Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fakelore, urban legends, and ethnic stereotypes

The term fakelore was coined in 1950 by American folklorist Richard M. Dorson
Fakelore comprises a vast repertoire of invented stories, songs, legends, persons, and artifacts presented as if they were genuinely traditional. The term can refer to new items made up out of whole cloth, or to folklore that is reworked and modified for modern tastes. In principle, the elements of inauthenticity and misrepresentation are central. However, the artists and storytellers who transmit the fakelore motifs may not be aware of their dubious origins.

As an example Dorson cited the fictional cowboy Pecos Bill, ostensibly a folk hero of the American West, but actually invented in 1923 by the writer Edward J. O'Reilly. More controversially, Dorson regarded Paul Bunyan as fakelore. He conceded that Bunyan originated as a character in traditional tales told by loggers in the Great Lakes region of North America. Yet an ad writer working for the Red River Lumber Company invented many of the stories about him that are known today. According to Dorson, advertisers and popularizers turned Bunyan into a "pseudo-folk hero of twentieth-century mass culture" who bears little resemblance to the original.

The fate of Paul Bunyan shows how fakelore elements may be coopted by commercial interests. The tourist industry often finds such inventions lucrative. The Kensington runestone is a roughly rectangular slab of greywacke covered in runes on its face and side. Its origin and meaning have been disputed ever since it was found in 1898 near Kensington, Minnesota. If authentic, the stone would prove that Scandinavian explorers reached the heart of North America in the fourteenth century. The preponderance of opinion holds that it is a forgery. However, this finding has not prevented a cluster of motels and other businesses from adopting it as a magnet to lure tourists to this part of rural Minnesota.

Some fakelore may serve to advance the interests and self-consciousness of various groups. For example, some feminists have embraced Wiccan lore, with its stories, festivals, and rituals. A number of Wiccan, Neopagan, and even some "Traditionalist" or "Tribalist" groups cherish spurious "Grandmother Stories." These usually involve initiation by a grandmother, grandfather, or other elderly relative who is said to have instructed them in the arcana of the immemorial traditions of their ancestors. As this "secret wisdom" has almost always been traced to recent sources, or been quite obviously concocted even more recently, most proponents of these stories have eventually admitted they made them up. More broadly, scholars have shown that the stories and observances of the currently fashionable Neopagans have only a tenuous connection with the religious practices of old Europe.

A recent controversy has brought into question the authenticity of a legend concerning African American quilts made during slave days. Purportedly, these were created with motifs indicating ways of traveling along the Underground Railroad. The white masters would take the quilt motifs as merely decorative and abstract, while to the makers and their kin they conveyed a powerful message. For ourselves, these artifacts attest to a noble tradition of African American resistance. The quilt story stems from a 1999 book Hidden in Plain View by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard. Unfortunately, there seems to be no truth to the legend, even though many quilts have been made recently utilizing the spurious visual motifs..

Stagolee (a.k.a. Stackerlee, Stack O'Lee, Stack-a-Lee) was an African American outlaw whose career was immortalized in a blues folk song, which has been recorded in hundreds of different versions. The legend, apparently based on a real person, was the subject of much embroidery. Although Stagolee was a murder, he is also shown as shrewd and powerful person who stands up for his own rights.

As these examples show, the stories elaborated by members of ethnic and other groups historically subject to discrimination are generally positive. The other side of the coin consists of the myths and fabrications generated by the host society in order to buttress their inferiorization of a particular minority or social group.

Blood libels against the Jews were a common vehicle of anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages, though there is no ritual involving human blood in Jewish law or custom. The first recorded instance was in the writings of the Greek grammarian Apion (first century C.E.), who claimed that the Jews sacrificed Greek victims in the Temple. Then the historical record falls silent, resuming with the story of the boy William of Norwich, first recorded in the Peterborough Chronicle (twelfth century). The libel afterward became an increasingly common accusation. In many cases, these anti-Semitic legends served as the basis for a blood libel cult, in which the alleged victim of human sacrifice was worshipped as a Christian martyr. Other hostile myths have Jews poisoning wells and profaning the Host. One such story, shown in a number of prints, even shows medieval Jews worshipping pigs.

Over the centuries Western society has generated a series of myths and fabrications to justify hatred of homosexuals. Dating from the time of Justinian in the sixth century C.E. is a legend that homosexuals cause natural disasters. Originally earthquakes were cited. Several years ago, however, Pat Robertson alleged that God had sent a hurricane to devastate Disneyworld in Florida because the amusement park had dared to permit Gay Days.

A common contemporary urban legend concerns gerbils. Ostensibly gay men take such animals and remove their claws and teeth. They then insert them into the anus, where injury results. Typically, a friend of some friend or relative, who happened to be an orderly at a hospital, is claimed to have observed this. The ultimate function of this sinister fiction is to affirm that gay men are irresponsible hedonists, inveterate risk takers, and seekers of momentary satisfactions to the neglect of long-term interests.

One of the most persistent myths that have gained a foothold in the gay movement is the belief that "faggot" derives from the basic meaning of "bundle of sticks used to light a fire," with the historical commentary that when witches were burned at the stake, "only presumed male homosexuals were considered low enough to help kindle the fires." Since there is no historical record of such use, this story is a myth. In fact, the use of the term faggot derives from the earlier meaning of a “slatternly woman.” See the discussion in my companion blog

The faggot story differs from the other two (featuring disasters and gerbils) because it owes its survival to repetition by gay people themselves. Fifty years ago some psychiatrists held that gay men were particularly given to “injustice collecting.” Their widespread adoption of the faggot myth may be an example of such behavior.

Although the matter of internalized homophobia has been much debated, it does seem that gay people have particular issues regarding self-esteem. In former times (though this is diminishing now) bitter queens dispensed a kind of self-loathing that could appear to be clever, but which was also demeaning. Even today it is common to hear gay people describing themselves as flighty, affected, superficial, irresponsible, and heedlessly pleasure-seeking. One of the reasons its supporters have advanced for gay marriage has been that access to this institution would reduce “promiscuity,” widely regarded as a problem.

There is no doubt that gay people have made many advances in integrating into society over the past fifty years. As this process continues we may expect to see a gradual diinution of self-contempt. Unfortunately, though, certain motifs, such as the ideas of disaster-bringing, the gerbil legend, and the faggot story, may linger.


Blogger Bruce said...


It is, of course, lamentable that gays help perpetrate homophobic myths, but it should really not be surprising. Most persecuted groups come to believe, at least in part, and, as you point out, perpetrate the negative streotypes generated about them.

But a group doesn't even have to have been to object of persecution to believe and adopt negative stereotypes; living in Italy, I frequently have to convince my Italian friends that the streotypes circulated about Italians, that they are prone to corruption, undisciplined, are cowards, etc. have little basis in reality.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous RCE said...

Stereotypes help one gain an understanding of something that is more complex than what it seems. They are based on easily perceptible and reactionable traits of a group. One, of course, never encounters a whole group unless one lives is in a society that is composed of only a few individuals. Stereotypes are based on encounters with an individual or more that one believes represents the group, so they are not entirely baseless. They are not entirely useless either in that they help create group identity whatever than maybe. Everyone's idea of another group is more likely a stereotype, if not a caricature, of the group. We keep on making, reproducing, appropriating, and using them. We can never do away with them because we 'do' them, and call them into question only when we have reasons to do so, whatever they maybe.

6:02 PM  

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