folklore

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Painting by Edwin Henry Landseer, in public domain. You get the reference, I hope.

Welcome to another tongue-in-cheek post about folklore studies pet peeves. This one is about how to approach the study of fairy tales from a perspective that is, well, not dick-ish.

First, we have to clear up the misconception that just because something is in public domain, or has been widely experienced, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s qualified to talk about it in a scholarly fashion. I’ve found this phenomenon occurring about folklore in general (see my blog post on the topic) and also about fairy tales specifically. So, even if you’ve seen every Disney movie and even started to poke around the scholarly web a bit (not that there’s anything wrong with, say, SurLaLune and Dr. Ashliman’s folk-texts, but they’re starting points for further research the same way Wikipedia is), please consider taking some of the suggestions in this blog post.

Next, please be aware of existing folklore scholarship on fairy tales. As my colleague Will Pooley points out, “folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales.” We’ve “developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.” So I guess it’s not a big surprise, given this reporting trend, that a lot of folks come away with the impression that you can blithely say whatever you want about fairy tales and folklore.

For example, I wrote about hearing a conference paper on “Cinderella” that ignored all existing folklore scholarship on the tale type. This exemplifies my two previous points – someone thinking they’re qualified to present scholarship on fairy tales because I don’t even know why, and ignoring existing folklore scholarship – but in addition, the author got defensive when I politely pointed out that maaaaybe their methodology needed some work.

Snark aside, here are some ideas for how to not draw the ire of folklorists and fairy-tale scholars if you want to come play in our sandbox.

  • Cull the phrase “the original” from your language. Just do it. In a handful of instances, we can identify the first time a fairy-tale plot or motif appeared, as is the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s literary tales (because his “The Little Mermaid” was the first text with its particular synthesis of mermaid motifs from legend, fairy-tale elements like the quest for love, and so on, and it went on to inspire future versions). But mostly, because of the dense interconnection between fairy tales and folklore/oral tradition, it’s impossible to say when a given tale was the ACTUAL first time something appeared, and not just the first time somebody happened to write it down.
  • Be aware of some of the main methods and theories for studying fairy tales. If you are absolutely undeterred from studying origins, for example, make sure you’re familiar with the historic-geographic/Finnish method. If you’re into structuralism, read Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (bonus points for chasing down Bengt Holbek’s simplification of Propp’s 31 narrative functions into 5 moves). Learn what a tale type is. For psychological approaches, get your hands on some of Alan Dundes’s work, because while he’s biased toward the Freudian side of things, he’ll at least mention some of the Jungian stuff out there (I summarize some of the symbolic approaches to fairy tales in my master’s thesis). Max Lüthi’s work does a great job explaining the literary and stylistic qualities of fairy tales. For Marxist approaches you’ve GOT to read Jack Zipes, and for feminist approaches, Donald Haase’s edited volume is a fine start. Heck, we even have digital approaches to fairy tales these days!
  • Make sure you cite existing fairy-tale scholars and scholarship. That includes those of us still alive and kicking, not just references to the greats of the last century. Pick a handful from this list, and acquire their books and articles (many are available in the journal Marvels & Tales, which you can buy issues of or read online from a university computer): Jack Zipes, Donald Haase, Maria Tatar, Cristina Bacchilega, and Marina Warner. Some of my colleagues are doing great work editing and making accessible the work of others, like Pauline Greenhill, Jill Terry Rudy, and Kay Turner, with their own work appearing too in excellent volumes like Transgressive Tales and Channeling Wonder. There are some folks in my cohort of younger scholars doing great work as well. Not all of us have books out yet, but look for our blog posts and journal articles: Claudia Schwabe, Christy Williams, Veronica Schanoes, Linda Lee, Adam Zolkover, Brittany Warman, Sara Cleto, and, of course, myself. Most of these are my American colleagues; I could go on about fairy-tale scholars and folklorists in other countries!

These are just the suggestions off the top of my head; I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks who should be included. The field of fairy-tale studies has a centuries-long history, with its own internal vocabulary, paradigms, and debates. If you plan to play in our sandbox, please familiarize yourself with our history. It’s only polite… and it makes you that much more likely to be taken seriously by us.

Fairy-tale scholarship is a thriving, complex, wondrous field. It is at once highly intellectual and confoundingly creative. We’re working at the intersections of folklore, pop culture, and literature, and with theoretical concerns ranging from psychological symbolism to feminism to aesthetics. If you want to come play with us, please do – but tread as respectfully as you would if interacting with actual fairies. I’m not saying we’re quite that temperamental, but, well, we also get cranky when people come uninvited into our territory and starting flinging their uninformed selves around.

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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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Dressed for the academic classroom, posed in front of my voluminous bookshelves.

I’ve had this website for a few years now, and the tagline at the top of the site has always been: “Jeana Jorgensen, PhD. Folklorist, Writer, Dancer.”

Now that’s changed.

The three main words haven’t changed. I may not be seeking full-time employment in academia anymore, but I haven’t stopped being a folklore scholar. In fact, just last month I attended a small working symposium on digital trends in fairy-tale scholarship. I’m a little cranky (to put it mildly) in the general direction of academia right now… but being a folklorist is too ingrained into my identity for me to ever give up identifying as such. It influences how I understand the world around me, how I learn, and how I teach.

Similarly, I’ve been dancing for over half my life, and I plan to dance for the rest of it. I now direct a professional troupe, Indy Tribal, and I’ve learned tons from my students about trust and teaching. Dance is somewhere between a hobby that pays for itself (YAY) and an all-consuming passion, and as such it’s an essential part of my identity.

I’ve grappled more with the title of “writer” than the previous two. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in 4th grade, but I gave up writing fiction and poetry (my primary two loves) in favor of nailing nonfiction skills in grad school. And it worked. I wrote and published a lot. Recently, though, I’ve been getting back into the idea of writing more for pleasure, and returning to some of my early ideas about writing. But no matter what I’m writing, or for which audience, writing has been a constant in my life. I write for myself in the form of journals; I write for various blogs; I write endless to-do lists; I write scholarly articles. It’s a part of me at this point.

Now, however, I’m adding the tagline of (Sex) Educator to this website. I have a separate site devoted to my sex education work, but I want this site, which is my main web presence, to reflect that this is a part of my identity too.

See, I didn’t set out to become an educator of any sort, let alone a sex educator, but it’s evolved into a huge part of my identity, and it’s time I recognized that.

I’ve become a person who will have a conversation about rape culture with just about anyone, in the hopes that even though it’s an emotionally fatiguing topic, maybe someone will reach a new understanding of it. I’ve decided to keep adjuncting in large part because even though it’s exploitative labor, I love teaching too much to remove that venue from my life. I teach dance two and sometimes three nights a week, much to the consternation of my life partner and anyone else who likes to see me socially, because I just can’t get enough of it. I educate on gender and sexuality topics for little to no pay more than I should, not just because I’m still establishing myself in the field and am taking those pay-in-prestige opportunities for exposure (mixed bag because of undecutting, I know), but also because  this knowledge is too damn important to not be sharing at every chance.

This is why I’ve added “Educator” to the site tagline, with “Sex” in parentheses. I’m an educator who also happens to be a sex educator. I love making knowledge and concepts accessible and relevant… and I’m particularly good at unpacking the tangled mess of gender, sex, and sexuality, thanks in part to my upbringing. At one time, with only a few years of sex education blogging under my belt, I balked at calling myself a sex educator. Now? I embrace the title.

Anyway, I’m still deciding if I visually like the addition of (Sex) Educator to my website header, but I’m probably going to keep some version of it. It’s been neat reflecting on the process of getting here!

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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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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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