Were the library to put up a table with books about and for teen girls, to help them feel confident in being a girl, I would expect that no librarian with any sense would include books with sultry covers featuring a mostly nude body. Girls are encouraged nowadays -- and it's a good trend -- to see themselves as more than sex objects, as more than a body on display for the viewing pleasure of other. They have worth in themselves, in their own right, but they don't always feel secure of their abilities, their talents, and their value. They look to role models, to parents, and yes, to trusted sources like the library, to give them clues as to how they should see themselves. And since teen girls are not the only patrons of the library, a teen girl table in what is supposed to be a neutral public space signals to the general public what are appropriate methods of relating to teen girls. A sexualized book cover in that kind of display is unacceptable.
Every teen is trying to make sense of where he or she fits in the world. Every teen tries to make sense of his or her body. Every teen has to deal with emerging sexual impulses, and the fact that although other people can be arousing, the purpose of a person is not simply to arouse. Does it really help create a culture of love and respect for what is considered to be a vulnerable group if one of the acceptable images the library is promoting is one of pure sexuality? Does it help others to see this group as fully human in their own right if sex has to be used to sell them?
And the placement of the table right by the children's area shows questionable judgment, to put it mildly. Parents do have the right to expect that the library, of all places, will not be pushing material with a sexual agenda onto their children in a way that can't be ignored. Our library's summer reading lists have not been great, but in that case, I can either throw the list away or talk to the kids about why I think this or that book is not a good selection before the child reads it. In the case of a visual display right by the kids' area, there's no way to avoid it except by not going to the library -- not an acceptable option for an institution funded by my tax dollars.
I felt that I needed to go and speak to someone at the library about this, but the thought of it made me anxious. I'm not a confrontational person, and I felt that I needed some pretty incontrovertible arguments over a weighed social issue like this, in which any dissension can get you labeled a hater or bigot. But yesterday we did go back to the library, and I sent the kids over to play in the children's area while I waited to talk to one of the librarians at the desk in front of the kids' books, right by the display. My heart sank as I looked at the display. The book I'd particularly objected to wasn't there. Had I imagined it? Remembered incorrectly? The only book on display with a nude cover was this one.
I weighed whether I'd object to this particular image in any other circumstance. Would I have a book like this in my house? Possibly, depending on the subject material. Would I be upset if my kids saw it sitting around? I think they'd be uncomfortable knowing that the lady was bare-chested, but is it morally objectionable?
I didn't really have time to make a clear judgment call. One of the librarians freed up and asked if she could help me -- not the comforting older lady I'd hoped to speak with -- and I had to act, so I grabbed the book off the display, feeling hypocritical and idiotic. I expressed my concern, using the example above of girls' empowerment, and the lady was quite polite and said she'd take the book off the display, but that I'd need to file an official complaint form if I wanted it to go farther. I thanked her for listening and went to sit in the children's area, feeling sick and despondent and useless, rather the same way I do when I give money to someone begging on the side of the road. I'd wanted to stake a clear moral position with an incontrovertible piece of evidence, and here I was reduced to the level of people who complain about witchcraft in Harry Potter or Greek statuary. What I should have done, if I'd thought of it at the time, was to mention the book I'd seen before and object to that, but without the physical item in hand to prove my point how could the librarian know that I wasn't just telling a story? I'd tried to do what I thought was right, and I'd made a fool of myself. I know that grace builds on our actions, however ridiculous, and that God sees the heart, but I felt alone and stupid.
It's rare that we get to ride in on our chargers, conquering with aplomb and striking opponents speechless. More often, our attempts to live the Christian life are broad and fumbling, imperfect, folly to the Gentiles. We diminish ourselves in the eyes of others -- which shouldn't matter, but it does. "For your sake we are being slain all the day long." Only in heaven will we know what fruit our silly actions have borne, what God built with our strawless bricks.