Information with a Bun and the Sexy Librarian trope

pretty-librarian-working-on--11982029My blog in the Times Union local newspaper, with content often reprinted from this blog, or noting stuff of primary local interest, is called Information Without the Bun. Came up with this title in about five minutes when the blog coordinator, Michael Huber, insisted on a name. The title was to evoke two ideas: 1) having the meat without a hamburger bun, and 2) the antithesis of the stuffy, usually female, librarian that shushed people all the time.

Recently, I saw Dustbury link to an interesting article called Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian, which got me thinking about that trope. In linking to the article, Dustbury proclaimed: “I thought it was because she was, um, smart.” Yeah, me, too; I find smart women almost inherently sexy. I tend to root for the good female JEOPARDY! players when I watch the show.

The article by Dustin (Oneman) delves a bit deeper:

While the role of librarian has existed for a good long while… the modern librarian, the modern female librarian, dates back to the late 19th century and specifically back to Melvil Dewey, he of the decimal system that bears his name. Dewey was a strong advocate for the use of women as librarians, not out of any sense of gender justice but because, as proprietor of a company that sold a system of receiving, cataloguing, shelving, finding, and checking out books that promised to transform the library into a hyper-efficient book-lending machine, he felt that men would chafe under the monotony of the job. Women, he felt, were ideally suited to the mindless task of working in a modern, Dewey-ized library.

Bringing women into public life in the late 19th and early 20th century was not, however, without challenges. Women who left the domestic sphere were branded disreputable, their bodies assumed to be offered up to the (male) public. Actors, dancers, mill workers, field hands — all took on the aura of the prostitute…

To move in public spaces and do their jobs, librarians — along with schoolteachers and nurses — had to wrap themselves in an aura of absolute respectability. Unlike factory workers, actresses, store clerks, secretaries, and farm workers, who dwelled in the working classes or in the bohemian demimonde of the arts, librarians, nurses, and schoolteachers moved among the middle and upper classes. No hint of disrepute could be endured, and their respectability was secured by thoroughly de-sexing themselves through clothing, behavior, and hairstyle.

Particularly hairstyle.

Thus, the female librarian (and nurse, and schoolteacher) with a bun was a symbol of chastity, respectability. It was, I’m guessing, necessary to be taken seriously in the job they did. Because men are, well, like men often are.

The question remains, though, of why these icons have survived even as the reality of these professions has changed radically, shedding the desexualizing camouflage as women have gained more acceptance in the public sphere…

But the sexy librarian is still very much with us. She exists in movies, TV shows, commercials, porn, adult magazines, erotica, and the fevered imagination of men who date librarians. She quite often gets in the way of real librarians doing their jobs.

I DO know female librarians who have talked about embracing the sexy librarian trope, though, in a way to counteract the bun lady trope because it’s difficult for patrons to take bun lady seriously. And control of the sexy image is, in its own way, empowering to them.

Dustin, I imagine, would disagree:

In the end, the icon of the sexy librarian is about disempowering women who dare not only to move through public spaces but to exercise power, however limited (through the iconic librarian’s iconic “shhhh!”), by unveiling and conquering the sexual being hidden beneath her unassuming exterior. The image of the sexy librarian reminds us that, regardless of their appearance or accomplishments, women are first and foremost sexual objects. And that’s pretty much business as usual for American masculinity.

Hmm. So this gets me to wondering whether the title Information Without a Bun was an inadvertent sexist title. (I HAVE been accused of thinking too much on occasion.)

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