Bhamini Lakshminarayan (M2015MC013)
Image Making – I
Anjali Monteiro and K. P. Jayashankar
7th July, 2015
The Semiology of Bathroom Signs: A Response to A. A. Berger, Chapter 1
The gist of this reading is that languages consist of signs that we use to make associations with our culturally contingent understandings of the world. These signs are argued to be quasi-arbitrary by Saussure, and arbitrary, representational, and with causative implications by Pierce. However, to fully make sense of this reading, I found it necessary to interpret it in the light of one of the most common signs that we interact with in our every day lives – the signs on bathrooms.
When bathrooms are sex-differentiated, they accomodate for two very distinct biological sexes – those of male and female. Pictured alongside this paragraph is a photograph of the sex-differentiated bathrooms in the main block at T.I.S.S. Seemingly helpful signs on the doors read “Ladies” and “Gents,” next to what has come to be a universally acknowledged symbol on these bathrooms for the above sex categories. When interpreting these signs in the context of the reading, one comes across a series of ideas that seem to reinforce the culturally constructed and convenient binaries that support and perpetuate the dominant heteronormative discourse.
The first signifier I attempt to look at is that fact that there are two distinct sex-differentiated bathrooms. This, to me, signifies that there exist only two distinct biological sexes, and that all individuals naturally fall into these categories. Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), argues that languages seek to “impose meaning upon experience.” With these two sex-differentiated bathrooms, it seems as though we are being asked to infer a particular meaning based upon a certain biological distinction – the presence or absence of certain genitilia. The meaning inferred excludes all individuals who identify their gender as distinct from their biological sex, and those who present with phenotypically “atypical” combinations of genitals, secondary sexual characteristics, hormones, and chromosomes. An argument made in the reading is that ideological symbols attempt to show that they are natural, and not historically constructed. Here, it is a very obvious manifestation of the heteronormative ideology – that there exist distinct and binary biological sexes and genders, and that we identify with one or the other is inevitable and unchangeable.
According to Berger, language is a “social institution,” and the meanings we interpret from the use of a language are contingent upon time, culture, and convention. The symbol used on the “Gents” bathroom door is that of an unembellished stick figure, and on the “Ladies” door, is that of a stick figure with a triangle to imply a skirt. In this context, three things are imminently observable. The first, is that these signs impose certain gendered identity markers upon this binary of biological sexes – a skirt vs. trousers. The second, is that the skirt is, in itself, culturally contingent, as it would stop at a woman’s knees, and is thus not of a style that is traditionally worn in most communities in India. The third is possibly the most unconscious display of the patriarchal dominant discourse – the male is shown as unembellished, as the “natural” state of a stick figure. The female, on the other hand, has additional identity markers – is seen as the stick figure’s “unnatural” state. This, I argue, ties in with the feminist argument that the biological male is seen as the “normal” and the female as the derivative/deviation of the normal.
If one is in any ambiguity about who the bathrooms are intended for, the words “Ladies” and “Gents” are inscribed on the doors, and again, reinforce the binary distinctions that are made through the symbols. One is reminded that one can only be a “lady” if in possession of a certain phenotypical combination.
While all of the above is a seemingly trivial issue, it struck me as of interest because of the universalised nature of these signs. We unthinkingly associate ourselves with the signs on the doors, and based on this, decide on the socially appropriate bathroom that we can use. Certain “culture codes,” a phrase borrowed from Clotaire Rapaille (2006), seem deeply embedded in us – the existence of a certain type of binary identity that we all must naturally possess. Even if one insists on the use of a binary, if one attempts to use representative forms of signs, biologically sex-differentiated bathrooms could display differentiated genitals or chromosomal structures. In the light of the reading on semiology and semiotics, it is perhaps necessary that we rethink the way we experience the language of bathroom signs, and perhaps seek to evolve it.
Berger, A. A.; Chap 1, The Science of Signs, in The Objects of Affection-Semiotics and Consumer Culture, Palgrave Macmillan; 2010
Geertz, Clifford; The Interpretation of Cultures, Perseus Books Group; 1977
Rapaille, Clotaire; The Culture Code, Crown Business; 2006