Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

In Which I'm Not All That Useful

On Monday I took the kids to the library. There was a display there, just where children need to pass to get to the kids' section: "Pride! Books for LBQT+ Teens". At least two of the covers featured people in various states of undress, but the one that struck me the most had a smooth, hairless torso posed suggestively. It was a sexualized image, and dehumanized -- no face deemed necessary. It bothered me on several levels, which I continued to hash out through the afternoon and into the next day.

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. 


Anonymous said...

Between placing the display by the children's section and covering it in rainbows, I'm not comfortable taking my kids in right now. My six year old would immediately go to that table and look around. I didn't complain at the time because I figured it would just come off as homophobic to the librarians but maybe I could be more clear that my concern is any sexual content if I wrote a formal complaint.

mandamum said...

I have a friend whose young teen (or pre-teen?) son was exposed to porn by crossing from the children's to the teen section of her library...behind the bank of patron-use computers. She's been fighting library battle for years, on and off - the librarians hold there is nothing they can do to shield children from "second-hand porn" as it were, because 1st ammendment, donchaknow. So... I hate to say it, but you'll probably have another chance to fight this fight. And by putting your complaint in writing, I bet you can find that book you first took issue with (even just on Amazon, to grab the title and a cover-shot). But you're right, it can feel useless and yuck.

Different topic, similar experience - I was listening to the book "Bomb" by Steve Sheinkin, and he describes Oppenheimer going in to see Pres. Truman in the midst of O's attempt to stop the nuclear arms race before it got started. He said Oppenheimer, a very smart guy, had his plan of arguments laid out in his head, but when he got into the Oval Office, he became overtaken by emotion; he just held up his hands and said, "I feel I have blood on my hands," which only managed to royally irritate Truman.

I think it's sort of like casting your vote for the person you *can* vote for (or NOT, as the case may be, even if it's "a vote for the other person") - ultimately, it may not seem you made any difference, but it still makes a difference within you (and to/within your children, as they become aware of it). You are the kind of person who doesn't just stand by silently, even when no one really listens. Sometimes that matters a great deal.

mrsdarwin said...

Thank you, Mandamum. I felt irrationally down about this yesterday, and still feel residually blue. Unfortunately I didn't get the title or author of the objectionable book -- I didn't want to stop in front of the table with my son in tow. Perhaps I could find it on Amazon by searching new books in the Gay and Lesbian category, but I really don't want to go there.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Send a copy of this blog post to the head librarian?

Unknown said...

I had this same thought!

mary said...

Thanks for this

Itinérante said...

You are courageous! ♥

Agnes said...

I'm sorry that you felt you failed at making a point and I admire your bravery in speaking up.
I think it might have been good to mention the previous objectionable book (the librarians likely knew what books were there on display) but I'm also terrible of finding the perfect argument at the right moment so I feel for you in this situation. In any case, at least you made a point of parents caring what is shown to their children which may not be always a given.

At least people still are likely to accept that to sexualize children is not a good idea - although they may not be accepting the promotion of LGBT mentality to children as objectionable in itself.

Gail Finke said...

I do't think you have to have a great argument, just an argument. But you need to stay calm. Once I got very upset at my library, which is heavily used by African-American teens and kids after school, and which my children didn't even want to enter because they felt unwelcome, after EVERY BOOK IN THE PLACE written by or about African-American people got a special sticker put on the spine. I asked why and said that I thought libraries were supposed to be places where we were all equal because they are about ideas, but I got worked up about it and ended up looking, I'm afraid, like some crazy white bigot. I should have simply said I was offended, explained why, and left it at htat.

Foxfier said...

my kids are also very attracted to anything rainbow.

We had a rather public, at the top of their lungs (do they ever ask awkward things at a lower volume?) discussion about the symbolism.
Something like:
"MOM! Rainbow stuff! Let's go over there!"
"No, hon."
"Why not? I love rainbow, it's like ponies!"
"Because that's not ponies or anything like it. It's not for kids."
"Then why is it all pretty and rainbow?!?"
"Because they want people to like it."

Mrs Darwin-
don't be too hard on yourself. You'd feel awkward no matter what, going off of how people have responded to objectively needed, helpful things that require any effort on their part. We've got a really big issue in our area with unoccupied houses being broken into, so I called the realtor when a nearby house' yard gate was obviously forced open, and I could see the shop in the back was open.
You'd think I was calling up to ask a favor of him, not to say "hey, this place you're trying to sell, here's a thing that can really hurt it." And then he hung up on me.... *shrug*
I would guess that someone else complained about the same thing you did, and that's why the books were gone-- so your complaint will be added to "there have been several complaints," rather than being by itself.
You might want to fill out a formal complaint about books that treat minors as sexual objects to be used being displayed when there is so much sexual abuse of LGBTQ+ pre-adults. (To put it in jargon, anyways.)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

In our library when we went last week the LGBT pride table was in the children's section and included books for teens and parents and picture books for kids. A couple of months ago one of my kids brought home a book Bout s transgender child. I usually look over their books before checkout but that one time I didn't and the kids had all read the book before someone brought it to me and asked me to read it. I don't think I'd get any kind of sympathetic ear if I complained. I'm just going to stay away till the display is gone.