Visiting the Ladies: Public Toilets on Film

Toilets are arguably the most marginalised of essential spaces in the modern world. Every human needs to urinate and defecate, and in the 21st century, most communities require purpose-built toilets to ensure that this relieving is hygienic. As I am writing this, I’m struggling to name the action: pooping and peeing – it feels unsavoury to use these direct terms. In a similar way, the act of going to the toilet is not commonly represented in written fiction or fiction films. Characters are only shown to be visiting the restroom if this has a narrative purpose. Otherwise, this common fact of life is usually elided from the story.
Although in recent years there has been increased interest, especially in the Western world, in making toilets unisex in order to accommodate people with non-heteronormative gender identities, the vast majority of toilets are still segregated for men and women. This gendering of the toilet space means that not all toilets are as marginal as others. The documentary Q2P (2006), made by Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra, makes this point very clear. The film investigates the public toilet provision in Mumbai and Delhi. Often there are more public toilets available for men than for women, or the male toilets are free whereas women’s are charged. But beyond this inequality at a practical level there is also cultural control: the women Vohra interviews say they are not comfortable going to public toilets, so they arrange their lives in ways that mean they do not need to ‘go’ in public facilities.
Vohra experiences not just the gendering of toilet space but also that of language about toilets: when she interviews some male officials about the public toilet provision in the area, they are uncomfortable with the way she directly addresses the issue. It is not seen as language fit for a woman to use. The language on bodily functions and women are not supposed to discuss them. The female street cleaners she asks about which toilets are available to them also respond with embarrassed laughter. Women are not supposed to use the public toilets, and they are not supposed to discuss them either.
A final striking aspect of Q2P is that, for all its talk about toilets, it actually very rarely shows the spaces itself. Only near the end of the documentary does the camera enter a female public toilet, panning swiftly inside a cubicle. The film overcomes the taboo of talking about toilets – and raises very real and important development issues in the process – but it cannot break through the final restriction and openly and unambiguously represent the female toilet space on film. When the camera finally enters the toilet, it is only for a brief shot and there is no-one actually using the toilet. It is just an anonymous hole in the ground, without any signifiers of its actual function.

You can watch the full documentary Q2P here.

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