Number One or Number Two: ‘Toilet’ Seeks to Dismantle the Bathroom Code

In the final season of HBO’s comedy series Mr. Show, one sketch finds a couple having dinner in a very refined, very posh restaurant. The man asks the maître d’hôtel to direct him to the restrooms. The maître d’ will hear nothing of it. The man insists he needs to visit the men’s room, and the maître d’ informs him that to have something as crass as a men’s room at a restaurant of such high caliber would “soil our atmosphere”. Instead, the man must eliminate his bowels through a hole in his chair into a velvet-lined box. Very refined, very posh, indeed.

Like most good satire, this sketch takes a premise and extrapolates it to its most sublimely ridiculous end. However, in this case, the premise need not be taken that far. As Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén, the editors of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, take care to remind us, the toilet is the last taboo in today’s society and one that is extremely difficult to break (the taboo, that is). The contributors Molotch and Norén gather into this book make their best efforts to do so, and we the reading public are rewarded with some very thoughtful, very provocative essays on what is possibly the last topic left in cultural and social intercourse to be taken seriously.

In David Serlin’s contribution to the book, he quotes activists Raymond Lifchez and Barbara Winslow as recognizing public bathrooms as “a focal point of the drive to create a barrier-free community”. I must confess that I never thought of bathrooms in this way either — until reading this book. Fortunately, attitudes towards true multiculturalism and modes of thought that operate independently of strict binaries are becoming more and more common-place each day. But it still truly seems that, when nature calls, it is either the Gents’ or the Ladies’ room.

The first counter-argument to spring to mind is based on simple biology: those with these parts go here and those with those parts go there. But thanks to advances in gender studies, no longer is this a line in the sand we can no longer cross. Olga Gershenson’s contribution to Toilet, “The Restroom Revolution: Unisex Toilets and Campus Politics”, details the tremendous difficulties of students at UMass-Amherst in attempting to obtain unisex bathrooms on campus in order to more adequately serve the student body’s transsexual/transgender population. Aside from shining a spotlight on the aggressively backwards reactions of an administration vs. a student culture generally thought to be vastly liberal, Gershenson makes an excellent argument for the abolition of gender as the binary most think it to be: there no longer are (and there never really was) only ‘men’ and only ‘women’.

While possibly the most interesting dynamic of the restroom, gender is far from the only subject covered here. Many people have phobias or anxieties about restrooms just at a personal level, and so have particular habits or patterns they attend to throughout the day to address those issues. As personally distasteful as each individual may or may not find the average restroom, access is generally taken for granted.

However, as Norén explores in her own essay, “Only Dogs Are Free to Pee”, this is far from the case. As Norén found out in the course of her research, New York’s legion of cabdrivers have almost no bathroom access, a fact which not only deprives them of the obvious comfort, but can also keep them from earning sufficient pay. Working as they do on commission, cab drivers must often decide between taking the time to find a bathroom, find parking and use the bathroom, or not losing several fares. This sort of choice is not one to be envied. As the title of the essay suggests, there are more restrictions on public urination for people than there are for pets.

The ideas and concepts discussed in Toilet are fascinating, of that there is no doubt, but the presentation of the material is something of a double-edged sword. The editors and authors all want to present this material, discuss this topic as seriously and as academically-minded as possible in order to elevate the discussion beyond the taboos which make it such fun to giggle. However, by adhering so strictly to an academic tone, some of the accessibility is lost. There are some lighter, shorter segments in between the longer essays, labeled here as “rest stops”, and they do help to lighten the load. Overall, though, the academic tone, for all its necessity, does render the book as something less than a bathroom page-turner.

Still, the serious discussion of something as common-place yet personal as the restroom has long been missing from the over-all cultural conversation. Toilet is the first in what is hoped to be many steps towards righting this condition, for everyone’s sake — not least for the fancy restaurants in this world.

RATING 8 / 10