Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian

I recently came across the blog post Naughty Librarians and the Eroticism of Intellect, which purports to explain the enduring appeal of the image of the “sexy librarian” in modern life. Aside from the post’s dismissable evolutionary psychology conclusions, the author raises some interesting points about the ways the image of the librarian in our culture intersects with and embodies certain aspects of modern eroticism, grounding his or her (the author is identified as “J.M. McFee” with no bio) argument in a highly individualized literary psychological approach.

The trope of the sexy librarian as an aspect of the American sexual psyche has interested me for a long time — in fact, it was what triggered my academic interest in sex in American culture and eventually drove me into Women’s Studies. So I was quite interested to see what this J.M. McFee had to say. Unfortunately, in the absence of any sort of historical or cultural context, I found McFee’s musings rather toothless. For example, the contention that “eyeglasses and print media are already sufficiently antiquarian to have become as fetishized as garter belts and riding crops” could be true (though I rather doubt it, since eyeglasses and books are very much part of our daily lives in a way that garter belts absolutely aren’t) but even so, it doesn’t tell us very much about why librarians have become so idealized and not, say, book store clerks, editors, or opticians.

The sexualization of the librarian does not stand alone in our cultural erotics, nor can it be cleanly separated from the whole structure of American (possibly Western) sexuality. While I can’t profess to have the whole story, I hope here to give at least an outline of what the whole story might look like.

The world’s 48,412th oldest profession

While the role of librarian has existed for a good long while — at least as long as there have been libraries, and there have been libraries for around 2700 years — 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. This was made quite clear during the 1909 Uprising of 20,000, when factory owners hired prostitutes to taunt the female garment workers on strike with offers of better-paying jobs — the implication being, they were already whoring themselves.

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.

Something’s in the (h)air

Hair is a ubiquitous symbol for sexuality and sexual status in so many cultures as to be practically a universal. The married Orthodox Jewish woman hides her hair from all but her husband, as do many Muslim women. Unmarried Hopi women traditionally bound their hair into elaborate butterfly whorls, letting their hair down only when they became married; in contrast, contemporary American women often wear their hair up after they’re married. Monks in both the West and East shave their heads (or part of their heads) as they embrace celibacy; in other cultures, sexual asceticism is expressed through the growth of matted locks or wild unkempt hair. And, of course, blondes have more fun.

The reasoning behind this symbolism varies. Edmund Leach saw hair as a symbol for the penis, and in places like Obeysekere’s Sri Lanka, that seems like an apt association. In the West, hair is much more likely to be semiotically opposed to civilization — hair is a link to the wild and animalistic — and “civilized” people keep their hair trim, just as they keep their sexuality in check. As Turner notes, both sex and hair were deployed against the state in the free loving ‘60s — perhaps reaching the apotheosis of their symbiosis in the 1968 Broadway musical Hair.

Given the association of loose, flowing hair with open sexuality in our culture, it is no coincidence that the librarian, the nurse, and the schoolteacher all share a hairstyle in the popular imagination: the tight, tight bun. (Just as it is no coincidence that the fantasy of the sexy librarian begins with her pulling the pin from her tight, tight bun and letting her hair cascade down.) The librarian’s bun said, in no uncertain terms, that this woman was here to do a job — the job of civilizing unruly minds, no less. (Nurses, whose job required physical contact, went a step further, not only wearing their hair up but covering it with a nun’s wimple — even the ones who weren’t nuns.)

It’s always the quiet ones…

So how does the radical desexualization of the librarian as public actor become the highly sexualized librarian of male fantasy? Ironically, it is through the very act of desexualization. In a society in which manhood and male sexuality are structured around the practice of gender domination and subordination, the denial of a woman’s sexuality is as much an invitation as a garter belt and riding crop.

Consider, for example, the French colonial officer in North Africa. As Malek Alloula shows in his meditation of French colonial postcards, The Colonial Harem, the full concealment offered by North African women’s veils and robes were read by the French as an open suggestion of the the “treasures” beneath. Only a great prize would be hidden away so thoroughly — and it was incumbent on the French conqueror, enraged and aroused by what was withheld from him, to claim that prize.

In Alloula’s essay, the body of the Algerian woman is exposed and claimed through its representation in postcards sent home by the colonial occupiers, but of course colonial power often generated literal physical violations of Algerian women’s bodies as well, most notably in the use of mass rape during the Algerian War.

Like the Algerian’s veil, the iconic librarian’s desexualizing dress and hairstyle was intended to allow her to move freely and invisibly through the male public sphere. Under the conquering gaze of the man-as-dominator, though, this desexualization only serves to highlight the sexuality thus contained. Just as the North African woman was assumed to know secrets of pleasure far beyond those of The West (secrets worthy of being hidden), the sexy librarian is seen as not just a woman underneath, but a super-sexual being, a “freak”, a “wild one”. She is a prize to be taken, a treasure to be captured, an exotic animal barely tamed beneath her bun and shapeless cardigan.

An icon endures

Along with the librarian, the nurse and schoolteacher also occupy a central place in the erotic imagination of contemporary Americans — hardly surprising considering their emergence into public life at roughly the same time and their similar strategies of disappearing into the background of respectable public society. (Incidentally, McFee’s ev-psych argument is, essentially, that smarts are sexy — something about smart women being able to satisfy men’s need for variety in their sex lives — but given the intertwined histories of the sexy librarian with the sexy schoolteacher and the sexy nurse, it’s hard to see how that could have any relevance. After all, nurses are arguably a much more common object of sexual fantasy, but the iconic sexy nurse is not at all a smart woman.)

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. Nurses don’t wear the iconic white uniform and wimple any more, emphasizing their purity — they wear scrubs. Teachers and librarians have no stereotypical dress these days. Hair buns are worn or not worn according to practical need and personal taste. Librarians wear Doc Martens and nose rings, nurses wear tattoos and practical sneakers, teachers wear summer dresses and pantsuits — some emphasize their sexuality, some de-emphasize it, and most don’t worry much about either. None of them look like the iconic representation of their jobs.

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’m not sure I know fully the enduring power of these out-of-date iconographies, but I have some ideas. First, as representations of the earliest female professionals to enter the public sphere, these images may well just have become so embedded in our sexual psyches and our cultural collection of stock imagery that they are hard to shake off. Second, nurses, teachers, and librarians are women we have a great deal of contact with in our childhood and less in our adulthoods, so they may well be strongly associated with our emerging sexualities in a way that bears little relation to our adult reality.

But mostly, I think the icons still exist because they crystallize dominating male sexuality around them. As men’s real relationships — sexual and otherwise — with real women become ever more pervasive and nuanced, as the public sphere becomes less and less gendered, as gender itself becomes, especially for men, more fraught and complicated, the sexy librarian and her sexy cohorts satisfy a nostalgic yearning for a sexuality that could be openly dominating. That is, in the absence of women we can easily and acceptably dominate in our present lives, these figures resonate as a reminder of a past where masculinity was far more clearly delineated.

It’s no stretch to say that masculinity has taken, for many, a strongly nostalgic turn. The Internet is flooded with articles for men about how to shave, dress, get their hair cut, travel, work, and generally act like their grandpa (himself more of an icon than a real person). Dockers’ “Wear the Pants” campaign of a few years ago aptly summed up this nostalgic masculinity, harking back to a simpler and better “once upon a time” when men “wore the pants”. Mad Men launched not only a retro movement in fashion but a slew of knock-off shows portraying the freewheeling (male) sexuality of days of yore.

It’s true that masculinity has always measured itself against an imagined earlier era of manhood, and found itself wanting, but regardless, in this historical moment, masculinity is very nostalgic indeed, and the sexy librarian is so much a nostalgic production these days as to seem almost quaint. To return to McFee’s argument quoted above, it’s not that glasses and print media have become fetishized, but the iconic sexy librarian herself that has become a fetish, alienated from the reality of our lived experiences so much that she has become a repository for all the frustrations of today’s masculinity.

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.

10 thoughts on “Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian

  1. I don’t think unmarried Hopi women still tie up their hair. Maybe a lot of Hopi gals wear ponytails or something, but I’m pretty sure that most wear their hair however they want, just like most other unmarried women in the USA.

    It’s a small change, but I suggest saying “Unmarried Hopi women [traditionally] [bound] their hair into elaborate butterfly whorls, letting their hair down only when they [became] married”. Past tense and traditional. Saying that Hopi women do so today is probably not true and hence it’s exoticizing.

  2. Dustin, great to see you back here. When I showed this piece to my ever so sagacious spouse, she remarked that you might say a bit more about the librarians, nurses, and school teachers you mention. It isn’t only that they move in middle and upper class circles; they are all, within their limited spheres, women with authority. They are, I might add, women with authority that virtually all of us, both male and female, experience, either as children or later as patients. That they are so dominant in in our lives when we are most vulnerable may add to the sexual excitement, especially for men, for whom imagining one of these women as an object of desire involves a strong element of rebellion and also a restoration, from a male chauvinist pig perspective, of the proper order of things—the one in which baby screams and mommy responds instantly.

  3. Dustin, I’m sharing this with my library network. In my limited experience it seems that many women librarians are very irritated about this trope, so your blog post makes a useful contribution to a topic professionals care about.

    IIRC women were chosen to be librarians in an academic setting because the subordinate status of women to men, particularly women serving men, was supposed to mirror that of the librarian to the faculty. It was a “natural” fit much like the female nurse is naturally inclined to be a caregiver and the female schoolteacher is naturally inclined to work with children.

  4. Patricia: That’s fantastic! Notice the “sexy librarian” bun-unbunning at the end. In fact, there’s a little element of striptease involved — this is practically a burlesque act!

    John: So I kind of accidentally wrote this post — I’ve been obsessing over the article I linked to for about a week and sat down to capture some thoughts and ended up writing 2000 words. When I went back to look at it, I noticed I’d barely mentioned the power aspects, which I agree are important, so I went back through and added some bits (like the part about the “iconic shhhh”) but eventually resigned myself to what I said at the beginning: this is always already a partial examination. I certainly do think it’s telling that these are authority figures — although primarily with authority over children and the infirm. And I agree, that very likely does play into the sexualization of their roles. As a librarian friend commented on Facebook, the guys who are into her as a librarian seem to lose interest when she tells them she doesn’t go around shushing people — the power is part of the attraction and, I’d argue, part of the cumpulsion to conquer.

  5. Here are librarians as Valkyries in the winning drill from the 2009 ALA conference (much bigger by the way than AAA): the bookcart drill genre is particularly full of empowerment stuff. Note the male “ringer” pressed into service as cart-pusher for the leader.

  6. I am a firm believer in the fetishistic power of the power differential, as is mentioned in the comments. An authority figure is always something to corrupt, to push into disobedience, and a librarian (literally, an organizer, a sorter, a subduer, a controlling and neatening presence) is an extra tantalizing prospect. Combine that with the “_______ Gone Wild!” treatment of women in porn, and you have an irresistible combination.
    Besides the context: a library, a quiet place, full of sightline-obscuring stacks, quiet corners where nobody wanders. And more of the same: it’s a place where order and rigor reign, which just begs to be desecrated.

  7. An intersectional, race-critical analysis of this post is needed. The ‘librarian’s bun’, to highlight one problematic signifier of librarian’s eroticism discussed in this post, is not race-neutral. Case in point, on buns and their formation: http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/04/army-asks-black-women-to-treat-or-braid-hair.html. Moreover, not all groups of women are valued for their intellectual productions or potential/capacities.

    It is ironic that issues of whiteness, white privilege, and racialized beauty ideals are not analyzed here, even after the comments on Hopi hairstyles and librarians as Valkyries (really, Wagner and blonde wigs and the link between Wagner and Nazi ideologies and still no one else pointed out how race, racism, and whiteness might need to be considered in this discussion?). It is even more ironic given how the ‘Unpacking the Erotic Icon’ title channels Peggy MacIntosh’s unpacking the invisible knapsack of white privilege article.

    When are US beauty/erotic (capital) hierarchies ever not about the intersections of, among other axes of difference, gender AND race?

    Sorry, but finding this discussion in many ways to be a ‘race fail’. Especially amidst the backdrop of the multiple ‘must-read’ ‘public intellectuals’ pontificating on race, ‘culture(s) of poverty’, genetic difference and genetic determinism, and other regressive, ‘non-anthropological’ explanations for human difference and social inequality, this discussion is lacking in its potential for intervening in ‘public debates’ on such topics and getting Americans to think sufficiently critically about race/racism, gender/sexism, and/as structural inequality. Similarly, against the backdrop of #Cancel Colbert and the racist-misogynistic vitriol (including death threats) directed at Suey Park for starting this hashtag, it is hard not to think about the issue of white liberal racism and blindness to it, which non-intersectional analysis of (racialized) beauty hierarchies are a symptom. Not saying anything that Trudy at Gradient Lair doesn’t explicate all the time (and as she was recently linked to here in an around-the-web round-up), one hopes this critique will not be dismissed.

  8. Erwin niereghazi,, a once famous concert pianist used the Art and Musicdepartment at Los Angeles public Librart. One of his wives (he married ten times) was a worshipful LAPL librarian who did everything for him except provide the overwhelming sexual release he craved. She even provided that to pacify him.v. See the biography published within the last five years.

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