Christmastime classic It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, an unhappy man who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent on a mission to convince George of his life's worth. So he decides to show George what things in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. George is given the chance to see how his town, friends, and family would be different if they hadn't known him. Towards the end of the film, George has yet to see where his wife has ended up, and he demands that Clarence tell him where she is:
(A spoiler alert is in order if you haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life. But I'm 99.9% positive that you've seen It's a Wonderful Life. You have, right?)
Video: George repeatedly asks that Clarence tell him where Mary is. Clarence gives in and says, "She's an old maid! She never married!" and when George continues to demand where she is, Clarence yells, "She's just about to close up the library!"
It's a Wonderful Life tells us a story about what it means to be a librarian. In this alternate reality, Mary is portrayed as a librarian in order to convey just how bad things got without George around. Mary is an old maid, and in 1946, "old maid" was synonymous with "librarian". When Clarence tells George where Mary is, George runs to the library, where he finds her locking up the front door for the night. Alternate Reality Mary is bespectacled and worriedly looking around as she clutches her purse and walks away from the library. She looks terrified before she's even noticed George (who in this scene plays a creepy man who accosts her, claiming to be her husband).
Video: Mary is walking away from the library when George approaches her and attempts to get her to recognize him. Mary runs away from him. He chases her, grabs her, and continues to try and get her to recognize him while she pulls away. He chases her into a bar, where he tells a crowd of people, "That's my wife!" and Mary faints into a group of women standing around her.
In just a short minute, this scene says a whole lot about what happens to a woman when she doesn't have a man. Librarian Mary is portrayed as being timid, helpless, and when she passes out into the arms of the women standing around her, she is also shown as being weak. Not to mention the physical differences between Mary's two characters. Let's take a moment to look at two pictures. One is of Mary with a husband, and the next is of Husbandless Mary:
Images: Mary with a husband, Mary without a husband. Can you spot the differences?
Husbandless Mary is wearing glasses. Her dress is less feminine and has a higher neckline. Her hair is pulled back into a bun (how very stereotypical) and covered up with a hat. She looks incredibly worried. And the trees casting shadows across the scene don't make her alternate identity any brighter.
This character certainly reflects societal beliefs about librarians in 1946: that librarians were single, unhappy women. Librarian identity in film has become a bit more complex since then, but Mary's character is still all too familiar.
Let's look at a few more stereotypical representations of librarians in the movies:
First, there's the librarian in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), who reinforces the belief that the main job of a librarian is to shush library patrons and chastise them for damaging books:
Video: The library scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
And we see another portrayal of the librarian as a shusher in Ghostbusters (1984). The librarian is a ghost, but the stereotype is still spot on:
Video: The library scene from Ghostbusters.
In 1978, Goldie Hawn stars as a librarian in Foul Play. This scene portrays Hawn as a single woman who spends too much time in the library instead of out on the town:
Video: Goldie Hawn's character talks with a friend on the couch in Foul Play. Her friend says, "Ever since the divorce, you lock yourself in that library and hide behind those glasses. Look at you. You used to be a cheerleader. You used to show some cleavage!...What are you playing, Old Maid?"
Finally, take a look at this scene from Tomcats (2001), one of those douchey movies where a group of guys makes a bet about who will be the last remaining bachelor. Tomcats portrays a librarian who appears to be sexually repressed but is actually a closeted dominatrix. In this scene, Jerry O'Connell's character schemes to sleep with the librarian, who he appears to think is going to be easy to bed if he just acts super interested in libraries...because that's all that librarians care about, right? After all, librarians identities are wrapped solely around their jobs.
Video: Scene from Tomcats.
When we see librarians in the movies, they are usually fulfilling the role of a very narrow stereotype. They are almost always unmarried and introverted. They are usually sexually repressed, and oftentimes their only role in the film is to shush the main characters while they spend time in a library.
How do you think these portrayals of librarians in movies have shaped your ideas about librarians? Can you think of another movie where a librarian has depicted the librarian stereotype? What about a movie where the librarian has broken the librarian stereotype? In an upcoming post, I'll be looking at more nuanced portrayals of librarians that movies have shown us in recent years. Stay tuned!