Recently, a group of Library staff members visited the Marvels & Monsters: Asian Images in Comics exhibit to see what some of our colleagues have been working so passionately on over the past several months. Good things had reached our ears about the event that highlighted cultural diversity, but until now we had not experienced it for ourselves. It was high time to do so.
The display was intriguing even from a distance with the bold colors, most predominantly yellow, symbolizing the Asian skin tone of the characters depicted. It captured our attention immediately and drew us from one end of the Charles B. Wang Center quickly to the other. We were met with an impressive array of painted panels that depicted various Asian archetypes created by American graphic artists for comic books during the Second World War and Cold War Eras. The exhibit served to show how easy it could be to alter society’s impression of a demographic who most knew little about. As we took it all in, we began to realize how closely this hit home to all of us. We, being library workers, were all too familiar with stereotypes that have been forced on those in our profession, probably since the dawn of the printed word. Allow me to address a few, as they related, at least in my mind, to their Asian comic character counterparts.
The Shusher is one of the most predominant images in the Library world. Librarian dolls have been made that mimic this aggressive shushing motion. To the world, library staff thrive in a world of peace and quiet and mechanically react with this hand to mouth gesture when any noise is heard. Much like The Kamikaze villains, they are a greatly feared character void of all personality who devoutly adhere to their mission to seek out noise and stop it dead in its tracks.
Who can forget the depiction of The Mean Librarian in countless Hollywood films? Always seen glaring from behind a desk piled high with books, squinting angrily through a pair of eyeglasses that have slid just a little too far down her pointy nose? Ruler in one hand, overdue stamp clasped tightly in the other. Wherever there is a scene set in the library where the heroes are happily piecing together bits of an exciting plot, there is a mean librarian there to serve as The Brute, spoiling fun simply for the sake of being bitter and mean.
Both Asian comics and American libraries share the archetype called The Brain. An example of a positive attribute somehow turned negative, these characters just can’t win. Whereas The Brain in the comics just wants to rule the world, the library version would settle to help you write a stellar research paper. Neither has a bright future in the romance department.
A beloved Asian character in Marvel comics is The Temptress, there to use her powers of seduction to thwart the hero. A beloved character at American Halloween parties is our counterpart, The Sexy Librarian. A little less in-your-face sexy than the comic book version, the Librarians show that there is a mysterious kind of beauty to be found in a girl with brains.
Every library has at least one, some guy who keeps abreast with all the latest technology. Though we are quick to label him/her as a geek in conversation with our peers, we will always compliment them on their sweater to be in their good graces because we know we will inevitably need computer help one day. They could be seen as a traditional Guru figure, the teacher of all that is wise, but in reality they will also always be part Alien, a perpetual foreigner in the workplace – but in a good way.
By learning of the stereotypes that have been invented to negatively depict others in our society, we were inspired to reflect on how vulnerable we all are to being unfairly categorized in potentially harmful ways by media and pop culture. That is perhaps why it is so essential to never pass up an opportunity to demonstrate that we are bright, friendly people who enjoy laughing and learning and defying preconceived notions to express who we really are.