Words || Lachlan Marnoch
The public toilet stall is a time-honoured avenue for self-expression. Cubicle doors plastered with solicitations for a ‘good time’, dubious phone numbers, or profanity-laced exclamations can be found in bathrooms across the globe. Curious about this phenomenon, I investigated the male bathrooms on Level 1 of E7B, the location of some particularly choice scribbles. Most of the cubicles are surprisingly lacking, but one stall has accrued quite an oeuvre. I turned the booth into my temporary study: the toilet lid became my office chair as I produced a pen and notepad to document what I saw.
The graffiti itself contains a startling mix of the pseudo-intellectual, the vaguely artistic, the vulgar and the nonsensical. It was produced with a variety of implements – a dull rainbow of ballpoint pens, permanent markers, and thick graffiti textas. What I found odd was the conversational nature of the messages – chains of discourse linked by arrows (all pointing from the response to the original, in an unexpected display of adopted social convention).
There are communiques from across the political spectrum – from misquotes of Karl Marx (“The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains”), to the troublingly Reaganistic “TRICKLE DOWN ECONOMICS WORKS”. We have ecological messages (“Only economists and cancer cells believe in endless growth”) countering right-leaning Economics 101 lessons (“JOBS + GROWTH = :)”). In response to the ‘proletariat’ comment, someone has written ‘U want tyranny M8?’. Another graffitist has responded to “FUCK LABOUR” by criticising its misspelling of the political party’s name.
Then there’s “JUSTIFY YOUR EXISTENCE”, which seems open to interpretation. Criticism of ideas is central – but not the constructive kind. Intelligent, cordial discourse is not the strong point of the toilet-stall forum. While there are some polite comments, the language in others is downright hostile.
Scattered among the written messages are visual images. There is a pair of wobbly but competent ballpoint sketches of Daffy Duck and Rick Sanchez – which must have taken quite some time to complete. Further down is a crude stick-figure drawing in black marker, in which a person labelled ‘ME’ copulates, using a popular rear-entry position, with a person labelled ‘Jobs’. Was the artist here attempting to express a sexual attraction to – or perhaps disdain for – deceased Apple magnate Steve Jobs? Or, more likely, was he expressing confidence in his future prospects in the job market?
The latter relies on an idiosyncratic aspect of modern vernacular – the idea that to ‘fuck’ or ‘screw’ something is to conquer it, to shape it to one’s advantage. A related notion is that to get ‘fucked’, ‘screwed’ or ‘fucked/screwed over’ is to be conquered, left disadvantaged, or violated (a concept with an uncomfortable connection to sexual violence) – for example, “Those exams really fucked me over”.
This has its roots in misogynistic attitudes, notions of sexual conquest – founded on the sexist misconception that only the penetrating partner (in conservative perspectives, the male) should enjoy sex, and that the receiving partner (traditionally considered to be the female) is to be submissive in the act. This is a cultural phenomenon, certainly not exclusive to this bathroom; but I feel, although I have no solid evidence for this, that men are more likely to use sexual terms such as these to denigrate.
It remains taboo for a female to enter a male bathroom, and vice versa. I can’t speak for female toilets, and I’m sure they’re peppered with their own doodles – but I doubt the word ‘cunt’ would appear quite so solicitously. It might be a fascinating exercise to compare the two. Nonetheless, this bathroom is, indeed, a male-only space, toilets being among the few (official) gender-restricted zones left in western society.
An apt comparison to the male stall might be online spaces like 4chan – and I’m not just talking about the smell. As anyone who has ventured there lately can attest, 4chan and places like it are toxic, male-dominated, and – like our stall – anonymous and unmoderated. It’s little accident that the ads greeting me when I visited 4chan.org (and I cannot advise you strongly enough not to) were for revenge porn and exploitative articles (‘Shameless Drunk Girls in Awkward Positions’).
The toilet stall and its long tradition of off-colour graffiti could be considered as a precursor to this online environment. Graffiti gradually replaced by forums and message-boards, themselves to evolve into Facebook and other social media. Each evolution domesticated the online space further, until we were left with the relentless, commercialised, multilayered stream of coded socialisation that occurs on the mainstream internet. Perhaps the stark, simple act of writing on the back of a door, like the stripped-back 4chan interface, offers a retreat from this.
Toilet seat lids are not designed to be sat on for extended periods, as my buttocks were now making clear. After half an hour of scribbling in my notebook, I finally succumbed to their wishes and emerged back into the less fragrant world.
By no means do I urge you to seek out this particular construction of antagonism. Please don’t – there’s too much of that shoving itself at you on the internet as it is. However, the next time you find yourself on a public toilet, you might ponder more thoughtfully the elements of the human condition exposed on the back of the door.