25 June 2011

Bagels, beans, and gender

I'm a regular at Bagels & Beans. I love that place. The coffee is unbelievable, the atmosphere is great and I've written many blogs, short stories and most of my first (and last?) academic book sitting in the back.

Instead of identifying the toilets with "dames" and "heren" or "male" and "female" my favorite Bagels & Beans location displays gender symbols. Though they have been in use since the Renaissance, most patrons don't seem to remember their meaning. I've repeatedly seen the painful decision making process take place: which toilet should I use? I can almost see the furious mental debate as they glance back and forth, frozen in terror. A humble few ask for help, and the rest are usually right about half the time.

A few months ago, the owners decided to make this process easier by painting a mustache on the male symbol and pretty pink lips on the female symbol. And yet the hesitation continues. But now it gets interesting, especially when it involves kids. A mother hurries her young daughter into the wrong door. The girl sees the mustache at the last minute and exclaims in horror: "I can't go in there!" A little boy heads towards the toilets with his father. The father looks mischievous. "Oh, I see. Well, little boys wear pink lipstick so you'll have to go in here." "Nooooooo, dad!" the boy groans, and marches confidently towards the mustache.

These kids already have such a clear idea of which gender they fit, and it makes me curious about where they got their education. Parents often talk about how little boys play rougher and adore trucks, while little girls just "prefer" pink frills and dolls. But how did they get there? Is the preference innate, and this is why they are so quick to recognize the relevance of a mustache or lipstick? Or can we rather see gender roles as learned? After all, those classic gender symbols - though hardly ambiguous - sure are confusing to most of the population.

(cross posted at My Son Adrian)


  1. Seems like is never too clear.
    Even the classic representation with the man in jeans and the woman in skirt, doesn´t work in Scotland! :)

    I remember a candid camera where they put on the toilets doors "we" and "them".


  2. That sounds pretty ambiguous! My favorite was at the Supper Club in Amsterdam: Hetero and Homo.

  3. Oh my gawd- you're not alone! I was at B&B the other day and had to ask hubby where I should go!