Gender and Folklore. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

The traditional cultural expression of maleness and femaleness. In folklore, gender is
expressed in interpersonal, familial, and communal behavior; public and private ritual;
speech and song; music; foodways; costume; vernacular architecture and domestic space;
and religious and other forms of belief (medical, political, and the like). Men and women
may have particular physical attributes that distinguish them as human beings, but their
biological forms are not the sole constituents of their gender. Gender also consists of the
social construction of sexual identity within a particular cultural context. Categories of
gender are culturally defined, shaped, and imbued with significance and sets of
expectations. Gender, therefore, is a central organizing category for experience; it
emerges at various times and in various situations as a salient marker by which people
identify themselves. It is one of the basic ways in which people encounter and interpret
the world as individuals and differentiate community membership.
Folklore, as the expressive elements of a culture, not only manifests, but also helps
construct and determine rules, behaviors, and ideas within particular cultures relating to
mens and women’s sense of themselves and their interrelationships. Specific folkloric
activities can be recognized as distinguishing markers of gender within a given culture. In
fact, expressive forms (for example, speech acts, material culture, and customary
behavior) are almost always particularly gendered. In the United States, midwifery,
women’s laments, quilting, gossiping, foodways, altar making, narrating personal
experiences, ballad singing, egg decorating, experiencing Marian apparitions, recounting
prophetic visions of Mormon women, and private home liturgizing are often considered
by both the general public and folklorists as spheres of American female creative activity,
while the occupations and lore of lumberjacks, firefighters, truck drivers, policemen,
race-car drivers, cowboys, and rodeo riders; fraktur painting; “hex”-sign painting; decoy
carving; ship building; stone and wood carving; fox hunting, joke telling; preaching
styles; toasting; and “doing the dozens” are usually perceived as spheres of American
male creative activity.
In American society, gender roles are reinforced by various forms of cultural
expression, including television, radio, cinema, theater, music, newspapers, magazines,
and billboards. The roles that American culture generates and reinforces create a situation
of single-sex, specifically male, domination through idealized notions of gender.
Historically, there has been resistance from women to these idealized roles. The feminist
movement in North America has called attention to what women consider male
dominance and an androcentric perspective within everyday life and academic
scholarship. In an effort to equalize the power available to both sexes and to bring
women’s voices into public discourse, gender scholars have launched a critique of the
role of gender in American culture. Gender for them is located fundamentally within a set
of power relations. This critique has led folklorists to a greater consideration of the
potential of gender as an identifiable, defining and analyzable category in their fieldwork.
Feminist folklorists have argued that patriarchal structures, hegemony, and
pedagogical agendas, all informed by gender, have facilitated the exclusion of specific
expressive forms from the discipline. Studies of femininity and masculinity and
hierarchies within occupational, leisure, religious, family, private, and public culture have
led to a reevaluation of the field of folklore and folklife as informed by a new
conceptualization of gender. This new scholarly orientation has led to an expansion of
what should be considered significant forms of folklore. For example, gossip, which was
once considered a trivial and insignificant feminine speech act, has been recognized by
folklorists as a uniquely female collaborative device in women’s everyday lives as
opposed to male hierarchical ways of speaking. Additionally, the personal-experience
narrative has also been identified as a gendered form of communication in America,
meaning that within this genre, first identified in the 1970s, there are male and female
ways of communicating such narratives. While men tell stories that bear similarities to
“tall tales” told for entertainment value, women’s personal-experience narratives are told
for instructional purposes.
Work has also been done on the contestative potential within the traditional religion of
Pentecostal women pastors in the Midwest. These women use their skills of oral
performance to outline their “calling” to serve the community as pastors. This
presentation of self allows them to break with the traditional admonition of
fundamentalist Christianity that women not concern themselves directly with church
affairs. These women are wresting religious power from a socio-religious context that
traditionally denies their full participation. As such, their activity is a criticism of that
order and its culture of denial to women. It is also, strangely enough, a confirmation of
the spirit of Pentecostalism, because these women, as living exceptions to the rule,
possess both an ability and the blessing from their God to preach and be pastors to their
Within the folklife of the American people, there are identifiable traditions that
dichotomize gender, creating standards of culturally expected behavior for men and
women. Specifically, within ritualized life-cycle events there are clear expectations about
gender roles. A rich example of the social and cultural reinforcement of gender can be found within traditions surrounding
American wedding ceremonies. The cultural construction of gender can be seen in the
“customs” that surround public and private marriage events. Traditionally, the
participation of the bride’s family and the groom’s family is shaped by gender, and it
reflects the expected “roles” of the marrying couple. Throughout the planning of the
wedding, various sources such as family members, clergy and odier religious
professionals, etiquette books, and “bride magazines” are influential in providing details
regarding expected cultural behaviors. The serenading by the groom on the eve of the
wedding, the duty of hosting the rehearsal dinner, the “dollar dance” with the bride at the
wedding reception (where a guest gives a dollar to the bride in exchange for a dance), the cutting of the cake, the throwing of the bouquet, and removing the garter from the bride
are traditions specific to the American ethnic wedding that are focused on a particular
gender. Within religious wedding rituals, there remains in American weddings a strong
emphasis on gender and cultural expectations that were received from various regional
and ethnic bridal customs. For example, based on European Christian bridal custom,
often the father of the bride or a close male relative “gives away” the bride, walking her
down the center aisle at the beginning of the religious ceremony in the church and giving
her at the altar to the man who is to be her husband. In traditional Roman Catholic
ceremonies, the bride can also be presented to the Virgin Mary at her altar while the
congregation prays for her to be a good wife and mother.
Another traditional activity associated with customary gendered behavior and “folk”
religion in the United States is the creation by women of “holy corners” and home altars
as places of honor within the domestic environment. Within the Christian tradition, this
custom has been particularly associated with women as they create a site in their homes
for intercessory prayer. On a covered table, in a nook, or even on top of a television set,
through an assemblage of religious images such as mass-produced small prints, self-made
and decorated images, statues, rosaries, photographs of loved ones, flowers, and votive
candles, the woman expresses the vitality of her faith and its connection to her family and
community life. Home-altar building, however, is also a significant aspect of American
religious life outside of the Christian context, as demonstrated, for example, by the
practices of contemporary paganism and witchcraft, or Wicca. In these cases, both
women and men independently construct their own sacred spaces for spiritual and ritual
purposes, assembling them from a variety of perceived religious objects from nature,
family, and the cosmos. There is a quality to these sacred spaces specifically relevant to
the gender of the creators. Still, the activity of creating altars from an assemblage of
unrelated objects is not gender specific, but is an expressive form shared by both men and
The activity of making something out of nothing takes place for both men and women
in the private as well as the public sphere. For example, evidence of a male public folk
aesthetic has been observed by folklorists in the craftsmanship of the community of
Italian American stone masons who built and decorated many of the public buildings
found in the United States. Stonecutters, stonemasons, and woodworkers are all excellent
examples of men engaged in the process of producing public artifacts, the skills for which
have been passed on to them because of their gender. Men and women, consequently,
have access to different traditions of information based on their gender. Men traditionally
take apprenticeships to carve stone, lay bricks, and fit pipes, while women are
traditionally taught to embroider in the home, or learn to roll pierogies within the context
of the Slavic American parish community.
The community or public emphasis of women’s creative activity is manifest most
clearly in foodways in the United States, where the production and consumption of food
is often organized in gender-specific ways. Foodways is a realm of activity traditionally
associated with female culture. Oriented toward the family and community, women are
socialized to express their creativity, status, and location in the household through the
medium of food. Gender roles can be seen at the center of the home economy and relate
directly to the division of labor within it. For example, in a Tejano (Mexican Americans
in Texas) migrant-worker community, women call on the financial, familial, cultural, and social resources of their community to prepare a labor-intensive meal of tamales for their
husbands. The activity of producing volumes of tamales as a community of women
reinforces family ties and simultaneously affirms the identity of this community as an ethnic group in the United States.
A problematical aspect of the folkloristic study of gender has been discerning those
less clearly defined occasions of traditional cultural activity in which both genders
participate. Some spheres of creativity are very clearly defined while others are fluid,
shared by each gender, and engage each other in a dialogue of sorts. Urban legends, rap
songs, recitations, joking, cross-dressing, tattooing, body piercing, graffiti, photocopied
and computer-based texts, and other forms of traditional and contemporary folklore are
being perceived in a new light. For example, customary behaviors such as male “stag”
parties are mirrored in the bachelorette parties and “Chippendale Clubs” (in which male
exotic dancers perform) that emerged in the 1970s in response to, and as the counterpart
of, the traditionally male bachelor party. Similarly, shared forms of gendered socializing
are found in leisure occasions at college and university fraternities and sororities at which
lengthy repertoires of drinking songs are circulated, the content of which is often
explicitly sexual.
Any consideration of folklore forms shared by men and women necessitates the
consistent questioning and deconstructing of traditional gender dichotomies that are
continuously present in the American experience and interpretation of reality. A primary
example of blurred gender and sexual boundaries can be found in the complex culture of
the American gay and lesbian community. This community tests the limits of America’s
understanding of gender expectations by engaging in expressive forms of speech, dress,
action, and body movement that traditionally have been assigned by members of the
opposite sex to each other. Gay men accentuate specific qualities associated with male
gender roles especially in social contexts where they encounter other gay males, such as a
“leather” bar. They can also invert such masculinity and denigrate feminine qualities
through the use of camp behavior. A particularly rich example of the blurring of gender
boundaries can be found in the American gay and lesbian community’s support of the
Names Project/AIDS Quilt. The creation of this quilt to commemorate those individuals
who have died because of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) involves the
participants in an activity commonly recognized as a female domain—quilting. The quilt
purposely creates a memorial primarily for men that is transient in nature. The organic
nature of the quilt perfectly accommodates the potentially unending numbers of deaths of
community members from the disease. In this case, a gendered sphere was borrowed by a
man, Cleve Jones, using a female expressive form to memorialize and personalize the
loss of life. The medium of this memorial tests the expectations Americans may have
about the materials used, the stability of location, and the accessibility of a memorial to
Americans who have died in a battle. As the number of AIDS deaths has grown, the quilt
has changed to represent males and females, homosexuals and heterosexuals, with gender
being superseded by the experience of disease.
The intersection of other markers of human identification such as race and class with
gender has emerged as problematic for the contemporary folklorist. The folkloristic
representation of a group simply on the basis of gender is difficult if not impossible
because of the possibility of these other factors influencing and even superseding gender.
Fieldworkers are increasingly aware of the difficulty of representing people even if they
share the same sex or sexual orientation. The Fieldworkers’ academic status naturally
infringes upon folklorists’ ability to represent individuals and groups who are in
subordinant positions of power. Gender is inextricably linked to the power differentials
within a particular culture because gender involves the process of defining men and
women. Understanding who dictates that process and how it is worked into the everyday
lives of men and women is especially important for folklorists and all individuals
working on the culture of everyday life. The lesson of the feminist critique that women’s
lives have been erased in past scholarship and need to be rediscovered and celebrated
through ethnographic research does not mean that men’s lives are adequately
characterized by patriarchal stereotypes. The care that needs to be given to the study of
women’s lives and folkloric expressions needs also to be lavished on male culture and
male folklore and folklife to prevent an unreflective view of what actually constitutes the
uniqueness of that culture.
Gender-specific and overtly gendered folklore forms seem to occur within the realm of
material culture and “activity” more than in the domain of oral expressive forms. While
the content of the jokes, stories, and songs told by men and women often differs, the
divergence of genders within material objects of folklore is more clearly defined. Perhaps in the right context, a man or a woman might perform an oral genre, or have knowledge
of an oral genre, regardless of his or her gendered “right” to perform it in the public or
private sphere. However, creating physical evidence of experimentation within a
gendered sphere of activity to which one is not culturally privileged, such as whittling,
quilting, or beadwork, may often be deemed too risky for it may raise issues of gender
competency, critique, and ownership. Consequently, the material genres maintain their
gendered status and characteristics over time.
It is impossible to consider American folklore and folklife, its form, function, or
meaning, without reflecting on the role of gender. The production, maintenance, and
transmission of various American folklore forms are gendered. The ways in which
cultural expectations are constructed and fulfilled speak to the ideology of gender that
communities and individuals create and transmit. Within the North American context
specifically, a process of experimentation about gender that is potentially both radical and
destabilizing has been taking place throughout the 20th century. Folklore forms have
often represented the crossing of traditional gender lines. The future of American
folkloristics in the study of gender lies in exploring the ongoing deconstruction of gender
boundaries and their reformation along new paradigms of male and female identity and
senses of self.
Monica Lawton
Leonard Norman Primiano
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