Or, a sort-of review of Dara Blumenthal’s Little Vast Rooms of Undoing.
I first came across this book before I got interested in bodily waste. In fact, it may have helped spark an interest. On reading the book, its emphasis is much more on the gender identity conflicts surrounding public toilets than the bodily waste produced in them. None the less, an interesting read.
‘Little Vast Rooms of Undoing’ explores how identity and embodiment is constructed through public toilet spaces, specifically how gender, sex and sexuality, is constructed. But let me start from the beginning.
I thoroughly enjoyed grappling through the pages of this book. It is well written, insightful and current, and by using interviews as well as literary sources, is highly relatable. It is structured into 4 parts. There are 7 chapters within the first three chapters, and the last chapter stands alone as a conclusion of sorts. In the introduction, named ‘Being (beyond) oneself), Blumenthal outlines her aims and objectives and her critical standpoint of examining the relationship between self-identity and the body – through toilets, of course. She highlights the importance of the difference between toilets as public and private spaces, which is highly intriguing, as well as the notion of the public toilet as something of a privilege of Western society. For the purposes of the book, and this seems vitally important, Blumenthal’s definition of public toilets are ‘away-from-home, sex segregated spaces that allow for the urination and/or defecation of at least two persons at any given time’ (Blumenthal, 2014). This is interesting in itself – obviously it is easy to think of alternatives to this definition (I can already think of alternatives within my own university), but this is a useful way of knowing the parameters that Blumenthal is working with. As well as this, they are private institutions, places where power operates, and placed that enable reproduction of a normative social experience. This is the heart of what I believe Blumenthal is writing against – the forced imposition on the normative social experience through the gendered categorisation of public toilets. Following this conceptual overview, Blumenthal outlines theoretical choices (which includes, among others, Norbert Elias’ model of homo clausus and Kristeva’s notion of the abject) and her chapter summaries.
Moving swiftly onto the body of the text. I was not fazed by the heavy theoretical chapter, which explored neatly the traditions of homo clausus, homines Aperti and corpus adfinitum. The first, representative of the closed-off self within the body, which experiences difficulty as the body is always already open, and the homo clausus must work hard to rationally separate and close it. The second of the self deterritorialised with social constructs, and the last being Blumenthal’s own term, evocative of the body being key to identity rather than passive, and consciousness is a fully sensory-experience and commitment. I found this section highly intellectual and engaging, giving me lots to think about relating to my own work as well as the theme at hand, public toilets, which had yet to be discussed. Blumenthal proposes a shift from mind to body when it comes to understanding the self – and this is where gender and sex must come in, because they are ways in which we identify and differentiate the human body. The conclusion to this section, with language often haphazard and frantic, is no doubt saying something very important, with legible and coherent conclusions.
The second section examines a history of public toilets from the fifteenth century. It explores the move from communal to public spaces, and the dyad of public/private and personal/ communal. There are 3 historical milestones that Blumenthal lays out. The first is the creation of the latrine in the 15th-18th centuries: long benches with holes in over water. The use of these was highly communal. The second is the 1739 sex-segregated toilet spaces, beginning with the French upper classes. The last milestone is the invention of the permanent and private gendered toilet spaces in the Victoria Era, notably showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The book becomes more contentious when we reach the empirical data. Blumenthal has clearly set up ideas about the theme she wants to explore, which from the first two chapters is the gendered space of toilets and the problems that arise due to the gender identities. These are not unknown, and are becoming more and more current in popular culture. However, what we also find is an exploration of sexuality, which finds a hard time being linked to the gender and toilets. Some stretches are made concerning the link between the mirror, vanity and sexuality (it is implied that trans, lesbian and queer users have trouble with the mirror and find it unsettling). What I find unsettling is the grouping of transgender and queer, both in relation to their use of toilets and in general. It seems an oversight that needed explaining further as to why Blumenthal linked two very different types of people together. On many occasions, I wonder why Blumenthal even needs to tell us that the people being interviewed are queer. For instance, when discussing the reality of FASE and being ill in a public bathroom, Blumenthal quotes Frankie, ‘twenty-four and queer’, about her embarrassing experience being sick in a public bathroom. The argument, that the episode is evidence of feeling embarrassed and shameful in a public bathroom, has very little to do with her sexuality. I imagine both a straight and queer person would have felt the same way. Her sexuality does not alter this. Similarly, many of the debates that Blumenthal is engaged with concerning transgender individuals using male or female toilets, is grouped together with similar anxieties facing queer individuals. This to me seems shortsighted. As a queer woman, I do not consider myself in the same category as a transgender person, a male identifying as a female or a female identifying as a man. One concerns sexuality, one concerns sex, which are too often either confused or grouped under the same umbrella.
All in all, Blumenthal’s book is insightful, asking just as many questions as it answers, and is full of contentious, current debates. No doubt it has, and will continue to spark debate from those who read and enjoy it. It certainly has got me thinking about gender and public toilets. I come from Hull, and the two contrasting examples of public toilets in this city are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are the public toilets in Hull city centre, which have been reopened for public use when the coming of City of Culture 2017 (having been closed for a long time due to health and safety concern). According to Hull Daily Mail, the toilets are widely used, and ‘despite being underground and with limited disabled access, the toilets are used by about 187,000 people every year’. There is something highly unsettling about the underground toilets, the dark and dingy passageway inviting, with fancy lettering, ‘Ladies In’ or ‘Gentlemen In’. Perhaps to avoid any bottlenecks, there are actually separate exits for ‘Ladies Out’ and ‘Gentlemen Out’ (although the last time I visited the site, I saw many people recklessly flaunting these rules and proceeding down the exit-only route). Not to mention the blatant lack of disabled access, there is something strangely segregated and old-fashioned about the toilets. This is in complete contrast to the University of Hull, which champions same-sex toilets. Toilets have both symbols, male and females, which seems to be the best way to eliminate any form of discrimination when it comes to the social construction of public bathrooms. Every toilet in the University library is as such, and around campus, even more same-sex toilets are popping up. Same city, but worlds apart.
I doubt many people are thinking too much about the significance of such things, and I doubt it is at the forefront of any City of Culture discussions, but Blumenthal’s book has made me think about its importance more and more. Public toilets ARE a privilege, and should not be a discriminatory tool, whether this is in the form of gender stereotypes or monetary burdens that call into question class and social boundaries. I cannot put into words the anger I feel when I approach a public toilet, only to find a barrier, asking me for money. Could be 20p, could be 50p. It actually doesn’t matter. Blumenthal’s gendered study is important, but perhaps this is another interesting scope for study. Identity is constructed through class as well as gender, and while public toilets are often gendered, they are often not always fully public, because not all of the public is willing to, or can afford, to pay to be able to use the bathroom. The notion of barbaric in itself – dictated by greed instead of common decency and human rights, but that is besides the point. Can we really call the bathrooms ‘public’ spaces, if they are discriminatory to those who cannot afford it?
Blumenthal, D. (2014). Little Vast Rooms of Undoing: exploring identity and embodiment through public toilet spaces. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
PhD researcher at University of Hull