I can’t help myself. It goes without saying that I’ve featured an inordinate number of blog articles at various public restrooms across the country (and the globe), for one reason or another. It’s a tiny subject that for which I somehow manage to dredge interesting new content from the depths of various sewer pipes. But half the time, the interest doesn’t even come from the restroom interior itself; it’s the directional and often gender-specific signage on the doorways before one even enters. The situation has, of course, become more fraught in recent years, but without wading deeply into the sewage that is contemporary gender politics (since there are plenty of others more committed to the subject, who can ruminate at length far better than I can), I’ll consign myself to basic semantics. As they appear at the entrance to a public restroom. In a hotel lobby. In Scotland.
The use of the gender-specific signage and lettering here is so gosh-darn clever that it takes not a double but a triple look to digest the full implications. At first blush, it merely distinguishes the “toilets”, which anyone who has visited the UK knows is their preferred term for what Americans typically call restrooms. (“Too literal,” say the Americans of the Limeys. “Too polite,” say the Scots of the Yanks.) But what’s particularly interesting is the subtler vernacular substitution: use of “male” and “female”, words that clearly achieve the same denotative goal as “men” and “women”, but sound strange and overly clinical to the American, at least when used in the context of restroom signage. Apparently to Scots, man/male and woman/female are interchangeable.
These word swaps are just scratching the surface, though. The intermingling of fonts on this sign emphasizes the gender-specific morphology that frustrates contemporary feminists: in both cases, the term for those who possess XX chromosomes takes the more universal word (which also applies to those who possess XY chromosomes) and appends a prefix to feminize it. Man becomes “WOman”; male becomes “FEmale”. And the fact that this hotel simply bought the typesetting for “male” twice, then purchased “f” and “e” separately (using the same sans-serif font as “Toilets”) merely underlies the fact that “female” is “male” with a prefix—essentially, the XX sex is a subset of the other, as though it XX emerged out of the rib of XY or something crazy like that.
Am I reading too much into it? This time, NO. I’m not reading into it enough. The truth is that the letter “e” at the end of both “Male” and “Female” returns to the sans-serif print. So it’s only the three letters “Mal” that use the stylish, jaunty cursive. And that “Mal” is part of the logo to this hotel chain. Malmaison, French for “bad house”, is the full name, so “mal” is simply three letters (“bad”) that happens to fit squarely in both “male” and “female”. With this density of polyglot punning going on, can the chain appease the gender critical among its clientele?
I suppose that remains to be seen, but it’s not the only sign on the entrance to restroom doors in the UK that might cause an American’s eyebrow to raise.
When it comes to serving persons with disabilities, the broader public tends to flatten all gender distinctions, resulting in a truce (or at least a stalemate) between the “gender is sex” and the “gender is a social construct” camps. They can momentarily shake hands and agree that catering to persons with access or functional needs is more important than standing or sitting to pee. And they can agree that these people need reasonable accommodations. But is the symbol above characteristic of a disabled person in the UK? I saw this sign on more than one occasion, even though there’s ample evidence that the country uses the more conventional International Symbol of Access as well. Yet disability rights organizations have indicated a growing awareness that the situation and symbol don’t cover the full spectrum of disabilities to which accessibility accommodations apply. So does that mean the one above is an attempt to broaden that range of coverage? It looks like a person standing right next to a wheelchair, with either two crutches, braces, or even the guide cane typically used by people with visual impairments. But if that’s the case, why two canes? And why feature a wheelchair at all if the person can walk with other tools of assistance?
There’s too much going on here, in my opinion—too much to process, and while it still generally conveys disability, it does so through a sensory overload, when such symbols should be legible both quickly (in an emergency) and even to young children. I question whether this symbol fits the bill. It’s almost as complicated as the gender-specific signage satire at Malmaison Hotel. Or it’s highly possible that the Scots are just more sophisticated thinkers than I am. Another example—a unisex toilet outside Loch Ness of all places—is a bit more obvious.
Not only does it feature the International Symbol of Access, but it reminds me of a public restroom entrance in Mississippi that I commented upon many years ago.
Perhaps the social commentary, satirical or otherwise, needs to distill the gender differences to something that elicits a good belly laugh. The above examples probably won’t tickle everyone’s funny bone, but a restaurant in Maryland I saw recently featured this distinction between male and female restrooms. (My apologies that it’s dark, but the point of the gender-specific signage still comes across.)
In this era of easy offense, universal offense is probably not just the best solution; it’s the only solution.