Two monkeys were paid unequally. What did you think would happen?
Women’s and men’s washrooms: we encounter them nearly every time we venture into public space. To many people the separation of the two, and the signs used to distinguish them, may seem innocuous and necessary. Trans people know that this is not the case, and that public battles have been waged over who is allowed to use which washroom. The segregation of public washrooms is one of the most basic ways that the male-female binary is upheld and reinforced.
As such, washroom signs are very telling of the way societies construct gender. They identify the male as the universal and the female as the variation. They express expectations of gender performance. And they conflate gender with sex.
I present here for your perusal, a typology and analysis of various washroom signs.
[Editor: After the jump because there are dozens of them… which is why Marissa’s post is so awesome…]
The Universal Male
One of the ideas that supports patriarchy is the notion that a man can be representative of all humanity, or “mankind”, while a woman could only be representative of other women. For example, in politics we see “women’s issues” segregated from everybody issues.
Washroom signs illustrate this idea by depicting the male figure simply, and the female as some kind of elaboration on the male figure. This sign expresses in words what many do with images:
The most common type of washroom sign, pictured at the top of this post, is another example. Typically, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts:
In Iran, men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs:
Occasionally, we see that men are people, and women are people with waists:
Which highlights the absurdity of the construction of gendered bodies because, well, men have waists too.
Women also sprout tentacles from their heads
Finally, we have a sign that, while patronizingly insulting, is interesting in that it takes the assumption of the universal male to its logical conclusion. That is, if “men” is interchangeable with “people”, and women aren’t men, then women can’t really be considered people at all, can they?
That is, if “men” is interchangeable with “people,” and women aren’t men, then women can’t really be considered people at all. But who wants to be a person when you can be a beautiful, delicate flower instead?
There is another kind of washroom sign that, although based on the men-are-people/women-are-people-in-dresses trope, doesn’t quite fit. These signs depict men and women as triangles.
One is not an elaboration of the other. They are both simply triangles. These signs remain problematic, though, because they construct men and women as fundamentally opposite to one another. It also assumes that the viewer understands that the triangle side signifies either shoulders or a skirt, and that is not a given. Which becomes apparent when you consider this sign:
Unlike the previous signs, here the downwards pointing triangle identifies the women’s washroom, and the upwards pointing triangle signifies the men’s washroom. I assume that the angles are supposed to represent torpedo boobs and a pitched tent.
Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
In controversies over who is allowed to use which washroom, a recurring theme is the conflation of gender, sex and sexuality, as cis women insist on treating male-bodied women as some kind of threatening sexual predators. This conflation is illustrated by washroom signs themselves, which sometimes designate washrooms by gender, and sometimes by sex, sometimes accompanied by assumptions about sexuality.
Many washroom signs do not depict the male as a universal stick figure. Instead, the distinction is made by playing up differences between how masculinity and femininity are performed. In doing so, the signs communicate essentializing notions about what makes a man or a woman. Most often, it is style of dress.
This pair of signs is interesting, because it might not immediately be apparent to the modern viewer that the individual pictured on the sign for the men’s washroom is, in fact, male. It shows that the styles we associate with masculinity are not universal across time and space.
Then we have these signs which universalize gender performance to apply it to the insect world:
Butterflies are naturally feminine because they’re pretty, and beetles are naturally masculine because they’re not pretty.
Even more suggestive of the notion that “clothing makes the man” and woman, are the signs which do not show people at all, but just gendered apparel.
Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength.
These are also suggestive of the behaviour we expect from men and women – women should be coy and submissive; men brash and dominating.
After stick-figures, signs showing different styles of dress for men and women seem to be the most common way to designate men’s and women’s washrooms. However, like transphobic people, some signs focus on what’s under the clothes. A couple of the following photos might be mildly NSFW.
These signs are of several kinds. All are essentializing and erase trans people and people with atypical sex organs.
The first is men-have-penises/women-have-breasts. I believe that these are indicative of the degree to which breasts have been sexualized in our society as, like the sign below, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that women have genitalia, and hence construct breasts as the female equivalent of the penis.
It seems that vaginas are shown attached to women to a far lesser extent than breasts are.
Somewhat related to the last category are the signs that pose the question: do you stand or sit when you pee?
(A note from an anonymous commenter: …the photo of the pointers/setters is from a restaurant in Philadelphia called the White Dog Cafe, where I worked for many years. There are four single bathrooms, all named after types of dogs (punny, I know) – and all explicitly non-gendered. Those bathrooms were designed in part with the West Philadelphia queer community in mind; when I worked there I had many LGBTQ coworkers, including someone who was transitioning, and it was an incredibly supportive environment. Duly noted.)
This illustrates the way we assume the universality of the gender binary, when it is not universal. For example, hens have been known to behave like roosters, and then develop male secondary sex characteristics, making the news in Sweden and China.
There was also a rooster in Italy who started to lay eggs after a fox killed all the hens.
This sign is even more essentializing, specifying the chromosome pairs you need to use the washroom:
It also universalizes the gender binary to alien races (whose legs conveniently seem to abstractly represent human sex organs) and robots.
Conflating Sex, Gender, and Sexuality
Signs can vary between designating washrooms by sex and by gender because most people assume that they are the same thing.
This sign covers all the bases. Male as universal/female as variation: He’s a simple egg-shape, she’s wearing a dress and lipstick. Biological sex: He has a minimalist penis, she has minimalist vagina. Gender performance: He’s thinking about football, she’s thinking about shopping. It’s almost funny that the graphic designer felt that so many different elements were necessary. It’s also interesting because it illustrates how total the conflation is and the rigidity of the resulting dichotomy. Women must meet standards of femininity. Men can’t wear lipstick or enjoy shopping. And they certainly can’t have vaginas.
There’s an element of absurdity to it. We don’t segregate washrooms because people have different interests. Nor is it because of people’s wardrobe choices since, obviously, women wear pants. And, as this sign from Utilikilts points out, it’s not unheard of for men to wear skirts.
We segregate washrooms because of sex. Because of the presumed sexual interest of the opposite sex. That is, because of sexuality.
This is unfair to a lot of men. And it becomes an excuse for those men who are predatory.
The segregation of washrooms is based on an assumption of heterosexuality, predatory in men and passive and vulnerable in women; the association of sexuality with sex, and the conflation of sex and gender. In other words, it is nonsensical. One thing we don’t segregate washrooms by is sexuality.
This one is from Sangunburi Crater, on Jeju Island in South Korea. I’m assuming there’s an explanation for why the woman has a scuba mask on her head, and why the man is golem, but I don’t know what it is.
UPDATE: Several people responded with explanations on threads where this post has been linked. Here is one of them: The woman diver is a haenyeo, or pearl diver – there is an independent haenyo subculture that is actually pretty kick-ass and unique to Jejudo. Only the women dive. ... The golem male represents a traditional totem of men wishing the pearl-divers good luck and safety on their journeys.
From an Applebee’s in Sao Paulo. The red sign is for the women’s washroom. Obviously.
Marissa has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto, with minors in sociology and history. She is currently finishing law school, and hopes to practice family law. She has been blogging at This Is Hysteria! for two months, where she writes about social justice issues, politics, culture and working in call centres.
Thanks to Lucy for pointing us to her fantastic post.
So one of my lovers pointed me to this terrific new genre that its authors are calling Dragonpunk.
Dragonpunk aims to do to the Middle Ages–to renn faire, to the SCA, to all the medievalism in pop culture–what steampunk did to neo-Victorianism. With dragonpunk, we challenge medievalist fantasy to liberate itself from the bounds of history and trope and from the rigid assumptions of what a modern subculture can and cannot do.
I searched about their website looking for bios on publishers/editors Margaret Killjoy and Caelyn Rosch. Under “about us” I found this delicious teaser.
Combustion books is a collectively-run publisher of dangerous fiction. We specialize in genre stories that confront, subvert, or rudely ignore the dominant paradigm and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty or our houses raided by the government. How many fiction publishers can promise you that?
Rejecting the dominant paradigm doesn’t end with the stories we tell. We operate without bosses and we pay ourselves and our authors outright for work in order to keep us from getting mired in the world of profit-driven publishing.
One of our goals is to break down the hierarchy of the publishing world and develop relationships with our authors and audience that go beyond those offered by a traditional press.
Check out the call for submissions. One fiction to unrule them all.
Dragonpunk is high fantasy set on its head. Dragonpunk isn’t the princess who slays the dragon without waiting for her prince–it’s the washerwoman who drips poison into the cruel queen’s chalice to end her rule. Dragonpunk is found in the band of orphans playing Robin Hood, in the villagers and the druids in the woods reclaiming their sacred groves from the woodsman sent by the crown.
Dragonpunk can be chivalrous, though always without lords. When dragonpunk is chivalrous it is a shield for the weak regardless of their sex or gender, and it is loyal to its peers instead of the king. When dragonpunk isn’t chivalrous, it fights dirty, and it never backs down. And sometimes, dragonpunk has no use for fighting at all, because there are as many things in this world worth building as there are worth fighting.
Dragonpunk aims to do to the Middle Ages–to renn faire, to the SCA, to all the medievalism in pop culture–what steampunk did to neo-Victorianism. With dragonpunk, we challenge medievalist fantasy to liberate itself from the bounds of history and trope and from the rigid assumptions of what a modern subculture can and cannot do. But this is only the most humble of our goals.
Dragonpunk takes its inspiration from a past that never was to wage war on the banality of the present. With dragonpunk, we demand the right to be whom we want to be at any time of day or night, to dress as we’d like and live how we’d like. To free ourselves from a modernity that bores us. We want permaculture gardens to creep up the stone walls of our modern keeps. We will rewild empty stripmalls and turn the vacant lots of our post-industrial world into the new commons.
We are the new adventurers. We’re punks who were inspired when the Riders of Rohan chanted “death, death, death,” and charged into the forces of fascism, when Frodo set off to destroy the very idea of power over one another. We’re organizers who murmur the St. Crispin’s Day speech as we prepare to stand against authority. We’re hedge knights and armorers and tailors, brewers and bards and witches.
Or maybe we’re just nerds who like chainmail and books about dragons. That’s okay with us too.
We’re looking to put out an anthology of dragonpunk fiction, essays, how-tos, interviews, art, and more, edited by Caelyn Rosch and Margaret Killjoy. Examples of what we’d be looking for would include, but are absolutely not limited to:
- how to sword fight
- medieval combat strategy
- an overview of historical non-western fantasy
- gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages
- introduction to types of armor
- how to craft chainmail armor
- how to work leather
- a guide to working with modern scavenged materials
- the art of modern stonecrafting and castle construction
- short fiction
- a dragonpunk’s introduction to modern reenactment culture and LARPing
- an overview of existing fantasy and historical fiction of interest to dragonpunks
- fashion ideas (with illustrations/how-tos)
- dragonpunk comics
- dragonpunk art and photography
- really neat stuff most people don’t know about the Middle Ages
- manifestos of stateless societies inspired by medieval community structures
The tentative deadline for submissions is May 15th, 2013. Reasonable article/fiction lengths are approximately 400-6,000 words. The pay is very likely to be nothing but contributor’s copies. (We editors won’t pay ourselves either, unless we are paying all the contributors.)
Submissions and further inquiries can be directed to Margaret Killjoy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So throughout my life I’ve done the things I’ve done and joined the groups I’ve joined and people have told me no… you aren’t what you think you are. That’s a this. And truthfully as I’ve collected other people’s labels like badges of honor and worn them all proudly: damned dyke, weirdo, communist, anarchist, deconstructionist, anarcho-commie artist, slam queen, literary giant, best-kept-literary secret, obscurely famous, infamous, unknown, unknowable, semitiocian, egotist, fat bitch, gender queer, bi-lesbian, lesbi.2, post-modernist, pomosexual.
I’ve never really understood what they were talking about. Do you mean who am I? Who do I stand with in relation to history? At tomorrow’s protest rally? in relation to philosophy? In contrast to who do I stand against?
I have been told I’m a bad activist for my love of all things pop culture: powerpuff girls, halloween candy shaped like brains, zombie culture, bad art, brilliantly bad movies, brilliantly crafted movies and book but inappropriate genres like horror, paranormal romance, fairies, mythology, paganism, nonvegetarianism etc.
One of the labels that tickled my fancy and was meant as an insult by a lover who told me I just was too uneducated/ignorant of what anarchism really to see that I wasn’t one. He labelled me a revolutionary dilettante. I adored this. It suggested I dabble out of lack of commitment to any single cause… I dabble it’s true. But I doubt anyone whose met me for more than a few seconds doubts my level of commitment. I have stubbornness that borders on pathology. But mama’s a rolling stone. I gather moss and people’s and philosophies because I believe there is room in the revolution, the world for all of it. That doesn’t mean that cowboys get to keep shooting indians, corporate masters get to keep locking up factories and fiddle while sweat shops burn.
No I definitely think that we should take away their rifles and credit cards, blackberries, “locked factories” and stock options and fiddles… but they must have some skills. No we’re not sending them off to work in those burning garment buildings or blazing non-union farms to harvest crops while we spray pesticides on them and stand outside singing songs of solidarity and revenge.
Jesus, haven’t we learned as that there is no profit in revenge? Just as there is no profit in profit? Still this is a dabbler’s opinion, I travel in the company of other opinions and try to understand them also. So in my rolodex of affection is the activist who did mediations between synagogues and white brotherhood groups. Just a few digits away from the “up against the wall with them” (them being nazis, child abusers, war criminals who run our governments in red or blue ties) spouters.
I dabble… which means yes, don’t put me on your firing squad (in front or behind) I will not serve and I will not serve well because my heart still says isn’t there something useful about everyone?
What does the CEO know… fiction/spin/pr and golf. If you don’t trust him to write press-releases for indie bands then send him off the golf course (liberated now and free to plumbers and poets etc) and let him caddy, mix drinks and give golf lessons.) Everyone has SOMETHING to give to the revolution. BTW golf courses will also be animal sanctuaries, the places that rehabbed squirrels and any animals that “den” and on no golfing allowed (or no golf hours) the perfect place to picnic, public park for organized events like egg rolls, big public bbqs with free food, shakespear and star trek in the park…
oh yeah, dabblers are visionaries! I’ll be there. You’ll recognize me: wearing my Hothead Paizon Lesbian terrorist t-shirt, carrying my powerpuff girl back with the entourage of kids, grandkids and lovers (dressed as Dr Who cosplay, anime, dora the explorer, disney princesses –regardless of their gender). Follow the sound of our dvd player or omg old cassette player from the good will playing hits of the 80s mixed with they might be giants, woodie guthrie and lesbian separatist balladeers. The dabbler family/tribe, we will probably welcome you enthusiastically; eager to see what you bring to the picnic… and the revolution.