I love libraries. When I was in Grade 2 and we were asked for our school yearbook what one thing we would change about the school, I wanted more books for the library. (Yes, I’ve always been a nerd!) Libraries are not only an extension of my love of books, but also a place where, as a child, I saw puppet shows and my first movie (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). I became a professional historian in part because I love libraries (and their close cousins, archives, which I discovered later).
This past summer, I took my son to get a library card at the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) and was asked to choose a slogan for the card. Most were pretty innocuous – we chose “I’m happy and I know it” – but one made me cringe: “Chicks dig big brains.” I didn’t engage the subject then and there as Michael was on the move -- I had to go after him before he dismantled a shelf full of CDs. Later that week though, I was in traffic behind a city bus with a big purple EPL advertisement on the back with the same slogan staring down at me. I growled about it to my partner, and the next time I was in my branch, I scribbled down on one of their comment cards that I found that particular slogan sexist and signed my name with my email address.
I didn’t give it much more thought. I’m surrounded by incredibly sexist advertising here in Edmonton – the bars especially have huge billboards with hardly-clothed women featured prominently all around town. Yet, the city also has a series of river valley parks named for the Famous Five. The EPL slogan becomes part of a complex landscape.
Three weeks ago, I got an email from the Director of Marketing and Fund Development at the EPL. She detailed why the term “chicks” is not sexist and told me that, if I didn’t like the slogan, I could choose a different card; she also mentioned that other women and girls don’t find the term "chicks" sexist.
I saw red.
I have no problem with the term “chicks.” Granted, I don’t use it myself much, but I also feel that taking issue with it is a bit like taking issue with using the word “kids” or “guys” or “gals;” it seems a bit trivial.
What I didn’t like was that in taking the time to refute my point, the Director if Marketing had not bothered to identify my actual concerns. I was most troubled by her claim that this was simply a matter of personal choice and the suggestion that because other women might view something as not sexist – that makes it so. (Just one example of the fallacy of such thinking: Many women opposed extending the franchise to women in early 20th century Canada; this didn't make women's lack of civil rights any less sexist.)
I sent a long email in response, focused on the slogan and the question of preference.
My problem arose from the fact that the slogan was not about girls or women and their interests – books, reading, being smart, or what have you; but reduced women’s interests to their appreciation of someone else (who actually possessed the “big brains”), and that someone else – I felt – was clearly gendered male. As I wrote, “I consider it problematic and sexist that [the slogan] reinforces culturally-prevalent ideas that value women only in relation to men rather than in their own right, and moreover implicitly encourages men to read and develop their brains and women to, secondarily, appreciate these qualities but not necessarily share in them.”
I continued “….[If] the "big brains" were intended to be gender neutral,” which is still problematic, but let’s address the counterargument that “big brains” = “smart people” for the moment, “I think that greater effort should have been made to ensure that that was clear. Especially because the punchiness of the slogan lies in part with the fact that the reference to "big brains" evokes other aspects of the male anatomy that women are thought to evaluate based on size.”
I closed by saying, "The issues that I raise here are not matters of preference (that would be along the lines of, I don't like the orange colour on the library cards) but rather a reading of the assumptions that underly the slogan, and in turn are perpetuated by it. That such a reading is not immediately obvious only speaks to how pervasive such messages are, to the extent that they have become a form of common sense. You are right - I don't need to have the "chicks dig big brains" library card, nor do I need to select it for my son. But we still have to see that slogan and the messages that it conveys displayed in and around the library, on city buses, and elsewhere in our community. It is not a question of preference, it's about what kind of messages the EPL wishes to convey to the wider community.”
I was principally speaking on behalf of my childhood self. I was one of countless girls who loved books and felt that the library was a welcoming, wonderful place. Had I confronted that slogan when I was younger, I would have hated it -- and been angry at the library for it -- but I doubt I would have been able to articulate why. Thankfully, because I wasn't confronted by that slogan when I was younger and I continued to love libraries and books, I'm now equipped with my own "big brains," to tell the EPL exactly what I think.
I have yet to hear a response from the library, but I’ll let you know if I do.