The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up)

Exploring the female Liberated Librarian character type

The Liberated Librarian female character type is really an extension of the Spinster Librarian — if the spinster had met the right love interest. This type usually focuses on a trapped, naive woman who discovers herself (that is, her sexuality and her potential as a lover/mother/sex symbol) with the help of a good man in the face of an adventure or disaster that forces her to come out of her shell. Some movies in this category combine these to further insure the liberation of the reel librarian.

In The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 by Ray and Brenda Tevis, characteristics of this type are apparent in what they call the “only 38” stereotype. The moniker comes from the 1923 film, Only 38, starring Lois Wilson as Mrs. Stanley. That film is “about Mrs. Stanley’s attempt to recapture at least part of her missed youth, achieve her independence, and realize her potential as an individual.” Yep, that’s our typical Liberated Librarian storyline, all right. As the Tevises astutely observe, “‘only 38’ is an age at which [the female librarian] could be vibrant, full of fun and giddiness, intoxicated with love, and looking forward to many years of happiness and love with… a new husband” (p. 13).

Only 38 (1923) lobby card is in the public domain
Only 38 (1923) lobby card is in the public domain

Hallmarks of the type include undergoing a change of appearance. The woman usually becomes more attractive and wears more flattering clothes, either throws away her glasses or gets contacts, and is young enough to attract the right man and live a long and fulfilling life after he has “set her free.” ALERT: Tongue-firmly-in-cheek. Liberated Librarians are portrayed as intelligent but not necessarily that committed to the profession; they usually leave the library after their “liberation.”

For formula-by-number examples of the type, see romantic melodramas Adventure (1945) and No Man of Her Own (1932). In Adventure, public librarian Emily Sears (Greer Garson) proclaims that she “worked in a morgue” until bad boy Clark Gable came along. (Sigh.) And in No Man of Her Own — that title! — Clark Gable’s sex appeal knocks Connie (Carole Lombard) off her library ladder. Connie elopes with him to escape the dull town she works in and later drapes herself in low-necked gowns, satin and sequins.

Movies feature this character type more than any other; as the Tevises observed, “[t]hroughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians… will be afflicted with this ‘only 38’ characteristic” (p. 13). It makes sense to feature Liberated Librarians in leading roles, as character growth and development often make for compelling plots. There are many, many examples, so I’ll try to pick out some noteworthy ones.

The Liberated Librarian most often finds herself in romances — the reasons for which seem obvious. Examples include the aforementioned Adventure (1945) and No Man of Her Own (1932), as well as Rome Adventure (1962) and Forbidden (1932), both of which I have mentioned several times already on this blog (here, here, here and here).

The comedy genre also has ample examples, including a hilarious, but brief, scene in That Touch of Mink (1962) and the delightful character of Sylvia Marpole, as voiced by Bebe Neuwirth in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000). Barbara Eden as Angela Benedict in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) also serves as a textbook example of the Liberated Librarian.

Shirley Jones stars as Marian Paroo — inspiring the song “Marian the Librarian” — in The Music Man (1962), decked out in a tight bun, buttoned-up clothing, and a reserved manner. One of her piano students even calls her an “old maid.” In the latter half of the film, after attracting the attention of con man Robert Preston, she dances in a gauzy dress that shows off her cleavage before meeting him down by the bridge for a session of heartfelt love and confession.

The adventure-movie formula has also donated several films to the Liberated Librarian character type, notably in The Mummy (1999), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Substitute (1996). Rachel Weisz, who plays Evie Carnahan in The Mummy, has the showiest role of all three, as she works not only as a librarian but also as an Egyptologist (she can read and write ancient Egyptian). In one hilarious but touching scene, she proclaims — while inebriated — that she is “proud of what I am. I …. am a librarian!” before promptly falling over in a stupor. She does wear sexier clothes in the latter half of the film, attracting the attention of heroic Brendan Fraser. But it is SHE — not Fraser — who cracks the code at the end that saves them from the mummy’s curse.

The thriller-mystery also fills up a substantial portion of the Liberated Librarian category. Examples include Julia Roberts as Sara in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Penelope Ann Miller as the title character in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992), and Claire Bloom as Nan Perry in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). In Sleeping with the Enemy, Sara, an attractive young redhead, lies to her abusive husband about her job at the library, fakes her own death, and runs away to Iowa. Her neighbor — who just happens to be an attractive bachelor — helps her find a real job in the local public library. In a rare instance of reversal, the library helps to save her from a man, if only temporarily. There is also a twist in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, as Betty Lou also already has a husband in the beginning of the film. She is liberated in the end not by her husband but by the excitement of finding a gun and confessing to a murder she did not commit. BTW, that’s an odd sentence to write.

In Foul Play (1978) — one of my personal favorites — Goldie Hawn plays Gloria Mundy, who is young, attractive, and blonde. Although she dresses nicely and even shows some cleavage in her opening scenes, her friend calls her an “old maid.” We also learn that Gloria used to be a cheerleader, but gets chided that “you lock yourself in that library and hide behind those glasses.” Gloria ditches her glasses when she helps solve an assassination attempt plot with Chevy Chase.

Next week, we’ll explore the male side of the Liberated Librarian… stay tuned! šŸ˜‰

Sources used:

  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

One thought on “The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up)”

  1. There are places to go, things to do, and fun to be had at your local public library. The public library is a great place to go, if you have a lot that you want to do, and would like to stay locally, your town, city, or county has a lot to offer you, other than just books and magazines. Reading is great, and visiting your public library will give you a chance to stay current with best-sellers, as well as titles that interest you. There’s something at the library for almost everyone to enjoy, think of it as being a community center full of free activities.

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