Movie Toilets: Women and the Politics of Defilement
The toilet, and its spirit ally, potty humor, has come to be associated with a kind of strength—both at the box office and in terms of a cultural defiance.
Before Psycho in 1960, toilets were missing from mainstream American cinema. Though many of us can think of contrary examples if pressed, going to the bathroom (and other mundane routines) is unseen and irrelevant in films. The quotidian biology of the human body, for the most part, does not exist in a movie's world.
The infamous Psycho shower scene features the first image of a toilet in popular American film. Marian Crane flushes away a page of calculations that document her recent theft. The camera briefly hovers over a portion of the flushing toilet, an image that links to a visual theme of circles: drains, showerheads, eyes and swirling water. The sequence is about deviance, not only the murder and Marian's crime, but also Hitchcock's intent to shock the audience by showing them what is usually censored —- the exposed white body of the star Janet Leigh, and that flushing commode.
By setting Marian's murder in a bathroom, a space commonly known for its privacy, the scene corrupts normal expectations of decency. Thus, the bathroom becomes a site not of private acts, but of public, horrifying transgressions. Furthermore, because the killer Norman cross-dresses as his mother, appearing as a woman in silhouette, the scene creates a visual space that aligns aberrant behavior with women.
Hitchcock's toilet, as it were, functions as a portal to the dark recesses of the repressed human psyche. The object's everyday function becomes the perfect metaphor for such transport. Of course, not every piece of Marian's scratch paper makes it down the drain. Later, her sister Lila finds a stray shred, a clue clinging to the edge of the toilet, showing that in this particular bathroom, a woman's deviance can never fully be flushed away.
The latest toilets, in more contemporary films, don't always express this kind of transgression. The toilet, and its spirit ally, potty humor, has come to be associated with a kind of strength—both at the box office and in terms of a cultural defiance. When the women in Bridesmaids defile the luxurious restroom of the bridal boutique, they sully wedding etiquette along with its exorbitant expense and strict conventions. At the same time, these women prove they can debase with the best of them.
In doing so, they extend an homage to such filmic brothers as diarrhea victim Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly, the Hangover gang with their tiger and morning pee, and the Fight Clubbers who spice catered food with bodily excretions and threaten each other's testicles in white-tiled bathrooms. All of these corrupters, and certainly I'm leaving out a few, besmirch social mores and thus become, in a way, heroic. To despoil is to rebel, and it can seem downright emancipating when women performers like Melissa McCarthy desecrate stuff that's "lady-like".
As much as the media swirl around Bridesmaids reported its triumphant box office as a "women's film" without any major stars in its ensemble, there was still a discernible social hierarchy among the actresses and their roles. The slightly more bankable Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne, and their characters, are spared the threat of degradation that comes from participating in the bathroom scene. Neither enters the luxury lavatory that the lithe, blonde bridal consultant shrieks to protect. In fact, just two of the characters actually defecate: the fat, socially awkward one and the woman of color. The most deviant acts in the film go to the most socially "deviant", or least mainstream, characters.
The film seems to critique upper-class values, offering sympathy to Wiig's recession-era heroine by making her nemesis, Byrne, a shallow, rich girl. This overarching conflict works to mystify the functions of the lesser characters in the ensemble as it privileges the more important (class) conflict between thin, white women. The bride (Maya Rudolph) has her own meltdown, in part because her black father cannot afford her wedding, but her anxieties are tertiary to those of the characters played by Wiig and Byrne, and in fact, bring the two closer together.
Indeed, Bridesmaids presents a multiracial array of extras in wedding and party scenes to signal the inclusive and diverse coupling between the biracial bride and her white fiancé. This casting would be progressive if it weren't undermined by the politics of the bathroom scene.
The bridesmaids seem like hardcore feminists when compared to the white women in Sex in the City, another film heralded for its dynamic box office despite starring lots of women. The Sex in the City characters are an easy mark, but nonetheless crucial to the cultural mainstreaming of a certain cruelty and vapid racism that has come to attend white women (in new ways) in popular film.
Mr. Big's cold feet are choreographed to leave Carrie at the altar so she can display an aesthetically gorgeous grief. Though there is a long cinematic (and literary) tradition that glorifies women's heartbreak, Carrie's desperation allows a Mexican staging wherein the four friends "honeymoon" so Carrie can recover. Her sadness finally breaks once she exhibits an enormous laugh. One so big it heals. She laughs at her friend Charlotte who has hilariously shit her pants.
The humor operates on one level because Charlotte is a proper type for whom such a humiliation proves dire. She refuses to consume any Mexican food or drink out of fear of just such an occurrence. Nonetheless, during a shampoo-commercial style shower, she takes in a few drips of Mexican water. Though in a five star hotel and shielded from the threat of actual Mexico, just a drop of water produces the abject act. The sequence conforms to widespread fears and cultural clichés about tourism in Mexico and other foreign locales. It also signals a connection to that Brazilian restaurant in Bridesmaids that literally poisons the women. Charlotte's affliction occurs abroad, but the bridesmaids are sullied by popular domestic fears and threats surrounding immigration.
When Charlotte poops in Sex in the City, which registers via sound effect, and most especially, when the heartbroken Carrie howls in amusement, the humor derives not only from the proclaimed intrinsic hilarity of potty humor, but from an outburst that derives from white fears about foreigners. The characters' racism is both exposed and obscured at the same time. This helps the audience laugh.
The infamous toilet scene in Bridesmaids allows a similar trick -- again when the threat enters a zone of affluence. McCarthy's exuberant performance, which harnesses dyke and nerd stereotypes, offers a more foul expression than the other two vomiting white women. While McCarthy's character uses the sink as toilet, Rudolph's leaves the private women's space, running outside and collapsing, in the act of defecation, amidst busy traffic. What the characters express (literally) is a contagion panic surrounding a foreign, dark-skinned culture as well as the class fears that attend such racism.
"Foreign Women and Toilets" (Katarzyna Marciniak, 17 November 2008) explains that toilets, not surprisingly, are associated with "abject" material, the stuff that we need to flush away in order to keep being our human self. In this way, toilets are a site of identity related to ideas about cleanliness and purity. Toilets quickly transport the abject and repulsive away from the human body. This is why, argues Katarzyna Marciniak, that the politics of cleaning the toilet become of central import. She argues, "Symbolically, the cleaners themselves are... flushable like soiled water in the toilet". Using feminist heavy-hitters Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, she goes on to explain, that foreign female maids occupy "tenuous social positions", and come to represent abjection itself. The social status of such women becomes aligned with the toilets they clean.
Toilets and their cleaners are also a central aspect of American culture. Weirdly, last year's The Help obsesses over toilets in its two-pronged narrative about the travails of two black maids as intertwined with a young white woman's coming-of-age. The Help's multiple missteps with history and race have already been eloquently presented, in tandem with its merits, which include acclaimed performances and, again, the ability to make money while starring women. (Karen Valby, EW.com, 11 August 2011 and Teresa Wiltz, TheRoot.com, 10 August 2011).
A toilet-as-defilement scene in The Help (2011)
Segregation always mandated separate spaces for whites and blacks, most especially restrooms, so perhaps there is some sense for a film that depicts racism to focus on these zones. The Help fixates on visual motifs that feature toilet and bathroom images. In one sequence, a white racist's lawn is covered with commodes as a practical joke. There are also primary narrative strains that relate to potty training and cooking with stools. The former becomes a climactic melodramatic sequence, when the black Aibileen (Viola Davis) says goodbye to her young, white charge. The girl, who Aibileen diapers and potty trains (work the girl's mother neglects), cries and pounds the front window as Aibileen departs for good.
This is probably a scene that makes the audience cry. In one sense, they cry because Aibileen has just endured a cruel injustice, wrongfully accused of theft and unfairly fired. Aibileen walks away, tears flowing, integrity intact. Though mistreated, she behaves with dignity, uttering strong words to the two white women who wronged her. But the audience also cries because of the sad, blonde toddler. Soon, the girl stops crying and accepts the separation. She's potty trained now, after all. In an uncomfortable way, the scene equates the suffering of the two females. The audience, in tears as well, may not disentangle the more serious and valid trauma (racism) from the lesser (separation anxiety) if they sob for both.
Throughout The Help, there is often an uneasy analogy between the suffering of white women and black women. Worse, the film's visual style aids in these incommensurate comparisons.
Another major narrative strand concerns the clash between Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), consummate white mean girl, and Minny (Octavia Spencer) the black maid that she fires and harasses. The discord between these two, which arises from race and class discrimination enacted by the white woman upon the black one, manifest in the narrative as skirmishes that feature toilets and what Minny calls "the terrible awful". She uses that phrase in place of the word "shit", when speaking to a more delicate white woman than Hilly. In fact, the only woman other than Minny who utters that word, "shit", is another harassed black woman when seen in jail.
Soon it becomes clear to the community of women, black and white, that Hilly has consumed Minny's excrement, baked into a chocolate pie. Like the bridesmaids and Charlotte, Hilly's fear of the contagion she imagines in persons of color, is served to her directly by Minny. Minny's pie exposes racist fears about black bodies—but instead of Minny's act making those fears symbolic, they become literal. Real.
Granted, the cruel white supremacist Hilly deserves chastisement (and a harassment lawsuit) and this act does debase her. Unfortunately, these machinations of defilement occur at the expense of Minny who must commit an act of desecration in which she defiles herself simultaneously. She performs abjection when she puts her own waste matter into food. Though the act is apparently hilarious, as evinced by the many women who laugh heartily at the knowledge of it, its real nature becomes evident in the ways that society will not speak of it.
Minny's status as a social outcast is demonstrated when she gains acceptance within the "white trash" family, also outcasts, who employ her. She also has an abusive husband (unseen) whose violence marks her, through racist stereotypes of black men, as "unloved". In her black church, the congregation gives Aibileen an ovation for contributing to a book that outs white women's bad behavior toward black maids. In the same scene, Minny (who also contributes stories, including the pie episode) is pulled to the front secondarily, only receiving applause at Aibileen's behest. Most importantly, Minny herself names the pie act the "terrible awful" and calls it a "wrong". Though she gained power, she did not do so within the film world's parameters of social decency. She is defiled.
In the film's interest in equivalences between characters, Hilly is likewise defiled (except that her racist acts should be all the proof necessary). She presents with a cold sore, suffers ridicule and is socially shunned. Weirdly, her very fears, to "catch" something horrible from black domestic workers if bathroom matter comingles, proves to be correct.
The Help employs a similar gaze to the one Hitchcock perfected in the Psycho shower scene. We do not see Hilly vomit, gag, or go to the bathroom. Like Marian Crane before her, she tears up a piece of paper that says "Two Slice Hilly" (a euphemism referring to the pie) and the pieces scatter. Her body's biology also becomes euphemism when we watch her measure toilet paper squares, sitting on a toilet, lid down, fully clothed, not going at all.
In contrast, we watch something different when Aibileen sits on the toilet. The camera pans up her body. A similar shot is used to introduce Celia (Jessica Chastain) a Marilyn Monroe doppelganger. We first see her high heels, then bare legs as the camera directs our gaze, scanning up the conventional beauty of her body. When the same panning shot gazes at Aibileen, this time closer, it starts at her frumpy black shoes, moves up her legs to show unflattering white pantyhose and cotton panties, pulled down around her knees as she sits, sweats, goes. We invade the space that, unless you want to watch something cruel, as in Psycho, should probably remain private.
The Help presents a world obsessed with toilets, where black women pee and poop, and except for a toddler, white women never have to go to the bathroom.