While researching Monday’s post, I was struck by the sexism and misogyny permeating press coverage and self-promotion of librarians. It mostly renders male librarians invisible — which may not be so bad given how it portrays female librarians.
The matter goes much deeper than the evocation and reinforcement of unflattering images; it’s about supplanting those images with other damaging images and calling it progress. Recent stories1 that were ostensibly about librarians were actually stories about sports with women wearing the costumes and men describing the competition or the “girls on the team“.
This NPR story about book cart races is typical. It leads with the male reporter evoking a negative stereotype of female librarians and following with this quote from a female competitor: “It’s exactly like when you’re in the grocery store and you just want to run and hop on your buggy and ride it down the aisle.” The reporter goes on to explore other examples of what, in his words, the female contestants have “cooked up”. Next, observer Mark Willis offers another reminder about the stereotypes along with insight that the women want to dispel those notions and be seen as “crazy”. Ah, those familiar associations … supermarket, kitchen, mentally unstable …
Not all coverage plays this way. One recent story in the Salt Lake Tribute about a librarian weightlifter was much different. It did not invoke limiting stereotypes, rather it immediately portrayed the subject as multi-dimensional. It begins “Josh Hanagarne, 32-year-old director of the Rose Park Library, has read more classic titles than he’s ripped phone books in half.” Josh is quoted extensively in the article “I’m a big believer that a healthy body is a healthy mind. For the ancient Greeks, demonstrating your intelligence was part of physical competition, and the measure of a man was every discipline. They were interested in the aesthetic, but only of a complete person.” In addition to showcasing his physical strength and erudition, the story also promotes his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian, which provides resources and encouragement to help others “get stronger, get smarter, live better … every day”. The piece finishes with Josh’s courageous determination to control the effects of Tourette’s syndrome. This man truly deserves his moniker.
Juxtapose this story with the three others, published within weeks of each other. Coverage of Josh Hanagarne places him at the center and lets him speak for himself. The others place women at the periphery where they are anonymous or defined and interpreted by others. Whereas the male librarian is portrayed as strong and inspirational, the female librarians are portrayed as … well, check out the stories and decide for yourself.
The Texas Library Association has achieved a form of balance by featuring both sexes in its marketing campaigns. Men were uncovered in its 2007-2008 calendar, and women in the calendar for 2009-2010. Still, the patterns noted above proliferate.
On their pages, the men’s real names are prominently displayed using the dignified convention of first name, middle initial, last name. Through the images and text we learn that James is an accomplished dancer and Walter plays saxophone. The women’s real names, on the other hand, are displayed in small print underneath the fictitious names Gretchen and Melody. (What’s up with that?) While the men are seen celebrating their passions and achievements, the women are plopped into trite passive summer scenes like sunning on a lake and sipping martinis in a tiki bar. The accompanying text conveys their personalities through superficial questions like “What literary character might have a tattoo like yours?” and “What book best describes your tattoo?“. Once again, women are put in their place, their self-expression is mediated by others and they are objectified (in this case as substrates for the tattoos).
Sexism and misogyny aren’t limited to portrayals of librarians, of course. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if librarians could help us all become better at presenting ourselves and others with care?
A start might be to expose these harmful qualities in librarian portraits and help ensure that female librarians get far better coverage.