The rise of short-form video apps — like Vine, or Snapchat, or most recently, TikTok — help us travel instantly. Because it takes little effort to post these clips or consume them, their terseness lets us quantum leap through time and space, from a quick post from a user’s bedroom to one at work, to one at a party or a concert, or anywhere else. Perhaps this feeling of teleportation is best captured through TikTok’s “For You” feed, a never-ending stream of clips mysteriously curated by a proprietary sorting algorithm.
In March, the New York Times covered how TikTok lets us go to work. The app has “in its manic and frequent demands for content from its users, become an unlikely force for labor visibility,” wrote John Herrman. TikTok, through a user base of millions, turned every profession and space into a video subgenre of its own: “#scrublife will take you inside hospitals; #cheflife, into kitchens; #forgelife, into the world of superheated steel; #farmlife, to the fields.”
I’ve recently become fascinated by another world that TikTok invites us into: the high-school bathroom, which has occupied many roles in American life. It’s a haven where students used go to smoke, now it’s where they go to Juul. It’s where teens go to meet up and avoid class. It’s where they go to touch up their makeup. It’s where they go to eat lunch if they’re particularly uncool. On rare occasions, people go to the bathroom to use the toilet. It is a refuge from the various pressures of adolescent life, and from the oversight of adult authority figures.
On TikTok, we get to see the school bathroom as a hangout zone. Users film videos of themselves and friends goofing off or mugging for the camera. In one video, captioned “bathroom party😳,” six boys and girls sheepishly exit a gender-neutral bathroom (the last one out flips off the videographer). One of my favorite clips features two students who realized that they could get into the ceiling crawlspace above their bathroom. One of them opens a ceiling tile and drops down and states, matter-of-factly, “I’m gay.”
But there are also a slew of videos in which students recontextualize the bathroom social space and play with its perception. Earlier this year, a meme comparing what happens in boys’ and girls’ locker rooms took off, the general gist of which was that girls complained about gym class in their locker room and boys turned theirs into a Mad Max state of anarchy.
A similar type of this joke lives and thrives on TikTok, where the bathroom space is not metaphorically depicted with random internet pictures and videos, but through gags lived and enacted by teens. In one boys’ bathroom, a kid crowdsurfs as his classmates pack the stalls three at a time. Another clip shows boys imitating a rodeo by having one play the bull, one play the cowboy, and a third open the door of the stall as if it were a gate.
Perhaps the most popular TikTok clip from a school bathroom was posted by Noah Johnson, now a rising senior at Hanover High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia. The clip, set to the Teriyaki Boyz’s “Tokyo Drift,” begins with two boys darting into the bathroom like runway models, and busting out some dance moves. There are maybe half a dozen others cheering them on. In the next shot, we see a boy peek over the wall of the bathroom’s only stall, and he fires an imaginary sniper rifle, cutting down another boy, who trust-falls off a sink into his friends arms. Then, we’re back to dancing.
“We’re recording and we told one of our friends to run in the bathroom and start dancing and stuff,” Johnson recalled. “It came naturally, like really random.”
The entire shooting process took all of ten minutes, following a rigorous casting process: “It was just like, ‘Hey text this person on Snapchat, see if they come to the bathroom.’ Random people would come in and we’d be like, ‘Hey, you wanna be in this video?’ They weren’t all my friends, some of them were random people that just came in the bathroom.”
(Johnson specially requested a shout-out to his friend Cole Simmons, “who was brave enough to fall off the sink haha.”)
The school bathroom has also proven to be quite a boon for teens looking for resonant spaces with good acoustics to serve as makeshift studios. In one “casual trip to the boys room,” a sing-along of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” breaks out, complete with a full-size hand drum.
In a viral clip from the Stokes Twins, one of the twins (don’t know which and I refuse to find out), begins singing the opening line of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” a cappella. The other twin pretends to pee at a urinal in the background. When it comes time for them to harmonize, he turns around and two other boys emerge from a stall to lend their support.
It is impossible to know whether or not this clip is earnest or a joke. The singing is good, it looks heartfelt and rehearsed. It also occurs in a space devoted to pissing and bowel movements. Perhaps it’s this ambiguity that turned the clip into a meme itself. Because TikTok allows anyone to lip-sync to the audio of other clips, the Stokes audio has become widespread fodder. In some clips, teen athletes, fully decked out in their uniforms, reenact the bathroom clip. Other similar reenactments include the sight gag of girls standing at the urinals instead.
“The acoustics in bathrooms are amazing,” said Trevor Jones, whose video of himself and three friends in the bathroom also took off on TikTok. In the video, three men in stalls sing “I’ll Sail Right Home to You,” as they stomp their feet to the rhythm. “We made the video because of a spur-of-the-moment decision, and it just worked out,” he said, referring to the video’s viral status.
His bathroom video was filmed in the evening while he and his friend were at rehearsal for a theater production. “This was before the two-hour-long rehearsal, so I turned my phone off and came back to see that my inbox had exploded with notifications,” he recalled. “It was awesome.”
Just before graduation, Jones and his friends filmed themselves singing the same song again, in the bathroom, sporting their graduation caps and gowns. This time, the shanty took on a more somber tone. “bruh i saw the original and this is lowkey hella emotional,” one commenter wrote.
Despite the innocent status of many of these videos, filming in the bathroom is often a violation of privacy standards. In June, the Twitch streamer Dr. Disrespect was suspended from the site for livestreaming his trip into a public bathroom during a convention.
“The director, who’s also the theater teacher, she got onto us – mainly me because I was the one filming it – and let me off with a warning,” Jones said. “Then I got called into the principal’s office.” He added that he and his friends were very careful to make sure that the room was clear before they started recording, referring to it as a “controlled environment.”
“I talked to my assistant principal, he thought it was funny. But my main principal, she wasn’t too happy about it,” Johnson said. The fallout was that bathroom rules got a lot stricter, and Johnson and his friends in the same class were not allowed to go to the bathroom at the same time.
What all of these videos do in aggregate is reframe the bathroom, not just as an escape from the craziness of school but as a production studio. It’s a sterile, blank canvas onto which video-makers can project themselves and share their private moments with the rest of the world. That the authenticity of these private moments is unclear is part of the joke.
Johnson ends our conversation with a surprisingly earnest thought. “I was just glad that it kinda made it seem like a safe place, kinda fun. Underclassmen sometimes are scared to go to the bathroom,” he said, “because they’ll see other people vaping in there or something. I just wanted to give a positive message.”