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.