“I understand only because I love.” – Leo Tolstoy
Joe (the redneck) emailed me one recent morning, complaining about being “disgusted” by our gay bartender and his “gaggle of friends” drinking at the bar. I was somewhat sorry I missed Joe’s visit — but most grateful for his final statement: “I will not be back.” Hallelujah, Joe.
Once upon a time, I received a right hook to my left eye a split second after smirking: “I’m more of a lover than a fighter.” This particular self-portrayal was exaggerated, as so many are. Though my better half often summons “a kinder, gentler Scott Plath,” and Lord knows I try, my adrenaline flows like white-water rapids. I bristle at ignorance and hatred —my favorite bumper sticker: “Mean people suck.” At the risk of sounding like my age, you’d think that by now in our evolution folks’ civility would be improving, that blather would have begun to subside, that drones would be dropping medicine and Skippy. Often, I mindlessly flip through TV channels in an attempt to still the waters without succumbing to whiskey (or yoga) and whoops, there it is: shouting and screaming — spewing and spitting. I call it Jerry Springer Syndrome.
Amid the tumult, restaurants are scrutinized more than ever by armchair critics. You know who you are, with your haughty keyboard strokes! We ride the daily wave of guest critiques — the common “everything was excellent” to the extreme and hyperbolic — as social media sites such as Yelp encourage griping, while whiners lie to justify pettiness. Too often I come across faceless posts of “waited an hour” and “arrogant server” type bullshit from scribes with impunity, unmoved by whose feelings or pockets their embellished words may hurt. Nonetheless, we read them all.
Then, every once in a while, a knight appears. She who transcends the noise, who would enlighten humanity if the big mouths could ever be still and listen up! At the amusement of sounding sexist, it seems such epiphanies almost always belong to the women — intelligent, thoughtful perspectives delivered in the absence of bluster with clarity and calm conviction.
Joe’s illin’ brought me back to 2008, when I commissioned a very special artist with free rein to convey bathroom gender designations in our second restaurant. She was 17, for what little that is worth. Her drawings eventually offended a guest, who emailed her objection. I have saved this dialogue for years. (Is email-hoarding a thing?) I believe it is noteworthy that I asked an editor friend to read this column, and he judged the ensuing dialogue “contrived” — further testimony to what I found so extraordinary. I hope the email exchange that follows among three special women will move you the way it did me.
The Guest: Hello. I recently went to Moonstones for my big sister’s graduation dinner. The food was excellent, our waitress was excellent … I couldn’t have been more pleased until I had to go to the bathroom. I found myself next to a door with a big muscle-y “man arm” on it … however the ladies room had a thin, delicate lady, who looked almost like a dancer. Hmm girl dancer, male body builder … seems a little stereotypical to me? I have done a lot of work ever since I was a young girl trying to stop gender stereotypes. I know it is a lot to ask but it would mean the world to me if you could simply label the doors “male” or “female”. Believe me you’re not one of the first restaurants to use gender stereotypes, but you could be one of the first to stop.”
Our GM: Thank you for sharing your opinion. I applaud your efforts to change society’s interpretation of gender. As a mother … I have tried to raise my sons to respect people, whether male or female, and celebrate our differences. When I read aloud to them in their early years, I would change the wording in books for this reason. I wanted stories to reflect a society that could be gender neutral: fireman became fire-fighter, policeman became police officer … any person capable of performing any task.
When I view the portraits etched into the bathroom doors, I see an artist’s interpretation of two strong people celebrating their bodies and their uniqueness. Both [nude] human forms show beauty and strength: the toned arms, the prideful poses. (The confident expression on the female’s face is wonderful … the first time I saw that drawing, I thought “haughty” rather than “delicate”) The thing is, despite being “stereotypes,” there are female dancers, male bodybuilders. I would hate to confuse our guests with androgynous forms … I much prefer the pictorial representation of “male” and “female” to that found in most public facilities, the circle-triangle-leg tubes. Many multi-cultural guests dine at Moonstones. As to your suggestion of posting signs with “male” and “female” — assuming we could post this in every language — would that change anyone’s perspective about stereotypes? It is a great dialogue to continue. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.
The Guest: Thank you so much. Let me start out by saying the art itself is wonderfully done. … However I believe they more belong in museums. I appreciate your effort to end these stereotypes. The more common symbol is the girl with the dress and the boy with pants … but many girls don’t wear dresses … every girl and boy has a different image. I know I’m only 12 and my chances of making a difference are not very good, but I hope you see my point and take into consideration ending gender image labels.
The Artist (upon our request to represent her view): Firstly, in response to your chances of making a difference, let me attempt to convince you that your age has nothing to do with it. From your perspective, it’s clear that you’re far smarter than many people much older than you. Whatever decisions are made will be regardless of your age.
Secondly, you’re right. A slim woman with long hair and flexing man fit the outdated and often oppressive ideas of “male” and “female.” It was truly not something I considered when I did the drawings for the restaurant when it first opened upon the request of the client (my father), and upon reading your email I was hard pressed to create an argument in return. The doors were designed to be more stylish and interesting than the typical “male”/”female” signs.
Where I would disagree … or perhaps extend your argument is that just as boys and girls can’t be properly labeled by images, they can’t be by language either. To have only two separate bathrooms for “males” and “females” assumes falsely that there are only two genders in the world. Intersex, queer and transgender persons are all challenged daily by these binary terms, and the world is slow to accommodate anyone who falls outside of hetero-normative values. I don’t say this to excuse the drawings, but only to suggest that while using more scientific language such as “male” and “female” might be a step away from blatant stereotypes rooted in image, it does little to change the way many people are ingrained to think about sex and gender.
I have spoken with management of Moonstones, who support your argument [yet] stand by the designs. However, we are open to your suggestions beyond simple labeling if you can suggest a way to represent “male” and “female” without enforcing gender stereotypes. You seem pretty resolved that images cannot appropriately translate “male” or “female,” but I do hope you are able to open yourself to the concept of art outside of museums. I would prefer to see a picture I disagreed with, and engage in a conversation such as this, than live in a world where art was isolated to overpriced and hard-to-reach institutions.
I am happy an individual such as you exists!
Me: You all are going to make me cry.