“Stepped through the door, they were standin’ in line
Smokin’ funny cigarettes and takin’ their time
Pass me a mirror cause I ain’t got much time
Cause there’s a hunk of man I done left behind, that’s why
I’ve got a meeting in the ladies room
I’ll be back real soon
I’ve got a meeting in the ladies room
I’ll be back real soon”
(Klymaxx. “Meeting in the Ladies Room”. Calloway, Reggie and Vincent Calloway and Boaz Watson. MCA. 1985)
I have always loved this song, not just for its perfectly minimalist 80s dance beat, but also for the way that the narrative of the song lays out the familiar arc of performance anxiety that is an essential part of my understanding of “going out”. I appreciate a good Edison-bulb-lit cocktail and cheese plate as much as the next urbanite, but I am also an anxiety-riddled genderqueer introvert who likes to spend evenings reorganizing my tools to reflect current trends in home automation – having to, as Klymaxx tells it,
“leave my condo”
to publicly perform
“cause you wanna look good when you step on the floor”
and defend my identity
“if they don’t stop it’s going to get scandalous”
only to be mis-identified and devalued
“don’t slap me cause I’m not in the mood”
– doesn’t seem worth the perfect Negroni.
My generalized anxiety about public spaces reaches a critical status when confronted with the complexities of navigating the “Ladies Room” of a restaurant or bar. There is the “standing in line” and “smoking funny cigarettes” part of the experience, and then there’s the crazy panoptic hygienic gaze part of it that gets all up in the queerness of my gender. It’s this latter part that seems to be the subject of major preoccupation by the legislators of my home state of North Carolina.
In April, the state passed a bill in 24 hours that was full of all sorts of rashly considered legislation, including a bit that prohibits citizens from using the bathroom of their gender identity. The legislation effectively legalizes discrimination against trans and genderqueer citizens and has sparked confused discussions about the difference between genitalia and gender, pedophilia, the safety of “our women and children,” and states’ rights.
But why? How did pooping and gender and meeting in the ladies’ room get all mixed up? The tangle seems to include all sorts of partial histories and Victorian morals and institutionalized inequalities and consumerism that go back at least as far as nineteenth-century London and Paris.
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO . . .
In those influential metropolises, the general acceptance of germ theory in the 1800s appears to have been one of the main instigators of the current bathroom mayhem. Via germ theory, human waste and excretions were linked to germs (in particular, to cholera) and germs were linked to disease, and disease to mortality. The more apparently hygienic, clean, and shiny your person and house and kitchen, the less likely you were a harbinger of death and/or foe to all that was good in society.
This new hygienic promise of immortality spurred the design and implementation of the enclosed sewer, the rise of the shiny, white, porcelain toilet and sink, and the privatization and shunning of all bodily processes. A visibly clean bathroom and kitchen were indicators of a clean person, and this perceived cleanliness was an indicator of a civilized person. The ability to separate dirty, disease-producing bodily processes was an essential part of maintaining control of one’s public persona and standing. Or, as Erving Goffman suggests, “defecation upsets public performance and rituals through which we present ourselves as clean and pure.”
As is true with self-monitoring refrigerators and non-lead-leaching water supply systems, it was the wealthy citizens who could first afford to place the aforementioned new porcelain fixtures in their own homes, thus privatizing the act of excretion and separating their public presentation from defecation. It was also the upper class citizens who were first to create, control and use plumbed public facilities. By codifying and controlling access to bathrooms, while simultaneously legislating against other forms of waste disposal, the well-heeled effectively controlled access to economic mobility. If you were poor, you were dirty, and if you were dirty, you were poor.
Similarly, if you were an upper-class woman, good luck even finding a public bathroom. And Gaia forgive that you ever ask where a private bathroom might be located or mention needing to use the bathroom to anyone, ever. The majority of plumbed public bathrooms were for men. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women either planned their day around limited access to private facilities, carried portable urinettes or, as is evidenced by archived Victorian undergarments, made use of their cumbersome skirts to camouflage public urination.
Remarkably, up until 1975, New York State (a current leader in gender equality) required women’s toilets to be pay toilets, whereas men’s public toilets were free to use. If you were a non-white woman in the United States, until 1965 your choices were even more limited. If you were a disabled woman, you might not have had individual access to a non-federal public bathroom until 1990. The options for taking care of nature’s call weren’t great. Staying at home was a much easier choice, and staying at home in pre-internet days meant that women’s participation in the public world of commerce was extremely limited. No “ladies” restrooms in the office meant no women in the office.
PUTTING YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
But it didn’t mean that privileged women weren’t welcome in other corners of the marketplace. Though discouraged from participating in production and income-earning, women were aggressively recruited into the cycle of consumption. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in western Europe and the United States, “Ladies Rooms” were more likely to be found in department stores and restaurants than offices, warehouses, or public spaces. Harrods, Bon Marche, and Hudson’s all provided ladies’ restrooms, lounges and tea rooms intended to encourage and prolong the shopping experience.
For middle and upper class women, it was easier to consume than it was to produce. As early as 1841, Catherine Beecher (of American Women’s Home fame) went so far as to say that “the use of superfluities [consummables]… to a certain extent, is as indispensable to promote industry, virtue, and religion, as any direct giving of money or time.” The lucrative women’s market offered a continuous stream of ever more fabulous products (refrigerators, Listerine, Lysol, Hoovers, Kotex) that improved the hygienic state of the home. And a hygienic home was advertised as a direct reflection of the conscientious “home-maker.” To fail to consume was to fail to fulfill one’s role as a clean, civilized woman of society.
This positive valuation of conspicuous consumption for uber-hygenic body presentations was a means of manipulating and often controlling identity and sameness. It still is – If you are cool, then you must buy these PUMAs, and if you are a woman they need to be a hue of pink or bedazzled, and you, for sure, need to eat this Korean taco, and if you are a man you need to drink it with this ourdoorsy beer, and I need to see it. You have to post it on Instagram, or Facebook or, your taco-themed Tumblr account.
Your performance of identity needs to be the performance of consuming (if we want to bring the Marxist elephant into the room). Even “Meeting in the Ladies Room” references the importance of consumption-crafted identity, when Klymaxx describes the object of their affection as wearing a Yamamoto Kanzai sweater. Other than “being a hunk of a man,” we don’t find out much more about this individual. Rather, we know him by what he is consuming, and where he is consuming it.
And he’s definitely NOT consuming it in the ladies’ room. If he did, the valuation of that Yamamoto Kanzai sweater would plummet. We present our identities while we sip microbrews at the bar and eat small plates of farm-fresh ramps and lardons in SuperDry chambray shirts, or as we “walk on the floor” where “everybody [is] jammin.” We either reinforce or undermine those identities by choosing the door we walk through in order to generate our mystical “creative waste.”
Up until the moment that we are beyond the bathroom mirrors and sinks and are behind a stall door or divider, our performance is still live. Behind the stall door, however, we can both shed our performance and our waste in order to make room for more acceptable consumption. (Two-dollar draft, here I come!) It is in this acceptable “backstage area,” as Erving Goffman describes it, that we can manage the parts of ourselves that might be part of the “societal unconscious.” We can scrawl a few things on the stall wall about penises or about how great Taylor Swift is, or we can read the flyer that is posted about who to call about domestic or sexual abuse, or that we shouldn’t eat the shrimp dip. But that’s it; that’s the space we are afforded to be non-consumptive, non-identifiable, bodily whole, and minimally observed.
And to get to this mystical space, we must demonstrate our economic status (which must be performed differently depending on our race, ethnicity, religion, class or perceived sex), our hygienic worth (we must already be clean in order to maintain our cleanliness), our physical ability (you must have a wheelchair or braces to be seen as appropriately disabled), and our gender (the false binary of male or female). If we are found to be non-conforming, the consequences can be dire – accusations of criminal behavior, loss of jobs, loss of community, imprisonment, and violence.
The part that the toilet rooms play in the evolution of and reaffirmation of our capitalist society is so multi-dimensional that it will not be rewritten easily. The recent budgetary doubling down by the legislators in North Carolina to keep House Bill 2 in place is clear evidence of intractability.
For the immediate future, those of us with non-conforming identities will still need to navigate the dangerous waters of public “amenities” with proper identity documents in hand. But, if I plug my ears and squint my eyes, I can make out a brave, new income-generating world on the horizon.
In the absence of humanist empathy in our legislatures, perhaps the economic discriminations and forces that helped to create the segregated bathroom will evolve a new, truly consumerist bathroom space. Gone will be the days of scary, non-performative, non-branded public spaces! Corporations will capitalize on “creative waste” and the mystique of the toilet stall to create bespoke excretion experiences. Why be bothered by the binaries of male and female, when one could be a Microsoft Excreta 4.0 user or a Red Robin Xtreme Flush Power Player? Goodbye “meeting in the ladies room,” I’ve got a date with a Nike Gastro-flex with patented ultraviolet webbing!