Folklore

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An illustration from a 1912 publication of the Grimms’ tales in English.

A conversation with speculative fiction authors Max Gladstone and Michael Underwood got me thinking about the importance of the “original” version of stories and other expressive culture to people. Gladstone wrote this blog post about how the Star Wars Expanded Universe is essentially a folkloric variation on a narrative, in the same way that the Greek classics displayed variation even when they were written up into plays and other literary (hence fixed) forms. Underwood, who also has folklore training, leapt in, and the discussion veered into intriguing territory, such as wondering how a version of a text becomes associated with concept of the “original” in someone’s mind.

However, as a folklore instructor, I’ve grown to loathe the concept of the “original” when it comes up in my college classes. This is due to two conflated meanings that I’ll unpack here.

The first – and incorrect – way that references to the “original” crop up in my classes is as an assertion of origin. As in, a student saying that the “original” Cinderella was dark and gory.

Um, no. First, that’s usually a reference to the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, in which the stepsisters cut off toes and/or heels to try to fit into the shoe, and get their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. But even then, are we talking about the 1812 version of Cinderella, from when the Grimms first published their collection of tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or from the 7th and final revision which appeared in 1857, or any of the intervening revisions? And then what about translations? We know from various folklore studies that Victorian-era English translators changed bunches based on social norms and ideas about acceptability for child audiences.

Between publication and translation issues, it’s difficult to talk about the “original” version of a fairy tale, even when someone has a specific version in mind. Then you throw in the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to determine when the first existing version of something from oral tradition came into being, and yeah… it’s hardly worth talking about. (for what it’s worth, though, the oldest written version of something resembling Cinderella comes from 9th century China, which means it was likely circulating in oral tradition well before that)

See, I’m not drawn to the pursuit of the origins of older folklore. It might be an intriguing research question, for some people, some of the time… but it’s not why I’m here. I’m in folklore studies because we have our scholarly fingers on the pulse of what people (consciously or not) find relevant enough to transmit, perform, and enact.

Anyway, in folklore studies the question of the “original” is essentially a meaningless one, unless you’re working with a phenomenon that is so recent or so thoroughly documented that you can, in fact, point at the first instance of something. But usually it comes together from a swirl of existing cultural material that get remixed in just the right way to cohere and resonate with people.

The second meaning that the “original” can have in folklore studies (and one that bugs me far less, though I wish we had better language for it) is meaning the first version that stuck with you. So it’s a more subjective meaning, and therefore can’t really be debated in the same way as the first meaning. Which is fine – but people need to realize that the first version they were exposed to isn’t necessarily going to be the same for everyone.

In Fairy Tales and Feminism: New ApproachesDonald Haase covers reception and reader response approaches to fairy tales in his introductory essay. One of the scholars he mentions, Kay Stone, has done pioneering work with women’s and children’s memories of and responses to gender roles in fairy tales. Among Stone’s findings is the impressive insight that women selectively remembered the heroines of fairy tales, sometimes making them more active and heroic than passive, even when their roles in the text seem largely passive. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a ton of work in this area that I know of (at one point I was going to do a study, but the IRB permissions were complicated, given that I wanted to work with children).

For fairy tales specifically, yes, we can blame Disney and their aggressive copyright laws for a lot of the hype around the “original” version of something, down to the color and cut of a princess’s dress. But we should also take into account the intellectual fascination with morphologies and genealogies dating back to the Romantic era and the philological foundations of modern literary, historical, linguistic, and anthropological studies. I’ve got a rant about authenticity, and how every cultural tradition is invented, that I’ll get around to writing up eventually, which would tie in nicely here.

If we each have our own personal first-exposure version of a text – whether a tale type, or a custom, or a proper way of preparing a holiday food – then that can be a potentially interesting avenue of study. When was someone first exposed to the text? By whom? Which facets of it stuck with them (motifs and themes; structure; context) and which are more malleable? How does this color their interactions with other versions of the same plot, text, or tale type?

The personal-first-exposure meaning (we need to find a better term than your original version) is intriguing and grants that our unique life experiences shape our interactions with cultural materials. This is more empowering – and more accurate – than trying to determine which version of something came first, since that’s often a question that leads back to historically privileged individuals and groups (e.g. those with literacy, the power to record their lives, and so on).

So please remove the “original” from your vocabulary when in a folklore context. And check out my other folklore pet peeves, too, such as when people assume we write children’s books, or that all folklorists are obsessed with origins, or that everybody already knows everything there is to know about folklore.

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What better metaphor for cultural transmission than a magic carpet? Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist and belly dancer, I deal with cultural appropriation on a daily basis. There are the accusations that wearing a bindi is disrespectful, and the queries I get about where certain narratives and body adornments first come from. I try to be aware of power imbalances, but I also think human creativity is multifaceted and flourishes regardless of restrictions.

I blog about how American Tribal Style® Belly Dance sidesteps some of the nastier cultural appropriation issues, for instance, by not attempting to imitate specific existing tribal dances but rather creating a new form for a new context. This dance style isn’t perfectly free of the bonds of colonialism and capitalism, but what is?

One concept that, in my mind, helps make the cultural appropriation questions a bit easier, is polygenesis. In folklore and anthropology, polygenesis means that a folklore text or piece of expressive culture – a given narrative, custom, or artifact – has multiple origins. This is in contrast to monogenesis, or a text having a single origin. In a monogenesis situation, once the item has been created, it spreads through diffusion and cultural contact.

In folklore studies we’ve devised whole systems for tracking items that originate through monogenesis, such as the tale type index (which I explain here). We have the Finnish method, also called the historic-geographic method, which we use to trace narratives through time and space, assembling all the versions of a folktale or legend that have been recorded, and then trying to pinpoint their origin. As I’ve already said, I don’t particularly care for the quest for origins, but these methods are still useful because they help us get a better handle on the past.

But when is polygenesis interesting and useful? In my opinion, it’s when polygenesis helps us understand that a given cultural artifact probably has multiple origins, and thus can’t be claimed by any one culture. To give a narrative example, a very basic plot like star-crossed lovers, or a rags-to-riches story, might originate anywhere with enough class hierarchy to make those stories work. Once a narrative accrues enough recognizable motifs, tropes, symbols, and/or plot twists, though, it probably had a single distinct origin point, or it was synthesized from other narratives at a single point, and then spread out from there.

This is a fairly simple concept; I’d imagine most students get it in Cultural Anthropology 101 or some equivalent. However, I think if we apply it to the issues presented by cultural appropriation, it opens up another avenue for discussion. We can ask if the artifact, story, or custom at hand has other points of origin, and how much it’s changed in the process of transmission if in fact it’s a case of monogenesis. Thinking in terms of monogenesis and polygenesis might add some more nuance to our conversations, and might help us recognize that while cultural borrowing should not be a careless free-for-all when there are clearly oppressive forces at work, culture has always interacted with creativity in richly complex ways.

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F is for Folklore! (not really; this is an illustration from an 1899 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, now in public domain)

Despite the distance I’ve created between myself and institutional academia (explained in my I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore series), I’m still glad that my academic background is in folklore studies. Yeah, it’d be nice if my many professors and the disciplinary leaders in academic folklore studies had been more realistic about the utter lack of jobs, since 2-3 tenure-track positions a year does not a robust job market make. However, I don’t regret going into folklore studies, since it’s shaped my worldview in a number of beneficial ways.

First, studying folklore gives us a unique vantage point upon the world. IU folklorist Warren Roberts once said, “Ninety-five percent of the population has been left out of the history books.” By this, he meant that the historical record skews heavily toward people who make up a small portion of the population: royalty, nobles, war leaders, and religious leaders (mostly cis-gendered heterosexual Christian white men, imagine that). In studying folklore, however, we lift our eyes from written records to peer out into the vast human landscape that exists in oral tradition, in customs, and in material culture.

Next, studying folklore connects me with everyone. Every single human interacts with folklore, whether you think of it in those terms or not. Everybody uses dialect and proverbs; everybody recognizes jokes and legends, even if you don’t perform them. Everyone has been exposed to holiday customs, folk music, and family or occupational folklore. Everyone makes body art and adornment choices, and partakes in traditional foods. Now, this also leads to the problem wherein people think that because they know folklore, that also means they know about folklore in an analytical sense. That’s annoying, but the commonality of folklore remains: in any brief conversation with anyone, I can draw out a connection with folklore, and thereby have something to talk about with them. This is awesome in its own right, plus it saves me from having to make small talk. I loathe small talk.

Related to that last point, folklore gives us insights into group identity that are unique. Because folklore is traditional, informal culture, it thrives in group atmospheres. One person doing something in isolation isn’t necessarily interesting to a folklorist, though it might be interesting to someone who studies literature, fine arts, or music. But because we’re studying communally-practiced traditions, we’re automatically latching onto group dynamics. Folklore exists at the tension where innovation and tradition meet, and is thus responsive both to social change (dynamism) and the tendency to cling to the status quo (conservatism). Every group experiences these opposing forces, and every group deals with it differently. For this reason, studying folklore helps me understand my favorite dance form, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, with greater nuance.

Folklore also gives us direct insight into what is relevant to people. This is why I’m not that excited about studying the origins of folklore; origins only tell us about when folklore started, not necessarily why it remains relevant. As my colleague Lynne McNeill writes in her book Folklore Rules, “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original). Discerning why a piece of folklore is relevant enough to be transmitted takes a bit of interpretation, but once you know how to do that kind of analysis, it means you can look at folklore in its cultural context and learn about what people care about. It’s pretty neat.

The final point I’d like to make is that in studying folklore, we’re attuned to people’s life experiences and expressive forms on their own terms. When we go into a community to do fieldwork, we don’t arrogantly presume that we know The Truth about everything, and act like we’re just there to document some quaint traditions. That would be the height of arrogance. Instead, we’re trained to listen, respect, and respond with validation. This is not something I see a lot of in the academy. I see scholars filtering their subjects’ experiences through a lens that distorts those people’s experiences, implying that they couldn’t possibly know what’s going on in their own lives.* I find that tacky at best, and violent at worst. I’m much happier taking the view that people are rational, wise, and knowledgeable about their own lives, and that the role of the scholar is not necessarily to disprove what people think about themselves, but rather to listen and learn.

Okay, here’s the actual final point: it’s fun. Y’all, I get to study fairy tales! We have our own rigorous methods, and being a good folklorist (and specifically a good fairy-tale scholar) involves a LOT of reading and study. So it’s not all fun and games, nor is all folklore based on happiness, rainbows, and puppy dogs. But at the end of the day, I love the subject matter, and that makes it feel less like work.

Studying folklore has brought immense benefits to my life. Ruth Benedict, who was active in folklore and anthropology in the mid-20th century, once said, “We cannot see the lens through which we look.” Benedict was referring to culture, and how we have trouble identifying the worldview with which we’ve been socialized, since it conditions everything we see. But we all have many lenses, since we participate in many cultures and groups. Academic culture also counts here, and while I have many problems with the academic enculturation I received in grad school, I’m pretty happy with the lens folklore has given me.

 

*I’ve got another blog post or two brewing about this, but I see it quite often in medical and psychological scholarship on people who “deviate” from the norm, such as sex workers, transgender people, and, in the past, people who experienced same-sex or bisexual attraction. Why is it impossible to trust these folks’ perspectives on their own lives?

Illustration by John D Batten for “Indian Fairy Tales” edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892. From Wikimedia.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder Symposium” held at Brigham Young University this month, where folklorists gathered with digital humanities folks to discuss the application of quantitative and digital methods to fairy-tale and folklore research. I compiled all of the #VisualizingWonder tweets into a Storify here, but I also thought the event merited a blog post.

Professor Jill Terry Rudy convened the event to brainstorm new projects, create a collaborative working group, and showcase her Algorithmic Visualizations of Fairy Tales in Television project, which is a fairy-tale teleography. Users can search the database for TV shows that include fairy-tale material, access visualizations, and so on. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tool for research, and we’re all eager to see what comes of it. The associated blog, Fairy Tales at BYU, has some excellent blog posts presenting on their preliminary research, such as this post on Fractured Fairy Tales and the American Dream.

The other major collaborator in this investigation is Professor Pauline Greenhill, the driving force behind the International Fairy-Tale Filmography. She and other Canadian colleagues teleconferenced in for the symposium, and presented on their research, some of it methods-driven and some questions-driven. The IFTF is still growing and is accepting contributions from folks who’d like to suggest that films with fairy-tale tie-ins be added to the database.

This leads me into some major themes of the symposium. We discussed the benefits of crowd-sourcing information about fairy tales in pop culture, and the merits of involving the public in other ways. As scholars, what is our obligation to the public? Does it increase when we’re studying pop culture topics? If we start helping people understand fairy tales in film and television, do we risk becoming curators of material and losing our critical function?

Defining what we’re even studying is also a difficult task. Where do TV shows end and commercials begin? What about music videos?  What about pornography? If we want to understand the audience reception of fairy tales in film and TV, how do we go about setting parameters for studying how people process and remember and reformulate their content?

We spent a good deal of time discussing methodology, which is an endlessly fascinating topic to me (when I teach, I focus a lot on process, too, as in my Body Art class last fall). My perspective is that we scholars should strive to be as transparent as possible about our process. This is for a few reasons: first, it behooves us to be honest about what we’re doing, how, and why; it’s something we in ethnographic disciplines ask of our collaborators, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to do it too; and it’s often helpful for those who come after us. Given that I was presenting on some of my quantitative dissertation research, reframed to focus on birth and hierarchy in fairy tales, it made sense for me to discuss my methods honestly, both to give my peers insight into my working process and assumptions, and to issue a few cautionary tales about what not to do in this vein of research.

We also talked about future publications and presentations, and even though I’m not amassing publications in the hopes of getting tenure (since I’m currently an adjunct professor, not a tenure-track professor), I’m pretty excited to see where all this goes. I would be thrilled to have my name associated with anything that comes of this. Hell, it was an honor being invited to the symposium in the first place!

I could go on and on, but I’d urge readers to check out the top 2 links, containing a list of the attendees/topics and my Storified tweets for more information. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope to be able to post updates about the status of these projects in the future.

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Legends & Fear

As we all know, I’m a fairy-tale expert. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like other forms of folk narrative! In particular, I’ve always loved legends. There’s something about them that captures my imagination, though I’ve not done much original research on them.

In the classroom, however, I bring in legends at every opportunity. I’ve done enough coursework in them that I feel pretty competent explaining what they are as a genre and how we can productively study them (note the “productively” part: spending time debating whether they actually happened is a waste of time, in my opinion, because as students of culture, we’re far more interested in why these stories are compelling enough to tell and retell).

Legends are almost always about fear. Different folklore genres tend to cluster around certain themes and messages, and as I’ve written in regard to sex positivity and folklore, when legends deal with sex, it’s almost always in a negative light.

Having sex outside marriage? You should be afraid that something bad will happen to you. Having sex with a same-sex partner? Likeliness of bad things increases. Performing non-procreative acts like oral sex or anal sex? Be very afraid. Having an affair? More bad news. Masturbating? Uh oh!

The list of sex acts that get demonized in legends goes on and on, and they all link back to one thing: fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the abnormal. Fear of social stigma. Fear of disease. Fear of having your privacy violated. Fear of being mocked.

I love that by studying these stories, we can tap into very basic human fears that take particular expression in this day and age. However, I don’t love the fears that are being normalized here. I want to see sexual diversity being celebrated, not stigmatized. I want to see sexual exploration being done safely and consensually regardless of whether it happens inside or outside marriage, heterosexuality, and vanilla life.

Hopefully by studying the fears transmitted in legends, we can counter these broadly conservative social and sexual messages with other messages and narratives that are more broadly inclusive. In other words, let’s learn from these narratives, and learn from these fears, but not let them define our reality.

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The famous non-consensual kiss from “Sleeping Beauty.” Image by Henry Meynell Rheam (in public domain).

I spent a good chunk of this year’s annual meeting of the American Folklore Society live-tweeting the conference. And, given that I’m now working as a sex educator, a lot of what I tweeted about was sexuality and gender.

When I tweeted disparagingly about the lack of sex positivity at the conference, a colleague responded by asking what exactly I mean by sex positivity. It’s not, unfortunately, something that everyone in our society learns about, nor is it on the curriculum for most folklore studies programs. So I wrote this blog post about what sex positivity means to me, and decided to do a follow-up post relating it back to folklore.

In folklore studies, and especially my specialty of narrative studies, we spend a lot of time talking about genres. A genre is a basic category of folklore, a type of expressive culture that we group by similarities in content, structure, transmission/performance, and function. So my first thought when it comes to relating sex positivity to folklore is to write about which genres engage with sex positivity (or not).

Based on the paper I gave this year, examining gender and sexuality in the TV show Lost Girl, I’ve been thinking about sex positivity in two specific narrative folklore genres: legend and fairy tale. We define legends as belief tales that are told as though they actually happened, which is why you so see so many urban legends debunked on Snopes.com: they tie into people’s beliefs about reality, so strongly that they’ll be transmitted regardless of their truth value.

For a representative sampling of legends about sex, check out these summaries of texts from just one legend book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker by folklorist Jan Brunvand: innocent make-out sessions lead to death in “The Boyfriend’s Death,” infidelity is punished in “The Solid Cement Cadillac,” and various nude surprises occur because people are generally acting pervy. Then there are legends regarding the transmission of HIV/AIDS, organ theft after a one-night stand, people getting stuck together during sex, and people losing objects internally during masturbation.

Based on this sample, I think it’s safe to say that most legends are NOT sex positive. They depict sex acts as having dangerous consequences. Even if a character’s intention was not malevolent, the effects are harmful. This probably relates to how legends function in society: they often contain socially conservative messages meant to police communal behavior.

With fairy tales—which have a bit more distance from reality as they’re fictional, formulaic tales about magic, quests, and transformation—it’s a bit harder to make sweeping proclamations about whether or not they’re sex positive. Most fairy tales end in marriage, after all, which would seem to be an endorsement for sex. However, fairy tales give us a fairly narrow vision of acceptable forms of sexuality: most fairy-tale pairings are heterosexual, monogamous, and transactional.

I’ve been researching promiscuity and non-monogamy in fairy tales, and based on that, I’ve concluded that fairy tales (like legends) convey rather restrictive attitudes about sexuality. Promiscuous female characters are punished, while there’s rarely any comment on the need for a man to be a virgin before marriage (yes, there are tales about magical virginity tests before marriage—only for the female characters, of course). It’s a little disturbing to realize that fairy tales contain many similar elements to contemporary abstinence-only programming: an emphasis on virginity before marriage, a need to police sexual behavior especially in women, and a correlation between chastity and virtue. (want citations? contact me for a copy of my paper)

In contrast to legends, though, fairy tales do show sexuality as being potentially generative and therefore positive in that light at least. Sex in fairy tales leads to children, and fairy-tale children are generally valued. You never know when having a kid might lead to breaking a curse down the road, after all. So while it’s still a mixed bag, I have to conclude based on this brief survey that fairy tales are a bit more sex positive than legends.

I can’t think of any other folklorists using sex positivity as a metric to evaluate the messages within various folklore genres. This could be an intriguing and useful line of inquiry, so if you have suggestions for folklore genres to compare and contrast in regard to sex positivity, feel free to leave a comment and get in on this discussion!

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This semester, I’m teaching a class I designed on Body Art. It’s cross-listed in anthropology and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, but it’s really a folklore class (surprise, surprise). One concept that my students have really latched onto is the idea of audience, and the first audience for any expressive display being the self.

Photo by Curtis Claspell.

Me wearing a shawl from Kamakhya Temple in Assam, India. Photo by Walking Contradiction Photography.

The main text we’re reading is The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India, by Pravina Shukla, a professor of folklore at Indiana University (who was also one of my mentors while I was there for my PhD). I assigned this book for a few reasons: it’s well-written and is on the whole a beautiful book, it lays out the study of body art as a genre of material culture quite clearly, and it foregrounds the study of both daily dress and special occasion wear.

A lot of students came to my body art class expecting to spend the whole semester talking about tattoos and other permanent or extreme body mods. We will certainly discuss those things, but I’m also trying to give my students vocabulary and concepts for studying the daily clothing choices that surround them. I’m assigning a handful of fieldwork projects, for example, that could include looking at tattoos and piercings, but will mostly be about observing the clothing of people around them. I like to think that I’m giving them tools to critically interpret the visual culture of clothing, in order to perhaps be a bit more savvy about brands and advertising and the commodification of bodies.

Body image is one topic that I’m looking forward to discussing with my students. We’ve talked about the idea that when you get dressed in the morning, you’re the first audience for your stylistic choices. Your entire life history, your sense of body image, your self-esteem, your struggles with your weight… those all are foregrounded when you decide what to wear when dressing to go out. This is one area where my class design dovetails nicely with gender studies: women and men get radically different social messages about what’s appropriate to wear, and what’s considered “normal” for outfits and attractiveness.

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking about audience and body image in conjunction is that we are usually harder on ourselves than others are. If I’m trying on an outfit, I’ll probably notice imperfections and inconsistencies that no one else would see. I’m seeing the accumulation of my years of body image anxiety that no one else sees when they look at me, since I manage to appear outwardly confident (sometimes intimidatingly so). If I am my first audience, I am truly a harsh critic… and while I haven’t done the research on this yet (though now I really want to!) I’m guessing this trend is true of many other folks. It’s probably gendered, too, from what I gather based on informal conversations with friends and fellow dancers.

So if the self is the first audience, I wonder: do we owe it to ourselves to be kinder audiences? Do we seek fault with ourselves so that we can beat others to it? When do we allow ourselves to see the most beauty in our self image? Are there links between allowing ourselves creative freedom in body adornment (c’mon, who else still plays dress-up?) and feeling more satisfied with our body image?

The semester’s only just begun, so I hope to dig a bit deeper into these topics with my students. But I also hope to start some dialogue with the wider world, because we all could stand to be a little kinder to ourselves, and to see ourselves as beautiful.

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When a friend shared a link to Why We Care About Other People’s Sex Lives, a look at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality, I was skeptical. As I’ve ranted about to anyone who will listen, I have a hate-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology and related fields such as literary Darwinism. They’re just so… essentializing. Ugh.

But the above-linked article caught my interest. The author looks at a number of recent studies about how people judge casual sex. In one instance: “Even after controlling for variables like age, religiosity, and political affiliation, the study authors found that people who saw female financial dependence on men as more common were also more likely to negatively judge promiscuity in both sexes.” Why does this occur? I’m not inclined to go with the evo psych reductionist reasoning that women are less horny than men but simultaneously more calculating; instead, I’d like to draw some parallels between sexual and economic principles.

What do sexual morality and financial dependence have in common? The concept of limited good. As folklorist Alan Dundes explains in this interview about evil eye beliefs: “The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of ‘limited good.’ There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Dundes goes on to argue that expressive culture (in this case, folk belief about the evil eye) reflects a society’s underlying worldview of paradigm about economic exchange.

So when we have an economic system that commodifies certain kinds of social and sexual interactions (such as marriage) by directly tying them to one’s ability to survive and thrive, it’s not surprising to see that same attitude reflected in a society’s sexual attitudes. The fear about not enough potential (and desirable) spouses to go around (hence not enough access to married-life-resources) affects beliefs about sexual practices, turning sex into a commodity when really, it doesn’t have to be that way. We know from the non-monogamous emotion of compersion (feeling joy when someone else feels joy) that it’s possible to react to sharing your partner with another with positive, constructive emotions rather than destructive, possessive, jealous ones.

I sometimes wonder how sexual behaviors and stereotypes will change in my utopian vision of the future, wherein we move from a limited good economy to one where marriage isn’t required to obtain health insurance, citizenship, or other concrete goods. Will sex ever be de-commodified? I’m not sure, but I hope we move more in that direction.

Oh, and there’s another, simpler idea that I’d like to extract from the essay on sexual morality: the notion that a society’s attitudes about sexuality can (and perhaps should) change over time. The authors of Sex at Dawn (which I review here) also implicitly explore this concept. What I like about the idea that attitudes about sex are always evolving is that it recognizes that sexual behavior is always culturally constructed. Our ideas about sex are always changing due to a confluence of various factors: the ways in which we have sex change, our social paradigms (some of which explicitly relate to sex) change, and our scientific understanding of sexual functioning is always evolving too.

Basically, there’s always been an amazing diversity of sexual practices throughout human history. In my mind, that’s as it should be. There is no one way to have sex. There is no universal, monolithic meaning of sex. The only thing that’s universal about sex – other than it happening to continue humankind’s existence on this world – is that I believe sex should be considered among the list of universal human rights.

So, let’s keep up the dialogue about sex and society. Hopefully a greater understanding of how these paradigms intersect and influence one another will lead to more tolerance and progressive social change.

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Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo(photo by Curtis Claspell)

Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo
(photo by Curtis Claspell)

If you haven’t already, go read Part 1 of this post in which I discuss various issues such as the multiethnic/multicultural origins of belly dance, why belly dance has political implications in both the West and the East, and why this is a complicated topic that shouldn’t be handled in a simplistically ignorant and racist way like the original Salon post author did.

Now that you’re caught up, let’s turn to the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing. I’m aware that there’s a large body of scholarship out there on this topic, but here I’m relying more on work on privilege.

As I established in my first post, cultures come into contact and borrow from one another. It’s just what they do. Ask any anthropologist, folklorist, or historian, and we’ll tell you that cultures are dynamic rather than static. We’ll tell you about the concept of “invented traditions,” which really applies to every tradition, since they all had to start somewhere. From engagement rings to Thanksgiving dinner, every tradition a culture has got its start at a definite point in time, and from then on accrued meaning and significance to that culture, sometimes to the point of people not being able to imagine life without it. Belly dance is, as you might’ve guessed, an invented tradition. Why it became so meaningful is simultaneously kinda arbitrary (why do some art forms thrive while others don’t?) and also revealing as to the values of these various cultures.

In my mind, the questions we as Western belly dancers should be tackling are: where does belly dancing fall in the borrowing-appropriation spectrum? How does Western (and perhaps, PERHAPS white) privilege play into this? And how can we respectfully listen to the claims of others while defending our rights as global citizens to partake in art forms that appeal to us?

First, I think it’s important to note that appropriation occurs within a power imbalance. There are few components to this:

  • When the transferred item or genre is sacred and it is taken out of that context and put into a secular one, we’re probably looking at cultural appropriation, not borrowing. See: appropriation of Native American cultures. (related: Jezebel has a pretty good take on this issue, specifically using Native American examples)
  • When the borrowing culture operates on stereotypes of the original culture, stereotypes that are detrimental and affect real people’s lives, we’re probably dealing with cultural appropriation. See: blackface.
  • When the borrowed-from culture is a minority that remains powerless politically and voiceless culturally, and thus no reciprocal exchange is possible, we’re looking at appropriation. See: depictions of Gypsies/Roma.

Now let’s look at Westerners who belly dance and see how these criteria fit. First, belly dance is not sacred in most of the contemporary and historical cultural contexts in which it originates (whew, lotta qualifiers there, see how complex this phenomenon is?!). Belly dance is a social dance, performed in various situations by different groupings of people, from informal women-only gatherings, to wedding parties, to formal entertainers in dining establishments. So, I don’t feel there’s any evidence that Western belly dancers are polluting something sacred here.

Do Western belly dancers promote stereotypes of Middle Easterners? Possibly. A lot of art involves highly refined aesthetic forms, which do carry the possibility of stereotype and caricature. But that’s one big reason I’m drawn to American Tribal Style® Belly Dance – it’s syncretic on purpose. We’re not trying to emulate any single tribe or culture out there; we’re making our own urban tribe, coming together as a community on our own terms. Our movements borrow from Spanish flamenco and Indian classical dance as well as Middle Eastern folkloric dances. Our costumes draw from disparate cultures as well (including our own – there’re a ton of fabulous body mods to be seen in ATS, from tattoos to piercings), so we’re not mimicking any one existing culture. So tribal and tribal fusion dancing helps me navigate this facet of the issue; I’m not sure how other belly dancers handle it.

Are Middle Eastern dancers helpless and voiceless in this debate? Obviously not, as the original Salon blogger has demonstrated. I hope this doesn’t sound too flippant, but it’s a public part of their culture that they display at home and abroad – if it had been secret, or spiritual, that might have been different. It’s not like we wrested it from their innermost sanctuaries and profaned it by bringing it out into the open. Instead, representatives of these various Middle Eastern brought the dance over to the U.S. (and other countries) when they immigrated here. They shaped it, and continue to do so. They get some of our stuff (like language) and we get some of their stuff (like dance). Is there still a power dynamic? Unfortunately, yes. Orientalism is alive and well. We’re still wading through the effects of colonial powers in the Middle East and the rest of the world. That stuff ain’t fun. But I don’t think learning about another culture through dance is the most offensive thing out there when it comes to navigating these tensions.

…Which brings me to my final point. If you are completely oblivious to the fact that your engagement with another culture could potentially be causing harm (even if it’s simply perceived harm, like emotional upset, without a “real” physical component), then you are operating from a place of privilege. I know privilege can be a sticky topic, but I like these two web comics which demystify it without shaming or blaming. I also have written about privilege and its gendered dynamics here, and how good intentions can still cause harm here.

Okay, back to the intersection of privilege with cultural appropriation! I really like this Everyday Feminism blog post about navigating privilege, in which the author states: “We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.”

So, because I recognize that I come from a place of Western privilege and white privilege, I have to acknowledge that maybe my actions are doing harm to others, but that harm is imperceptible to me. I have to admit that I could be wrong, and I have to be open to listening respectfully to the views of those who feel that they were wronged. I have to understand that the negativity is likely not about me personally, but rather the systemic injustices that I happen to benefit from, and which are being repeated in my blithe borrowing without acknowledging the historical circumstances that shape the exchange. G. Willow Wilson asks Western dancers to keep in mind that, when performing belly dance, they have a moral obligation “to look that privilege steadily in the face.” I think that’s a great starting place. But so is a reasoned and researched examination of the issues at stake, which I have tried to provide in this blog post series.

Even with all these factors to consider, I don’t think Westerners performing belly dance is the most egregious form of cultural appropriation out there. I think it is a borrowing and an exchange more than an appropriation. I think there is room for critique, and there is room for positive change. I think the original Salon author is entitled to her feelings (because an important component of recognizing one’s privilege is recognizing that you don’t get to tell other people what they have a right to feel), though I also think she misunderstands the diversity and complexity of belly dance both in history and in contemporary times.

While most belly dancers are, I believe, already engaging with these issues, I’m hoping that it opens the wider public up to these kinds of discussions. I hope they look beyond the harmful “harem girl” fantasy associated with belly dance – harmful to all women, regardless of skin color – to get a sense of the dance’s richness, variations, and textures. Further, I hope that Western dancers will be a bit more thoughtful about what we borrow, and how, and from whom – and also what we give back.

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Photo by Curtis Claspell

Me, a “white” belly dancer      Photo by Curtis Claspell

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment on that infamous Salon post, Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers, but I thought I would add my perspective as a folklorist and a (white-ish-I-guess) belly dancer.

One of my first reactions was along the lines of: um, are there no “white” people in the Middle East? How are we defining whiteness? Do Jews (which would include my ancestors) count? This response by Yessenia emphasizes the arbitrariness of ethnic categories, pointing out that a lot of well-known belly dancers might look like white impostors, but they’re actually of Lebanese, Egyptian, or Turkish descent.

As a folklorist, and as someone who’s actually done some research on the history of belly dancing, I know that this form of expressive culture – like many others – is transnational. Cultures have always come into contact and have always exchanged folklore, whether stories or dances or foods. This isn’t to say that there’s no power imbalance in the exchange (there usually is), but rather that this phenomenon is as old as humanity itself.

The ridiculousness of saying “X ethnicity shouldn’t practice Y art form” has already been mocked in The Washington Post. Besides, there have been Western influences on belly dance, so it’s sorta ours too. As Nazneen points out in her blog post A “brown” dancer responds to “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” contemporary belly dance “was shaped by Mahmoud Reda, an Egyptian dancer who popularized Egyptian folk dance for the stage by blending it with Western ballet. (Interestingly, he was inspired by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, by his own admission).” Determining the true origin of an expressive culture form is a knotty problem, as folklorists know, so I always like to remind people of how complex these questions are.

And the origins of belly dance are pretty complex. Quoted in The Atlantic, Dr. Ruth Webb, an expert in performance during antiquity, states: “with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century.” Very old. Multiethnic (even pre-Arab, by some accounts). You get the idea.

And yet because of the Salon author’s focus on essentializing and universalizing race/ethnicity, she misses a valuable opportunity to critique the colonialist, imperialist, and orientalist problems with belly dance in both the East and the West. Autumn Ward’s response to the piece cogently points out: “For Egyptian women from the Muslim Arab cultural majority, dance is simply not a respectable profession, so dancing professionally is not an option. This is a firmly entrenched cultural attitude that predates current conservative politics by centuries.” In other words, Egyptian society has made it unacceptable for women (and in many cases, men – read some Anthony Shay!) to take up belly dancing without being accused of also being a sex worker. This is a problem of local politics/beliefs, but then outsiders are blamed for wanting to perform a dance because they aren’t held to the same standards? Hm. This is my skeptical face.

G. Willow Wilson also points out some of the political implications of Westerners borrowing belly dance when she writes: “When you shimmy around a stage in a hip band and call yourself Aliya Selim and receive praise and encouragement, while the real Aliya Selims are shortening their names to Ally and wondering if their accent is too strong to land that job interview, if the boss will look askance at their headscarf, if the kids at school are going to make fun of their children, guess what: you are exercising considerable privilege.” There is a hostile, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment in many parts of the West right now, and belly dancers should be informed and possibly even active about these topics, just as we educate ourselves about the cultures framing the dance when it’s performed “over there.”

On the whole, I agree with professional dancer and Middle Eastern scholar Asharah‘s take in her essay, I’m A White Woman and I Belly Dance, in which she writes:

“What this article wants to be is about imperialism and power. It wants to be an article about the domination of the ‘West’ over the Middle East. It wants to take a jab at the exploitation of Western powers (read: British, French, and American) of the Middle East and its people. It wants to be an article about Orientalism. It wants to be about white privilege in the United States.  All of these topics are valid and should be discussed…But, as a means for bridging gaps of understanding between the Arab world and ‘white people,’ it fails. It fails because of its own racism, sweeping generalizations, and bigotry.”

Bingo. As artists and world citizens, we ought to be open to discussions about the political implications of cultural borrowings. But as belly dancer and artist Tempest writes in her post Nobody’s Right If Everybody’s Wrong, what tends to happen in these discussions is people stating, “it doesn’t matter who you are/where you come from/what you say/how you say it: you are wrong, so shut up. Which doesn’t empower or help anyone.”

I agree that there does need to be room to address the grievances raised in this debate, and obviously it’s not my place to tell someone that they’re wrong to be offended and that their feelings aren’t valid. As far as how to productively have that kind of conversation, well, that’s coming up in Part 2!

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