Battle of the sexes

English: Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid...

Knowledge mural, Library of Congress

The keeper of knowledge has always been a powerful position. Although modern librarianship is moving from a “sage on the stage” perspective and toward more of a “guide on the side” outlook, one traditional depiction of librarians is that we are the modern gatekeepers of books and knowledge.

A clever twist on this traditional depiction are the Books in the 1973 sci-fi cult classic Soylent Green. The Books are people (see below), or as Matthew Battles put it, “a clear-eyed cabal of aged worthies ensconced deep within the ragged stacks of a library.”

Belle Mitchell as Book #3 in Soylent Green

Cyril Delevanti as Book #4 in Soylent Green

The materials librarians select help reflect, perhaps even shape, society’s collective knowledge. Perhaps the greatest influence of librarians is on children; the suggestive power of influencing what young children read can help determine future career and life choices (see the library scenes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945, and The Human Comedy, 1943, as examples).

Exercising a feminist standpoint, the users of this knowledge — those who run the world in political offices, the military heroes, the broadcast news anchors — are still mostly men. Despite progress made toward sexual equality, we still live in a patriarchal society. However, those traditional “gatekeepers” of the knowledge men use to obtain and sustain those powerful positions are mostly women. Most librarians, in reality AND in film, are female. Only about 1 out of 4 real-life librarians are male (see source here).

George Backus as Miss Anderson in Citizen Kane

The 1941 classic Citizen Kane is an interesting example of this battle of the sexes in miniature. A brief but memorable scene shows how a female librarian/archivist — a woman in an aggressively gender-neutralized exterior, see right — controls access to the personal papers of a prominent male figure, in this case the archives of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. See also The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Librarians hold one key — the key of access — to potential knowledge. Thus, the battle for knowledge crosses over, intersecting with the battle between the sexes. One could argue that this tension — male users wanting the knowledge that female librarians possess — has helped cause negative, stereotypical portrayals of reel librarians (Spinster Librarian, anyone?), as well as the overly sexed “Naughty Librarian” kind of roles.

Marilyn Johnson, in her book This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (read my review post here), puts forward the theory that:

As a rule, librarians cultivate a professionalism that projects sexual neutrality, which permits them to guard their trove of both innocent and risque books from a position of high-minded principle, and also helps keep the stalkers at bay. But there is a tension between the business-like and the generally modest librarians and the occasionally racy books they guard that finds expression in the culture in a stream of winks and leers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. One of the points of this blog is to show a greater diversity of reel librarians, and many positive examples in roles both big and small exist (see my Hall of Fame and Honorable Mention lists for a start). In the specific blog post, I am trying to explore possible reasons behind negative portrayals of female reel librarians, of which, unfortunately, there are still plenty of examples.

It is also interesting to note that the invention of film emerged about the same time that women became the major force in the field of librarianship (both in the late 1800s). Also, an overwhelming majority of film directors and producers are men – perhaps further shifting more tension between knowledge/power and men/women, resulting in more negative characterizations of reel librarians?

Something to think about. And the beat goes on….

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2 comments on “Battle of the sexes

  1. Love this. Seriously — love it a LOT.

    Can’t wait for this to become part of a chapter in your book…. ;)

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