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How many flaps does a mudflap flap?

So Wyoming rolls out this ad campaign for libraries with the silhouette of a naked woman on a mudflap and once again I’m in a mild (very mild, custard-sans-even-vanilla) conundrum.

I can be a Totally Cool post-feminist sex-positive librarian who gets the sheer irony of the juxtaposition of traditionally sexist images with the concept of libraries (here she comes barreling down the reference aisle in her lace-up corset and do-me stilettos!), or I can be a shrill, humorless broad who asks a few questions, such as:

  1. This campaign was quickly deemed a success because librarians are talking about it. But isn’t the measurement how the general public perceives it?
  2. Does the marketing notion that no press is bad press really apply to this campaign? Everyone knows who Larry Craig is, but if I were him, I’d rather be yet another senator most people in the other 49 states couldn’t name.
  3. Is this how we see our users? All of them?
  4. Would it therefore be all right to use the same image within our profession? If this image appeared on university letterhead, or over a library timeclock, or on the front page of ALA’s website, we’d be all right with that?
  5. What exactly is Mudflap Boy reading that makes him so happy? (Brava, SJ, for my Favorite Blog Post for this year if not for all time!)

The discussion has been dubbed “Mudflap girl,” and though some have protested, that’s quite accurate, because that’s how it’s been promoted, even though this poor “girl” is too well-developed to be a youngster except in the imagination of a pedophile.

The usual rules apply. No matter how gently phrased, once women object to yet another stereotype exhumed and stuffed in their faces, they are described here and there as “upset,” “excited,” or “in a tizzy.” When men comment — and I’m very glad they do comment — they don’t get those terms applied to them, I assume because men are perceived as astute, thinking creatures, except when they’re staring at mudflaps emblazoned with nekkid ladies.

Is this the biggest issue we face today? Absolutely not. It’s a wee molecule compared to war or global warming (though we started a war over oil, and trucks are thirsty machines, so maybe all roads do lead to London). I do not lie awake worrying about issues like this; the biggest stressor this week by far was getting the AV system to work at the church for tonight’s movie (I asked God to intervene, and in walked the one person who understands that system better than anyone else).

Besides, maybe it means that we’ve finally swept away the last flotsam of the “@ Your Library” campaign, with its embarrassing message of “look at us misusing a symbol we vaguely know is related to something about computing.” (Q.v. Adam Gopnick’s wonderful essay in Through the Children’s Gate where he admits that for six months he thought “lol” meant “lots of love.” His sister IMs him that she’s getting a divorce, he responds, “lol…” Poor guy.)

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  1. GraceAnne wrote:

    I am just exhausted by this. It made me smile, and wince, pretty much at the same time.

    I agree with everything you say, but I just do not know what the appropriate response is. Or if there is one.

    We have been fighting this fight for a very long time. I would say that my energy needs to be directed other ways, but if I don’t respond to this, who am I? Am I not a “militant cyberfeminist” as I was once called in print?

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Thank you.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  3. The “men discussing this are treated differently than women discussing this” was another problem that I forgot about when I blogged about this. Thanks for spotlighting that. And thanks for spotlighting more of the problematic nature of “mudflap girl.”

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  4. They are taking a sexist image which is so common that we don’t even see it any more and parodying it so that we actually look at it. Simultaneous consciousness raising and library promotion. Would it work as well if it was a weaker image? Would it work at all?

    They are also parodying guns, pickup trucks, grain silos, and windmills, so there are at least a few phallic symbols in the targets besides the “trucker girl”.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  5. I don’t give a damn whether it would “work as well” or not, Mr. Underwood.

    I’m sick of TnA being used to sell stuff, and I’m sick right to my SOUL that it’s being used to sell libraries.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  6. GraceAnne, from the “extreme responses department”: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

    O.k., she was a wack jobby…way over the edge… but still. Gotta love Valerie for speaking her mind..!

    Walt, I understand the intent was parodic. Having worked in a male field for eight years, it just left me feeling worn down.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Oh and D… thanks.

    Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Sarah Mae wrote:

    I’m just waiting for them to come out with the “co-ed naked reading” t-shirts now.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 1:57 am | Permalink
  9. Don Yarman wrote:

    “…even though this poor ‘girl’ is too well-developed to be a youngster except in the imagination of a pedophile.”

    Actually, her “development” appears to be a matter of interpretation. The figure’s breasts are hidden in the silhouette of her arm. One can’t tell whether there are breasts at all.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  10. pam wrote:

    Coming from an advertising background, I’d say the campaign hits the strategic creativity mark.
    Smiling and wincing at the same time is a good sign, imo.
    I like it and have just ordered all the bumper stickers for my librarian ad collection.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  11. Pam, what I’d say is success is not enough. Bush got pretty far with “Mission Accomplished,” but that didn’t make it right. I also don’t know if librarians smiling and wincing translate to reactions from the public.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  12. pam wrote:

    What are the reactions from the public?
    If success is not enough, then what else is needed?

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  13. i share your ambivelent response. I note that they do seem, to my eyes, to have made the library mudflap lady not quite so… curvacious as the ordinary mudflap lady.

    In general, I like their ad campaign. I like that billboard that says ‘with the right online resources, nothing can hold you down’. Public libraries emphasizing their licensed databases, how unusual!

    Sunday, September 23, 2007 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  14. Except for mudflap-oppressed-person-of-female-gender (biological or reassigned), the campaign is quite good. Databases are one of those resources that get seriously underplayed by libraries — many put their database list BEHIND the proxy login, which is just poor marketing.

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  15. Sharani wrote:

    To test your excellent point about who is actually talking about this except librarians, I did a Google news search for the words Wyoming and read and then also with the word mudflap as well and came up with a big goose egg – zero results. It was only when I limited my search to blogs that it came up with results and virtually every blog post on this topic was from a library-related site. These results speak for themselves, yes?

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  16. Cheryl wrote:

    As someone new to the profession, what surprised me most about the mudflap girl “flap” was not that it had been done but that it was being touted as innovative and exciting. Taking a subject that is viewed by the general public as boring or geeky and sexing it up with a hot girl is the oldest trick in the book. At best, it’s formulaic, at worst, offensive. But innovative? I don’t think so.

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  17. David Fiander wrote:

    Cheryl, trust me, if it’s new in the library setting, then it will be claimed as innovative, even if it’s been part of some other groups professional practice for decades.

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  18. jennimi wrote:

    At best, it’s formulaic, at worst, offensive. But innovative? I don’t think so.

    Thank you , Cheryl. Exactly.

    And thanks Karen for saying what I have been trying to gear up to articulate and probably nerved myself right out of doing….

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  19. David, hah, yup. Cheryl, yes indeed.

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  20. Lisa wrote:

    Reading all the various comments about the literary version of Mudflap Girl/Woman/whatever you call her is very, very interesting. Everyone who posts a comment is doing so through their own group of opinions about how women are viewed in general. It’s not the best marketing image for libraries, but it is funny and it does start a dialog.

    Myself, I hate those damn mudflaps. They’re yet another way to perpetuate stereotypes about women – but also about truckers. Yet when I first saw Wyoming Library’s so-called “Mudflap Girl,” I laughed out loud. My interpretation was that the image was poking a finger in the eye of those who reduce women to sexual objects with no other redeeming qualities. And yet, here is the symbol of that objectification, demonstrating an ability to read.

    Monday, September 24, 2007 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  21. Catherine wrote:

    It’s a silhouette; are we just assuming she’s naked?

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  22. Catherine, I’ve heard the argument that the girl ain’t nekkid, but really… if she’s not, she’s wearing a spandex bodysuit. And no underpants!

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  23. E Welty wrote:

    All this flap over a flap! Some famous pundit once remarked “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Based on the uproar, I’d say the campaign to get attention to Wyoming’s libraries is brilliant!

    Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  24. Um, yeah, if you’re communicating to other librarians, it’s a great success.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  25. Carleen wrote:

    I realize that I’m piping in about a week late on this post but I just wanted to say that I appreciated your thoughts on this. I can certainly see both sides of this issue from a library marketing stand point, although personally, as a woman I don’t find the image personally offensive. I do think you are right that the discussion on this has been far too limited to librarian opinion and not enough of “what does the public really think.” SJ provided a nice attempt with a post to BlogHer and the response from readers to the library mudflap girl image was mostly negative.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  26. m wrote:

    Dorothea says: “I’m sick of TnA being used to sell stuff”

    There’s no T in the updated mudflap girl image. And strictly speaking, there’s no A either, since it’s just a silhouette.

    I realize that there are lots of people who like to think that the ‘average’ library goer looks like the average ALA Annual participant — overweight, out of shape, sweating at the exertion caused by walking a few meters to catch the shuttle — but in reality, there are thin women who read, too, and some of them even know how to dress! (Not sure why you call the mudflap girl ‘naked — you can’t tell either way.)

    Here’s an idea: ask a few non-librarians what they think. Here are my results:
    1) mother (lesbian feminist): laughed
    2) friend (lesbian feminist): laughed
    3) gf: wants it as a tattoo
    4) male friend #1: “cool”
    5) male friend #2: “the original’s better”

    Whining “Only librarians like it!” is pretty ‘shrill’, unless you have the numbers to prove otherwise.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2007 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  27. “Whining”; “shrill”; leveraging a sample of five to challenge a question (read my #1: only librarians are *talking* about it; it’s a marketing campaign); hmm, yeah, no baggage there, m.

    Thursday, October 4, 2007 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  28. Teresa wrote:

    I realize I’m about three years late here, but I wanted to just let you know: I might not be a Wyomingan, but I was appalled when I first heard of this back in 2007.

    On the one hand, yeah, it’s kinda cool that the Mudflap Chick can read. If I saw this on someone’s mudflaps, I would laugh and try to signal my approval in some way.

    If I saw it in the library? Uh, no. I’d probably complain to someone, or quietly go back to buying used books.

    Monday, June 1, 2009 at 3:25 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. the goblin in the library › Talk About Mudflaps on Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    [...] points out more problems that were in my head but didn’t make it into this post, so please go read her post. This was written by josh. Posted on Saturday, September 22, 2007, at 3:16 pm. Filed under [...]

  2. lis.dom » Blog Archive » mudflap woman on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    [...] people’s reactions to the campaign, but quite frankly, I’m tired. I appreciate the variety of opinions I’ve seen, many of which have affected the way I think about the issue. But [...]

  3. Loose Cannon Librarian » flap flap on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    [...] I weigh in on the Mudflap Flap? Sure, why not? First off, yes to everything over at Free Range Librarian. The only response that isn’t going to be called uptight and anti-sex is [...]

  4. The OPLIN 4cast » Blog Archive » OPLIN 4cast #73 on Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 11:11 am

    [...] How many flaps does a mudflap flap? (Free Range Librarian) [...]

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