Postmodern toilet

As readers may know, toilets interest me. Each time we decide which cubicle to visit in a semi-public space, we show who we think we are: a man or a woman.*

I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:

By AIGA (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?

I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:

By AIGA, converted by Lateiner (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikipedia Commons.

Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?

And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.

A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.

I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.

The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.

Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.


* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.

More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).


A bit gay

A small cactus has been taped to a lamp-post in our working-class town. A live cactus, pot and all. Next to it is a note, running something like this:

Jamie, you bastard.

Why did you have to go off and fucking die on me like that.

I was going to buy flowers but that would have been a bit gay for you. So I bought this one instead.

Miss you mate,


The cactus and note are surrounded by flowers from other people. A small memorial.

It usually makes me angry when people leave off doing something because it is ‘gay’. But not this time. And not just because you don’t get angry with people who mourn.

It’s because underneath the thin layer of butchness, it is the most open expression of affection between men that I have seen in some time.

And it does not matter whether we call that gay, or homosocial, or whatever.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.


Post-sexist toilet signs

It’s LGBT History Month: a good moment for an optimistic look to the future.

In a previous post, I showed how pictograms can perpetuate sexism. That one was mostly about female stereotypes, but the signs on toilets can also be a headache for people who don’t really see themselves as either women or men, and for people who are not seen by others as ‘real’ women or men (summed up in the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’, for trans-people). But things aren’t all bad. In fact, they seem to be improving.

Here is what I recently found in a Belgian cafe:


On the left: a unisex cubicle with a seat. On the right: a urinal. Hurrah!

Yet still designated with the well-known skirt/no-skirt pictures. And the phrase ‘gentlemen’ on the right; implying, perhaps, that those looking for toilets should turn left, and those looking for gentlemen will get satisfaction on the right?

Inside the cubicle, I found this etiquette:Image005

So no gender restrictions: no rules about what you must be; only about what you must do.

And how about the following sanitary convenience, spotted last week in an English cafe?


Of course, this sign still refers to a binary choice. It says ‘whichever’, not ‘whatever’: ‘whether you are a woman, or a man, it does not matter.’ That’s why ‘post-sexism’ is an apt name for the stage many of us have entered: sexism still plays an important role in our lives, but we know how to distance ourselves from it from time to time.

To conclude with a more poetic interpretation of this last sign: someone in a summer’s dress, standing on the deck of a ship with winds coming from larboard?

More to follow…


Homo shopis

Something funny happens when authorities try to abstract pictograms from human beings.

We all know that a figure with full legs means: man.


And a figure like a double ice lolly: woman. (Her arms are slightly shorter than the man’s, and helplessly pushed aside by the crinolined dress she is wearing.)


This is how we are supposed to recognize which WC to use. But what happens if we do not need to make a choice according to which gender we belong to? You get this:





Clearly, these pictures address everyone. Every human being is expected to be careful on the stairs, throw their rubbish in a bin, and so on. Even if you belong to that half of humanity who should feel that she becomes that ice lolly whenever she needs to pee, forget about that identity in these ‘neutral’ or ‘general’ cases.

Ok, so let us assume women and men have learnt this lesson – the lesson that in toilets, a figure with long legs means ‘man’, but that everywhere else, a figure with long legs means: ‘everyone’. And then they are confronted with this:

Own photo (all other pictograms from Wikimedia commons)

The photo was taken next to a Dutch train station and points the way to the buses, trains and city centre. But who represents the city centre? The woman who had to go to the loo! (Is that her powder bag she is holding?)

So according to the complicated logic we had just taken great pains to learn, the city centre is a non-neutral place where only women are welcome. Men will be shooed away from this intimate location. Maybe even hit with make-up bags.

Of course the implicit message is that if you recognize yourself in the specifically female figure, you must be happy to be directed towards you favourite pastime, which is shopping. And if you consider yourself a man and still venture to the place with the powder bags, your self-respect will suffer. On the other hand, to make a journey by bus or train would be a transgressive activity for a woman to engage in. (Or perhaps the advice is for both train spotters and lovers of women to turn right, and bring their binoculars with them?)

It is as if the institutions placing these signs think of their customers as belonging to several distinct species:

The skirted figure is the Homo hoogcatharinensis, well-known in the Netherlands and a subspecies of the more generally occuring Homo mercatus. This species can apparently only be found in its female form. It is suspected that they morph into the more usual male form of the other Homo species when not engaged in their primary hunting and gathering activities, when they can be found hiking, shooting arrows, and throwing little cubes in bins.