Friday, January 13, 2012

Case Study No. 0170: Mary (Party Girl)

Party Girl Library Dance
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Party Girl is a 1995 film directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. It is notable as being the first commercial comedy-drama feature film shown in its entirety on the Internet.

Scripted by Mayer with Harry Birckmayer and Sheila Gaffney, the storyline follows the misadventures of free-spirited Mary (Parker Posey) on her self-destructive path of drugs and parties. Arrested for illegally charging attendees at an underground rave, she calls upon her godmother, Judy Lindendorf (Sasha von Scherler), to bail her out. So Mary can repay the loan, Judy employs her as a clerk at the library where she works. Mary reluctantly begins her new job while striking up a romance with Lebanese street vendor Mustafa (Omar Townsend). The other men in her life are her gay friend Derrick (Anthony DeSando) and Leo (Guillermo Díaz), a DJ in clubs. Things begin to fall apart when she loses her library job and is evicted from her apartment. In the end, Mary decides to study to become a librarian herself but without compromising her own sense of style and happiness. Others in the cast are Donna Mitchell, as the club owner and Liev Schreiber. Liev Schreiber's character proposes to Mary so that he can keep his visa, allowing him to remain in the country.




Mayer, Daisy von Scherler (Director). Party Girl. United States: Party Productions, 1995.

Starring: Parker Posey (Mary, Library Clerk); Sasha von Scherler (Judy Lindendorf, Librarian)

This film is an important member of the librarian film oeuvre, but I have a problem with a storyline that appears to heartily support librarianship but still maintains that gawdawful stereotype that has crippled the profession for a hundred years. We have a young urban woman (Mary) who uses her organizational skills to throw lavish (and illegal) parties. Her librarian godmother (Judy) helps, albeit reluctantly, to redirect her energies into library work. Mary takes to it like the proverbial fish to water, and overcomes her frustrations at being forced to do clerk work rather than true librarian work by determining at the end to go to library school. Hooray. Of course, the journey to self-discovery means she sacrifices her Cyndi Lauper wardrobe for a costume that looks like a librarian in heavy mourning, from the bun and glasses down to black stockings and sensible shoes. Grrrr... Anyway, here are some particulars: We are shown with the subtlety of a fire hose that this party animal has innate organizational skills -- her clothing hangs in color order. Library material, obviously. Her godmother works at what appears to be a branch of the NYC public library, and lots and lots of rubber stamping takes place. They have unreasonable patrons (arrogant young man: "Do you have a problem with political thought, or is it a particular vendetta against Hannah Arendt? ... Every single book of hers was out of sequence." Mary to Judy: "What a dick." Judy: "He's not a dick, he's a patron.") and budget problems and a hierarchy you'll recognize too intimately. There's a shortage of library clerks (Judy: "They make more money at McDonald's.") and against her better judgment, Judy hires Mary. At first the girl is overwhelmed by the Dewey Decimal System, but she forces herself to learn after sneaking into the library one night. It finally clicks. Instead of "By George, I think I've got it!" or "wa-wa" there's the moment of "Yes, Mama, I know what's going on. Yes, I do!" It's not Music Man, but she shelves while dancing around the library. She expends a lot of energy on table tops and rolling around on a chair, and of course she accomplishes as much work in one night as your whole staff could finish in a week, but that's the movies. And I'm wondering how Mary was so soon put in charge of the place and closes up alone, but it allows for a love scene in the Romance Language section. There's one scene we can relate to where she spots a fellow returning a book to the shelves. "I guess you didn't know we have a system for putting books away here. No, I'm curious. You were just randomly putting that book on the shelf, is that it? You've just given us a great idea. I mean, why are we wasting our time with the Dewey Decimal System when your system is so much easier? Much easier! [shouting now] We'll just put the books anywhere. Hear that, everybody? Our friend here has given us a great idea! We'll just put the books any damn place we choose! We don't care, right?! Isn't that right?" Male librarian: "You didn't take a break today...." At first Mary hides her job from her party cronies, but eventually she's proud of it (organizing her DJ-roommate's collection of 2,000 albums, including color coding and cross-referencing) and them of her. This is an uneven film and I admit to not particularly liking it. The acting is weak, many characters unlikable, and the music jarring. (The best lines come from a friend believing Mary's an alcoholic struggling to recover.) That said, it must be included in any media librarian discussion for good reasons and bad. And it's fun to see Dewey messing with Mary's mind. Point of interest: According to Internet Movie Database, this is the first feature film shown in its entirety on the Internet (June 3, 1995 by POPCO).



Librarians and Party Girls: Cultural Studies and the Meaning of the Librarian
Author(s): Marie L. Radford and Gary P. Radford
Source: The Library Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 54-69

A Cultural Studies Reading of Party Girl

One example of the application of the cultural studies perspective to the library and information studies field can be seen in an analysis of media stereotypes of librarians portrayed in the motion picture Part Girl [ 1 1]. This film provides an example of the ways in which stereotyp- ing creates a "regime of representation" that ultimately constricts the power and economic status of a gendered profession-librarianship. Party Girljuxtaposes feminine stereotypes of both librarians and party girls in an interesting way. It is not enough to ask how the librarian/ party girl is represented; rather, one must examine to what use that representation is being put. Hall notes that members of a culture must share a common knowledge of particular signs and symbols [6]. The stereotype of the librarian is one that has a long history and has remained remarkably consistent over the course of the last century- even against the astonishing technological changes that have taken place in that time, and the rise of the so-called information age [12]. Hall's discussion of stereotypes quoted earlier makes reference to the assertion that stereotypes fix widely recognized characteristics "without change or development to eternity" [6, p. 258]. This fix is certainly true in the case of the stereotype of the librarian, which has remained fixed in popular culture since the early 1900s with evidence that, "cer- tainly by the 1930s it was well established and regularly appeared in comic strips, movies, and even advertising. It brought with it, for more years than anyone cares to remember, regular cries of outrage, and even threats of boycotts, from the more vigilant members of Our Pro- fession, who viewed such portrayals as an attack on their integrnty. So firmly had that image been ingrained into the popular culture, how- ever, that the protests had no effect whatsoever" [13, p. 62].

Characteristics that are generally attributed to the stereotyped librar- ian include: an obsession with order, sexual repression, matronly at pearance, dowdy dress, fussiness, dour facial expressions, and monosyl- labic speech. In media representations of professional librarians there are three predominant activities in which librarians engage: shelving, stamping, and shushing. Occasionally they are also seen to be pushing carts of books around, pointing library users to the stacks in a desultory fashion, or rebuking users for failure to follow library procedures [14]. Frequently, libraries and librarians are portrayed as intimidating and scary, inspiring fear in the library user [15].

Party Girl is not an attempt to add to that stereotype. Rather, it takes it for granted and places it alongside another stereotype-the party girl. At one level, one might read Part Girl as the story of how a party girl (stereotype) becomes transformed into a librarian (stereotype). In another reading, the transformation can be seen as a metaphor for coming of age. Mary, as party girl, is represented as childlike, living in the moment, ego centered, and lacking a sense of personal responsibil- ity. Hall has asserted that this technique of "infantilization" is a com- mon representational strategy for stereotypes of both men (for exam- ple, grown black men referred to as "boys") and women (for example, women athletes widely referred to as "girls") [6, p. 262]. It is not until Mary begins the transformation into the librarian (stereotypically de- picted as mature and matronly) that she begins to take her responsibili- ties more seriously.

The transformation is seen in a series of scenes from the movie in which Mary undergoes a metamorphosis, not just in appearance (as she moves from outrageous styles and loud colors to a subdued black suit) but also in her intellectual growth. The transformation in her intellect is shown in a series of scenes in which she pores over the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) schedules and learns the application of the clas- sification system in a frenzy of shelving, when she organizes her room- mate Leo's record collection by the DDS, and when she demonstrates her ultimate mastery of the sources and systems of library practice, as revealed in the final scene. A transformation also takes place in her attitude and behavior toward the library users. Early in the movie she childishly exclaims: "What a dick!" because a library user complains of books being out of order, but later on in the film she takes on a more mature, stereotypical demeanor, as she priggishly browbeats the library user for reshelving a reference book in the wrong place. This behavior clearly reveals her conversion to the librarian mind-set. An examination of several of these transformational scenes is provided below.

Mary Becomes a Librarian Trainee

In the opening scene of the film, Mary is first seen as a flamboyant party girl being shut into a jail cell. As the jail cell door clangs shut, the scene shifts immediately to the outside of a branch of the New York Public Library. Mary climbs the steps, stops at the circulation desk, and asks where Judy, her godmother, can be found. A desultory person behind the desk slowly points a finger to the reference desk where Judy is on duty.

Mary asks Judy for a loan to cover her legal expenses and rent. Judy asks Mary if she has a job. When Mary says that she is "freelancing," Judy chastises her and tells her to find a real job, like becoming a wait- ress. Mary becomes angry and loudly says, "I am not a waitress." In the meantime, a library user comes to the desk to complain that the books by the political scientist Hannah Arendt are out of order. Judy apolo- gizes to the user saying that the library is "reeling from budget cuts" and is understaffed. As if to herself, Judy mutters that maybe Mary ... no, Mary could never be responsible enough to be a clerk in the library. Mary takes offense at this, claiming that Judy does not think she is "smart enough to work in your library," and Judy defiantly hires her on the spot. Immediately, the library assistant Wanda, who Judy asks to train Mary says to her, "You do know about the Dewey Decimal Sys- tem, don't you?" While the room spins around Mary, the haughty, stern face of Melvil Dewey looks down at her from a wall poster.

This initial encounter between Mary and Judy sets the stage for Mary's transformation from party girl to librarian that is to follow. Mary's desperate financial situation provides a rationale for the reason why someone as footloose and fancy free as Mary would find herself working in a library. Not only does Mary accept the job, but she also now must succeed in the job to prove to Judy that she is worthwhile and "smart enough to work in your library." Judy also wants Mary to succeed, despite her knowledge of Mary's mother, who Judy believes was a woman with no common sense.

The Mis-shelved Book

As this scene opens, Mary is on duty at the reference desk, surrounded by piles of books, mechanically taking them, one at a time, opening them to the back cover, stamping them, and closing them. She looks up to a male library user walking by the reference shelves, and she speaks to him:

Mary (loudly): "Excuse me, what are you doing?"
People sitting at tables, reading books, silence. The library user stops abruptly, freezes, looks at Mary in silence, raises a hand to his chest as if to indicate Who? Me?
Mary (loudly): "Yeah, you ... Were you just putting that book away?"
The library user stands frozen like a deer in the headlights.
Mary: "It looked like you were just putting that book away."
People at tables and standing by the reference desk look around, some look at the library user, some look at Mary.
Mary: "I guess you didn't know we had a system for putting books away here."
Now all eyes are on Mary.
Mary:"Now, I'm curious, you're just randomly putting that book on the shelf. Is that it?"
Close-up on user, man looks lost, helpless, trapped, unable to speak.
Mary (even louder): "You've just given us a great idea. I mean, why are we wasting our time with the Dewey Decimal System when your system is so much easier, much easier. We'll just put the books (raises voice even louder) anywhere. (Is now speaking to her audience.) Hear that everybody? Our friend here has given us a great idea. We'U just put the books any damn place we choose! (Shouting, banging fist on the circulation desk) We don't care! Right? Isn't that right?
Users do not move. Woman by reference desk looks angry, others look at Mary, listening, one looks surprised, and others have frozen facial expressions. The African American librarian (Howard), approaches Mary from behind the desk.
Howard (quietly but firmly): "You haven't taken a break all morning. Take a break."
Mary (frustrated):"I just want to do a good job, Howard."
Howard: "You are doing a good job. Take a break, I'll cover. (firmly) Take a break."
Mary walks away, reluctantly, frustrated.

Here, Mary demonstrates that her transformation has begun. She exhibits some of the classic components of the stereotype. Although the materials in the reference area are meant to be used by the public, when a library user takes a book from the shelf and then returns it to the wrong place, the order of the collection has been disrupted. As the person in charge of keeping that order, Mary experiences the tension between the two opposing roles of the librarian-she wants to "do a good job" in maintaining the integrity of the collection and its order, and she wants also to "do a good job" in helping the library user.

The librarian experiences the frustration of Sisyphus here, the myth- ological character who eternally pushes the rock up the mountain, only to have it roll back down. Mary is eternally shelving books, putting them back in the right order on the right shelf, only to have the library users come in and remove the books from their right place, leaving them strewn about the library, or worse, shelving them in the wrong place, so librarians and other users cannot find them. Visitors to the library thereby introduce the element of disorder by their very use of the col- lection that ostensibly is designed and chosen for library clients and exists only to be used. The disorder introduced by the client is thus in direct opposition to the order imposed by library systems and its handmaidens of systematic order, the librarians [12]. The order that provides access also exists as a barrier because of its complexity. One can only assume that the library user in the above scene was not an anarchist, looking to wreak havoc on the order of the library, but was either careless in putting the book away in the wrong place, or (as librarians might suspect) unable to figure out the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal System, which is not as intuitive as some think [16].

In the above scene, Mary also displays the stereotypical fussiness and sternness of the librarian who uses the age-old tactic of public humilia- tion to tame the unruly library user. In her quest for order in the li- brary, Mary becomes an aggressive harpy in her attack on the hapless male library user. The attractive (alluring) party girl is being replaced by the unattractive (repulsive) caricature of a librarian-a fearsome librarian with whom library users would be loath to interact.

The Organization of Leo's Record Collection

As the movie progresses, we see Mary continue to take on additional characteristics of the stereotype. The movie takes the stereotype librar- ian as a whole constellation of signs. Umberto Eco refers to these as "super-signs"-signs whose content is not a content unit but an entire proposition [17]. Thus Party Girl takes the complete librarian stereo- type as its necessary foundation and works with it as a complete unit, including the stereotypical attitudes, behaviors, values, and outward appearances. However, what is interesting about Part Girl is that it is not a statement about librarians or their stereotypes but an exploration of what happens when the stereotype is placed in another, very different, context. Actually, the direction of the story is "what happens when a party girl works in the library?" Thus we see Mary dancing on the tables as she shelves the books. But as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that the movie is also about "what happens when a librarian joins the party set." Mary's organization of Leo's record collection shows this nicely.

The scene opens in Mary's loft apartment, which she shares with Leo, who works as a disc jockey in a local dance club. Mary jumps up from reading on her bed as Leo enters and says, "Surprise!" Leo, looks around in disbelief as his record collection is not in the piles in which he had left it, but is now neatly stored in bins on the floor. Leo asks Mary, "Where's my crate? What have you done with my albums?" and Mary replies, "I organized them, Leo, according to the Dewey Decimal System." Leo becomes angry and shouts obscenities at Mary, calling her names and accusing her of "ruining" his life.

Here we see Mary taking another step in her transformation to a stereotypical librarian, obsessed with order. She is unable to continue to passively stand by and see Leo's albums in a chaotic state. Without his request, permission, or even knowledge, she takes it on herself to organize his collection by the Dewey Decimal System. Not only does Mary reorganize the albums, she also creates a detailed card catalog that is cross-referenced by artist and subject. This time-consuming and aberrant practice is not the activity of a "normal" person. A normal person might conceivably put the records in alphabetical order by al- bum title or by artist, but Mary transcends the normal, to devise a unique classification system by type of music. Mary has clearly crossed the line from normalcy to obsessive behavior. Leo's reaction, screaming at her, labeling her a "bitch," and shouting that "you've ruined my life" demonstrates how aberrant he believes her behavior to be. Her present inexplicable behavior is so unlike her previous persona that a stunned Leo finds Mary to be unrecognizable. She has now metamor- phosed into an "other" set apart from the normal person through her stereotypical librarian behavior. Mary here has turned an intellectual corner in displaying her now firm and fully operationalized belief in the principals of organization and access promulgated by Dewey. She has become a fervent Dewey disciple-a critical step in her transformation.

Rather than shout back at Leo, Mary patiently explains the system to Leo, as if to a small child. Here we see another aspect of the stereo- type. The librarian (Mary) has created a complex system that is not intuitive for the user (Leo). When the user is unable to fathom the system, the librarian asserts that it is "easy" and explains it in a conde- scending tone, implying that the user is intellectually inferior to the librarian. Mary has also created a situation in which Leo will be forced to be dependent on her in the future. When Leo buys new albums, who will catalog them? Surely it will be Mary. If he has trouble locating an album, he must turn to Mary again.

The use of the librarian stereotype in Party Girl is not meant to be evaluative or judgmental. It does not deliberately set out to portray librarians as mean, obsessive, or repressed. However, because of the fixed nature of the stereotype that has been powerfully evoked here, Mary does exhibit these traits. She is mean to the library user who care- lessly mis-shelves the book. She is obsessive in arranging Leo's records, and she is repressed in her inability to communicate her feelings to Judy. In the end, Mary longs to be a librarian. Judy, on duty as a librar- ian at a branch of the New York Public Library, gives lengthy speeches about how the profession is maligned, how it is considered "women's work," and the poor pay and budget cuts the library faces. These issues are presented in serious contexts. Mary's appreciation of the library, and even of Dewey's system, is genuine.

The Birthday Party

Mary's transformation from party girl to librarian culminates in the final scene in the movie: Mary's birthday party. The scene opens with Mary amid a crowd of reveling friends, loud disco music, and a male stripper. Mary is dressed in a black business suit with gold brooch, her hair in a bun, and wearing round, dark rimmed (albeit designer) eye-glasses.

Judy apparently has not been aware of the transformational changes Mary has been experiencing. She insists on seeing Mary as only the party girl, whose mother had no common sense. When Judy makes her entrance to the party Mary dramatically rushes to the stereo and stops the music. She blurts out to Judy, "I want to be a librarian!" butJudy is not convinced. She does, however, pause to listen to the testimony of Mary's friends, who provide Judy with the list of the elements of the stereotypical librarian that Mary has exhibited: she has become ob- sessed with order in scolding the user for mis-shelving the book and in reorganizing Leo's records; she has become knowledgeable about the library systems and resources as seen in her assistance to friends in finding information on body piercing and on teacher certification; and the library has taken on new meaning for her, and so on. Judy challenges Mary, asking her what she did to answer her boyfriend Mus- tafa's question on teaching requirements, and Mary is able to rattle off a list of sources she checked, complete with a hefty dose of library jar- gon. Only then isJudy convinced that Mary's desire to become a librar- ian is genuine and Judy can give her a symbolic hug, welcoming Mary to the profession.

Here we see an additional indication of Mary's "transformation" symbolized by her choice of clothes. Her outrageous clothing at the beginning of the film gradually takes on more conservative proportions until at the end of the movie, we see Mary dressed in a black suit with bun and glasses.

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