Sunday, July 5, 2009

Target Practice

I've been reading up on design theories for toilets/toilet rooms of late, particularly public toilets. And there is a great divide between public toilet design and those we use in our homes. Why is it so rare to see a urinal in a home? Granted not many companies make them, but they are available and one could argue that more would be available if people would install them!

Then there are international variations, most notably: the raging debate between proponents of squat toilets and those that prefer western-style stool models. While I haven't traveled to the squat toilet parts of the world myself, I gather that western styles are edging out the squats in these areas when it comes to new toilet room construction. Great, not only are we exporting death food like McDonald's and Coca-cola, but now we are moving cultures away from an elimination style that strengthens pelvic muscles, eliminates hemorrhoids, etc. etc. in favor of our lazy shitting style.

One piece of these discussions that puzzles me is the widely-held, yet never discussed assumption that men/boys need something to pee on. A target. This is easy enough to explain away when one is pondering indoor and single-user fixtures. People with penises hitting the right spot with their urine stream keeps that world neater. But even in discussions of outdoor urination (such as men's gardens) or massive urinal troughs (where as long as you didn't pee on your shoe you could not miss), there is reference to needing to provide definite targets.

This has reminded me of camping/biking trips with males in which, even in the middle of nowhere where there is no chance of anyone coming up on them, they have sought out something to pee on.

My current thinking is that this is a learned behavior. My boy, when the others at school showed him that he could pee standing up (we had a sit down house), took to taking hands-free, standing pees into the toilet. I think his height allowed him to still get his pee in the bowl relatively easily. But, of course, I've tried to reprogram him so that he does actually take aim and mind his stream a bit more in the confines of home. But why, out there in the wild wild world, why don't those sporting penises just pee away from themselves. I assume they would use hands to avoid peeing on their feet, but then the goal would be just to pee away, not to pee on something...

Does it matter? Probably not too much. I guess I'm just pondering whether target practice connects to ideas of modesty? privacy? security? sport? But then, what design elements would be open to us if men aimed less and women aimed more?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Excuse me, where is the toilet?"

I'm in the process of retraining my brain: from now on, I'm going with "toilets" as my word of choice. Yes, much of this comes from being awash in a sea (a somewhat annoying sea when one is using lots of indices and databases) of changing terminology for public facilities over the course of the 20th century, but it is more than that. First, as I've already gone on about in other posts, I think we should label facilities not by who should use them (if they are truly public facilities) but by their function/equipment, which I think "toilet" represents. Second, it pokes at American's delicate sensibilities about elimination by referring to the space by the fixture into which we eliminate (okay, it works less well for urinal-only users... suggestions?). My thinking is that until we (that would be the collective, societal "we") can get past our studied silence about this topic (the fact that people need to pee, poop, change tampons, etc), we aren't going to do a better job about providing truly public facilities for the public good. So, from now on, when I "need to excuse myself" (as my mother taught me to say), I'm going to ask for the toilet.

Old words/phrases to do away with:
comfort stations
"men"/"women" (or the many equivalents)
water closet or WC
convenience stations
T(ea) room

Friday, April 24, 2009

Layers of loveliness

After my recent rant about a certain American advertising campaign, I came across this: an ad about acceptance, self-reflection, and transgenderness. Yum. I can't wait for the day that something like this appears trite instead of moving.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Layers of Fear

This ad – from its basic premise, to its music, to its lighting – is most certainly about fear.

On the surface, the advertisement plays on fears of “identity theft” by suggesting not that our financial privacy might be invaded but rather that our individuality is at risk. The irony, of course, is that it is another mass market product being offered to save us from the fate of conformity (which in this case has been foisted on us by Lexus).

Next up are certainly some of the fears that my faithful commentator Biscodo mentions: fear that comes from being lost, disorientation, fear that your possession is gone (could it be stolen?), etc.

My read of these fears, of their impact, is, not surprisingly, deeply colored by where the action is located: in an otherwise deserted parking deck. One in four women will be raped. Women know this and the parking garage is the quintessential setting for such a crime to occur – it is the physical confluence of everything a woman is taught to avoid: it is visually and audibly isolated, it has dark corners/sections and limited sightlines, it has limited exits… There is room to fudge with restrictions in other areas of advice toward women on how to stay safe (“I wouldn’t normally walk to my car by myself, but it was just across the street from the restaurant”), but not with parking decks. The message is clear. You are absolutely never, ever supposed to go into one by yourself if you are a woman.

In the opening scenes of this commercial, there are only a few cars in the deck and it is a lone woman in heels heading to her car – looking confused, then concerned, then tentative, then nervous, then panicked, then scared, then terrified.

As I have no doubt been well conditioned to do, I identify with her. I can read in her face her own realization that she is not doing what “common sense” would dictate (and whether it is there or not, whether or not it is the intended message is immaterial, I see it… I FEEL it). She is breaking the rules by going to her car alone. She is wearing stupid shoes that will keep her from running effectively should she need to, and now, not being able to find her car, she is breaking the rule that says “always look like you know exactly where you are going.”

As her fear grows, my own chest tightens. The music grows more ominous. Then she goes around a corner and sees a sea of cars that all look like hers. Is this better for her or worse? More likely her car will be here, but more places where someone ready to do her harm might hide. Next, she is running. Panic. Then the sound of a car approaching. Here, I’ve had trouble deciding on just what I see in her face as the black Audi rounds the corner. Could it be a mixture of relief (someone else is there) or fear (will this someone be ‘friendly’?)? After replaying the shot from inside the Audi several times, I’m convinced that the driver is a woman – or is intended to look like one. There a touch of long hair and relatively ‘feminine’ hands on the wheel. Doesn’t this then minimize the threat? Our subject will perceive the car and its driver as less of a threat if the driver is a woman… she will, perhaps, think of herself in the position of power behind the wheel – and in the relatively safe environment of the personal automobile (one she can get into, anyway!).

But that shot showing a hint of the Audi driver is extremely brief. And that is representative of what I find so reprehensible (and, to give its creators their due, brilliant) about this commercial – it is, on the surface, defensible.

“Of course, this isn’t a commercial designed to tap into women’s fears of being raped, we put words up on the screen that tell you we are playing off fears of ‘identity theft’.”

“Of course, this isn’t a commercial designed to tap into women’s fears of being raped, the driver of the car that comes around the corner is driven by a woman.”

The problem is that there is enough ‘unstated’ fear already built up, that the ‘identity theft’ statement and the flash of feminine in the driver won’t dissipate what has already been triggered.

One of my students suggested that the other commercial for this vehicle makes it even more clear that the ad agency intentionally played with gender to make their pitch. In this ad, kids are confronted with a sea of identical cream-colored cars picking them up from school. Along comes the ‘distinct’ black Audi, allowing the fortunate child of the driver to emerge from the crowd of confused and unclaimed children. One significant difference in this commercial is that we get a full look at the driver… a man. Does that matter? Sure. Check out the hands waving out of the identical vehicles… they are all feminine. The Audi will preserve your masculinity as you engage in traditionally unmasculine activities. You can do it better. Faster. You will still be you. Not them.

I can go through the motions to analyze this second commercial, but it does not hold my interest the way the parking deck one does. Buy a car. And you won’t be trapped. Or vulnerable. Or where you are not supposed to be. And if you’re not a woman? Then, nevermind, this is just a clever play on current societal obsessions with identity theft.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


While sitting in Grizzly Peak on Friday night, I caught this commercial on the TV across the way (not surprisingly, even if they give me blog fodder, I hate TVs in public spaces).

Anyway, I am working up some thoughts about the ad. In the meantime, I thought I'd share the link so you can take a look at it without (yet) being faced with my ramblings on its meaning(s).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What We Can't Talk About

In my grad class last night, we discussed African American's "racial uplift" approach to challenging discrimination in the early twentieth century. One of my grad students caught me in the hall during break to ask, "Do you feel comfortable talking about race with black students in the class?"

I was taken aback. This white student is older than me by 15 years or so and a veteran high school history teacher.

"Of course," I say and then I ask, "Are all your students white?"

"Yes, and I don't think I could talk about race if they weren't."

Once I recognized her hesitancy, I started to see several others who were holding themselves back. A wave of inspiration would pass over their faces, their mouths might open, they would sit up a little taller, only to slump back down. I finally had to stop them and remind them that intellectual exploration and debate was the whole point of the course. And then I still had to pull ideas out of several of them, white and black alike, so hesitant were they to criticize African American leaders from a century ago -- lest they look racist (white students' fear) or reveal that a form of racism might have been at work in the black community (black students' fear).

So it fell to me to stir the pot... to ask outrageously provocative questions, to take ideas to extreme ends until the students felt compelled to jump in and wrestle their ideas away from me lest I do them more harm.

I do this all the time on all sorts of issues in my undergrad classes. What was striking about last night was that I felt I had to do it in my grad class. This is a class (of eleven women and one man who says nothing) that is happy to tell you how awful women are to each other, what crimes "all men" (yes, yes, I challenge them on this) have committed against women... but they apparently seize up on the issue of race and the possibility that they might say something "wrong" about (insert whispery voice here) black people.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Autonomy vs. Empowerment

Do you have a "right" to privacy?

Well, sure, you do... haven't we interpreted the 14th amendment to say that you do (see Roe v. Wade, 1973)?

But that "right" actually requires a fair amount of "privilege" to access. Privacy is often spatially located -- it is perceived to be strongest on "private property" which indicates a need for economic privilege to acquire such a space. Consequently, Nancy Duncan ("Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Public and private Space" 1996) calls privacy a "contingent right" rather than an absolute right. Furthermore, privacy is something you can attain only if you can maintain independence. Anyone needing help has proven their dependency and therefore trades away their right to privacy... anyone who requires public assistance, for example.

Can you take privacy out of private space? Well, we certainly have tried to construct a world where you can. You can drive to work in your "private" automobile, you can pee in a private stall or restroom, there are dividers around desks in library study spaces, etc... We also have a host of behaviors (flying under the flag of "good manners") that encourage us to give other people their privacy in public ("don't stare, Johnny").

Privacy is a goal for us because we link it to autonomy. If we can maintain our privacy, we think we can choose our circumstances, control our actions, determine our fate. In order to create a zone of privacy and allow ourselves to think we are autonomous from those around us, we gravitate toward homogeneous, sanitized, exclusionary spaces (in that sense, the more "private" a public space, the more comfortable we feel). They feel orderly and clearly bounded. And the less we encounter the unfamiliar, the disorderly, the heterogeneous, the less likely we are to feel our privacy has been challenged. When our privacy is not intruded upon we feel powerful -- we won't need to ask for anything, we are (we think) autonomous!

This is a rather individualistic approach to life. It is also one that we potentially need to trade away in order to reach a state of actual "empowerment" in the public sphere. To be empowered, to actually participate in democratic decision making, we need to get messy. We need to expose the parts of ourselves and our identities that we hide behind the veil of "privacy" and see these things in others. That means we need to be in messy spaces, where boundaries are challenged -- because it is only when boundaries are crossed that we can clearly see where they are. And it is only when we recognize the boundaries that we can see (and potentially change) how hierarchies of power have been built (and naturalized) into our social spaces.

I'm going back to a familiar theme: Let's degender "public" bathrooms, give up some precious privacy in order to see gender in a new way.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pink Chaddi

It's time for the annual hubbub over Valentine's Day in India. I'll be wearing my pink knickers on the 14th and hoisting a pint for "hoydenish" women everywhere, how about you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Theorizing Social Space (week 4)

This week's grad class on "Women and Public Spaces" was pretty cool. The students struggled to get through Hiller and Hansons' The Social Logic of Space (2003), but with a whole lot of prompting/leading/interpreting on my part, they finally got it:

“The global form has not been conceived of or designed by any individual: it has arisen from the independent dynamics of a process that is distributed among a collection of individuals, ” (i.e. a “local rule”). (p. 36) So basically societal rules (etiquette, manners, tradition, custom) followed by discrete entities (individuals) ultimately create the structure of space because those rules are acted out in space.

The example that made it finally work for the students was the cloud of midges.... midges don't have some overarching entity that creates the cloud, rather it is created by each individual in their little space following shared rules (specifically to always keep another midge about so close). But that the midges on the other sides of the cloud are following the same rule creates the physical shape/space of the cloud. That means that the midge on one side is in a spatially concrete and socially bounded relationship with the midge on the other side, even though the two may never meet face to face. The model suggests that there is some coherent whole to social space… a knowable pattern (H & H call this a "morphic language"), a system in which all are connected.

I'm pretty sure our discussions for the next ten weeks are going to include the behavior of little bugs. Time to get out my fly swatter, lest the students wed themselves to this relatively simple and orderly model. Time for them to get good with multiple social systems, transpatial elements, conflicting categories, and other sources of messiness!

Time to revisit Elizabeth Grosz, methinks. Grosz suggests the connection of intersection or space and society is "a fundamentally disunified series of systems and interconnections, a series of disparate flows, energies, events or entities, and spaces, brought together or drawn apart in more or less temporary alignments." ("Bodies-Cities," in Sexuality and Space, Beatriz Colomina, ed., p. 248)

Friday, January 23, 2009


The title of this blog is "Breaking the Code." I've been using this as the working title of my book project also because it captures the essence of what Progressives, feminists, intersex activists and others were doing in their efforts to alter the practices and infrastructure of urban public space (as well as achieve reform and change in economic, social, and political realms) in the 20th century. It occurs to me today, however, that the URL for this blog is actually a better descriptor for what I'm trying to get at because it addresses WHY they were doing what they were and what they hoped to achieve.

Even though most of these activists talked about "independence" or, when they adressed it directly at all, "privacy as a right," privacy is actually a privilege reserved for some and denied to others. It is more than independence, though independence is key to getting there -- but, as these activists learn, it is not enough.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Barred from the Barroom

Admittedly, this article of mine took a long time to come out.

But out it is and I'm tickled by the write-up it got in the intro for Feminist Studies' special issue on the 1970s:

"Many of the younger feminists writing and working today cannot personally remember a time when women were barred from public spaces and accommodations, which is what makes Georgina Hickey's article, "Barred from the Barroom: Second Wave Feminists and Public Accommodations in U.S. Cities," such an important piece of scholarship and reflection. Hickey makes it possible for us to remember -- or perhaps encounter for the first time -- what it was like to "do feminism" during an era when an unescorted woman could not enter or be served at many restaurants, cafes, and drinking establishments. She reviews not only the multitude of strategies used by feminist activists -- some liberal and some radical -- to open up these spaces but also the mind-boggling array of reactions these feminist activists got from the resistant patriarchal public. This article provides an opportunity for older feminists to review how far we've come and for younger feminists to reflect upon some of the most concrete and undeniable accomplishments of the Second Wave in spite of its many documented shortcomings."