had one bathroom. The sign on the door said, "This head is both male and female." There was a lock, so if you didn't want to be intruded upon, you had to remember to set it. Oh, and there was also an equipment storage locker in the room (only place to put it) that people were into repeatedly throughout the day.

The experience thoroughly desensitized me to any ,issues surrounding unisex bathrooms.

Posted by: Karen at November 25, 2003 02:49 AM

Oy, jean, there wasn't any irony or parody in the original of course - that's why we're all (with the exception of posters here) laughing about it. The original expressed the same clueless hyper-entitled conviction that one's intricate personal preferences needed to be attended to in the public realm...oh forget it. Clueless is clueless.

Posted by: pat at November 25, 2003 03:33 AM

Yeah, I do get it. I'm just saying it isn't funny, and it isn't purely a matter of privileged-politically-correct-whining-agenda-setting-blahblah either (but I absolutely take the point about the privilege thing). And that there are people who would find your characterisation of the issue as one of "preference" every bit as offensive as the (completely bogus) comparison of racial segregation with gendered bathrooms. But don't take it from me:

Posted by: jean at November 25, 2003 03:39 AM

Or perhaps it's just a cross cultural humour thing. possibly. Have to go, The Simpsons are on.

Posted by: jean at November 25, 2003 03:46 AM

For God's sake. One would think human rights activists (because woman rights = human rights, right?) had more important, and more urgent issues to worry about (i.e. economic inequalities, individual rights, legal protection, the plight of women in certain cultures) than where people go to take a piss.

Posted by: aa at November 25, 2003 04:49 AM

aa is precisely right. Underlying the demand for gender-neutral WCs is the belief that each person in this country (or at least each person who feels marginalized) has a right to be protected from psychic discomfort. It is not clear to me that psychic discomfort is always to be avoided --I always thought that learning to cope with it is one of the marks of adulthood --but in any case, until we've done everything possible to ensure that as many people as possible actually have clean bathrooms (of any description) to use, the subject of gender-neutral ones shouldn't even come up.

Posted by: Ayjay at November 25, 2003 08:47 AM

I'm against unisex bathrooms. If I compare the line to the men's bathroom with the line to the women's bathroom, it's no contest. Who wants to wait in those long, long, very long lines? :)

Is South Park on yet?

Posted by: Chris at November 25, 2003 09:45 AM

As the father of two daughters, I have to support the idea of unisex public toilets. I find it very difficult taking a 2- and a 5-year old girl into a public men's room. Obviously, I can't take them into the women's room, and I can't send the 5-year-old by herself. This seriously impairs my ability to take my daughters anywhere without my wife, who, as a result, has to take on a disproportionate amount of child rearing.

Unisex bathrooms with changing stations are an unacknowledged family issue that transcends transexualism. Talk about unlikely bedfellows!

Posted by: THB at November 25, 2003 09:48 AM

"She pointed out that many women’s restrooms have a caricature of a person in a dress on it. 'Going into it implies that we are willing to be associated with that image."

Gee, I thought the "caricature" was so that those who can't read or don't read English can still figure out which bathroom to use--I guess they don't matter when the greater cause of deconstruction is at hand. This is the kind of common-sense defying statement that gets made when literary/cultural Theory is applied to the everyday world of such things as bathrooms. But it's all just "text" to deconstruct, right?
Why let common-sense get in the way?

Posted by: Visitor at November 25, 2003 10:23 AM

Why does anyone have a panel discussion on the need for gender neutral bathrooms? Because not everyone realizes that gendered restrooms cause a problem for some people. Now, that doesn't mean that we need to go around passing laws or firing architects who design gendered spaces. But, I for one am glad for the information.

Some people have a "get over it" attitude (e.g. #17: "It is not clear to me that psychic discomfort is always to be avoided --I always thought that learning to cope with it is one of the marks of adulthood"). It's a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it also might be useful for people to know that not everyone has the same capacity to "cope with it" -- whatever "it" may be. And, again, that doesn't mean that we should pass laws or fire people who are insensitive to others needs. But I like to keep in mind that people, for a variety of different reasons, have different abilities to cope. Even to the point of getting a bladder infection rather than coping.

Posted by: Angela at November 25, 2003 10:35 AM

In my experience, unisex bathrooms tend to be cleaner -- it's as if the users don't want the other sex and/or gender to know how yucky they can be (and for the record, anyone who's ever had to clean them will tell you that women's bathrooms are usually much nastier than men's -- except in places where people drink till they puke). Still, I'm with IA -- I tend to ignore the signs if there is a need to pee -- and so do most of the people I know.
I don't entirely agree with the "get over it" sentiments, but there *is* something to be said for refusing to see such choices as defining to others or to one's self. You can never do much about what others think (unless you decide to make a concerted effort to change their opinion if it's that important to you, which it sometimes can/should be), and me, I worry more about how I see myself. Not letting decisions like what it means to choose a particular bathroom door affect me is, as they say, empowering. So is change -- so pick a different door every time, maybe at random. Keep them guessing and screw with their minds. Such things only have meaning and power if we let them.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 25, 2003 10:50 AM

"so pick a different door every time, maybe at random. Keep them guessing and screw with their minds. Such things only have meaning and power if we let them."

So when I'm being arrested and hauled off to jail for having wandered into the Women's (oh, excuse me, womyn's) bathroom next time I'm I'm at the train station and need to pee, I should feel good about how I'm 'fightin' the system'?

I've fought a lot of political battles in my lifetime, and will probably fight several more in the future. But here's one I'm going to take a pass on.

Good luck to you all -- and don't forget to change the world as you flush.

Posted by: Chris at November 25, 2003 11:48 AM

During my hippy days I was in some scuzzy town in Colorado where they didn't mark the bathroom doors. I was surprised to see a full-length mirror in the bathroom. It turned I was using the women's bathroom all night without anyone saying anything. I guess they thought that was just what hippies did. Whatever women there were in that bar had to be prostitutes.

You see, unisex or not, we all still believe in them cooties. Atavistic, right? -- as if same-saex germs are not threatening. But if we end up with cleaner bathrooms, that's a plus, regardless of the reasons.

Posted by: zizka at November 25, 2003 12:15 PM

Wow, I feel like I've wandered into MetaFilter by mistake.
*represses urge to call somebody an asshat*
For what it's worth, I feel kind of bad for transgendered individuals who face this problem, not at all bad for persons of excessive theory who feel they have been hegemonically subalternized by seeing a picture of a dress on the door.

Posted by: language hat at November 25, 2003 01:08 PM

I know I'm calling this a near-parody over at my site, but here's the serious issue: most of us seem willing to grant the possibility of some minuscule psychic harm resulting from unisex bathrooms (setting aside for the moment the issue of transgendered people); we're not willing to grant that this harm warrants a complaint or any change in restroom labeling. But does anyone have a principled way to make a distinction between "minuscule, not warranting further attention" and "important?" Alternatively, does anyone want to say that there's no principled distinction to be made, but that we can get along just fine without one?

Posted by: ogged at November 25, 2003 02:25 PM

ogged: I think it is impossible to find the line between miniscule and important because each and every person puts that line in a different place. What causes one person no harm at all causes another a small annoyance and causes yet another to have a breakdown. Even one person will move the miniscule/important dividing line from side to side during a day/year/lifetime.

I think that the "PC culture" has done a good thing by opening people's eyes to differences, and to the fact that we can hurt other people and not even know it. BUT it has done a very bad thing in creating an environment where people expect that if we all try very hard we can eliminate the chance of offending and hurting another person.

Being alive and interacting with other humans will necessarily result in people being inadvertantly hurt by what we say or do. I think the solution is not to locate the miniscule/important dividing line, but to work to be responsive to other people's needs. Not caving in, no rigidly defensive, but genuinely responsive. If someone is hurt, I can express empathy, I can educate myself, I can honestly analyse my actions and those of the institutions to which I belong and see if changes can/should be made.

Posted by: Angela at November 25, 2003 03:57 PM

I was hoping that someone who takes the problem seriously could outline the various types of harm involved to those who don't like the traditional bathrooms.

(a) the subaltern reading: the harm is that a woman doesn't want to self-identify with the dress icon, because dresses are in some way oppressive.
(b) first transgendered reading: that people who fit awkwardly with the male/female classification scheme are put in a stressful situation by being forced to identify with one category or the other
(c) second transgendered reading: people who appear androgynous are in physical danger because they might get beaten up in the bathroom
(d) I can't think of any more alternatives off the top of my head

So why exactly would choosing a gendered bathroom be so awful that getting a bladder infection is preferable? I'm not mocking, unless you choose (a), but I'm curious about what exactly is the problem.

I for one want to point out that I suffer serious psychic harm at work because people don't flush the goddamned toilet after using it.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at November 25, 2003 05:54 PM

If this proves anything, it is that people are still the most fascinating - if also the most maddening - field of study.

My wife, as long as I have known her, has never cared one fig about which bathroom she enters. Being intensely practical, she goes where the line is shortest. She has never encountered any ill will from men, though as she exits she quite often fields nasty looks from women still stuck in line.

I came of drinking age (my god, back in the 80s...) frequenting a bar whose two, single commode, bathrooms were labeled "Either" and "Or". Strangely, to me anyway, this did indeed provoke an existential crisis in some people. Which, precisely, one was was often loudly debated as the long, weekend lines made their snail's pace toward excretion. People who had a problem with this soon learned to go and drink - and presumably piss - somewhere else. We regulars figured we were well rid of them.

Bladder infections? If the unisex irks, go elsewhere. If the dress diminishes, tear down (spraypaint, indelibly mark, etc) the goddam sign: fight for your right to pee-ee!

Posted by: Martial at November 25, 2003 09:41 PM

Some older large public buildings in the American South (E.g. Duke University Hospital, and a other buildings on that campus) you find four public restroom doors in a row. This was a sign of liberal management: it was considered very progressive to have any accommodation for those then labeled Colored. Typically today there are now two for men and two for women. It would be easy in those buildings to change labels to have men, women, either, and whatever.

Posted by: arthur at November 26, 2003 10:57 AM

What I don't understand are the places that have two single bathrooms, one labelled men, one women. I won't go into something with stalls and urinals labelled men (they are sometimes labelled women -- usually in old science buildings in universities where no one ever bothered to get rid of the urinals), but I really don't understand the feeling of needing to go into the appropriately named bathroom. But I get lots of dirty looks (only from women) when I do.

Posted by: wolfangel at November 26, 2003 12:17 PM

I can't believe this thread is still going. Who knew that academics would be so fascinated with the "politics of excretion." Oh wait, academics, excretion, peeing and shitting, ... ahh ... Got It.

Posted by: Chris at November 26, 2003 12:38 PM

Martial, have you read the Androgeny RAQ (Rarely Asked Questions)? It has a section on how the author labelled a pair of adjacent unisex bathrooms with various combinations of signs, e.g., Carbon/Silicon, Oviparous/Viviparous, Officers/Gentlemen, etc. "I don't usually like practical jokes. But it did my heart good to see someone else have trouble deciding which bathroom to use."

Posted by: Steven desJardins at November 26, 2003 12:49 PM

My undergraduate roommates and I solved the problem by having one bathroom with a sign on the door. The sign could be flipped over depending on the preference of the person entering the bathroom. One side of the sign read "Men and Dogs" while the other read "Women and Plants."

Posted by: Bork at November 26, 2003 08:52 PM

Fontana Labs, don't forget

(e) family values reading: person has small child of opposite gender who must be accompanied to the bathroom might either be psychically scarred, psychically scar others, or be reported to security/police.

(I can't find who brought up that point, but it seemed like a good one to me, and I don't even have kids!)

Posted by: Elaine at November 28, 2003 07:35 PM

When I was an undergraduate, we voted on whether to have gendered bathrooms (not just toilets, but shower stalls, too) or two unisex ones. Not wishing to appear "unhip" we voted for the latter. About a month later, no one really paid much attention, though the concept continued to startle relatives who later heard about it. If everyone is in a closed stall when they pee or whatever, who cares?

For the record, I too will use a "male" toilet if it is open when the "female" one is not -- though this only applies to those single-stall ones.

(And, if you think the issues surrounding public restrooms are contentious, try being on a long wilderness trip -- where you have to talk about the mechanics of waste disposal in quite explicit terms -- with people divided into "prudes" and "exhibitionists." Gender issues would be a welcome change!)

Posted by: Rana at November 29, 2003 06:13 PM

I truly don't understand this thread? Yet, since my field is Anatomy & Physiology - the controversy over "dress or no dress" signs brings to mind many MORE descriptive things that could more specifically put on the signs to denote gender... Honestly, its JUST a sign - a directional aid.

On the other hand, would females care if a male in robes entered the "dress" room? Quite probably...

Nearly every female specific restroom I have used has had stalls with doors... thus, how would anyone know if a transgendered individual was there? Not to mention the fact that this represents such a small fraction of humans...

And, as a mom of two boys, I always took them in the female restroom. Not once did anyone ever care - or at least not once did they ever deem it worthy of comment.

Shy young boys DO welcome the signs... my youngest would likely freeze and blush terribly if he found he had wandered into a "girls" room.

Posted by: Ellie at November 30, 2003 12:33 AM

I don't really care personally about the signs one way or another, but I can see the point that the "figure in dress" symbol might be more loaded that one might think at first. After all, the default for these little figures is the "male" one, not the female (think of all the universal figure signs -- not a dress on any of them) which suggests that female is a deviation from the norm (a visual equivalent of fe-male, wo-man, etc.) For those who spend a lot of personal or professional time thinking about these things, I can imagine that it may be a straw on the camel's back to encounter yet again a symbol of the way gender politics pervade everything.

This is not to say that there are not larger, more immediate issues to address, but just that the point might not be as "trivial" as it looks. (Especially if you take the stance that lasting social change rests on accompanying cultural change -- battling an overt prejudice is much easier when it is not accompanied by implicit prejudice.)

I think also that the issue of children in an opposite-sex restroom does remain a live issue, even if male toddlers are allowed without comment into women's restrooms. I know several fathers who are reluctant to take their female children into men's restrooms; it's the urinal factor for some, the lack of diaper changing facilities for others -- more reminders of the gender discrepancies present in our society regarding discourses of danger (gak!), appropriate parental roles, etc. Also, what does one do with children who are old enough to worry about going into the "wrong" restroom but young enough to still need parental supervision/protection?

Posted by: Rana at November 30, 2003 07:01 PM