Cultural Constructs of Gender in Folklore
Cultural Constructs of gendered behavioral ideals are prevalent in nearly every society. Many of these ideals can be traced back to the folkloric traditions of communities, in which both women and men’s defined behavioral standards are reflected in stories and myths. Men are commonly the executive authority in their communities and at home, which is reflected in both the machismo folklore of the Mexican culture and the tales of the Akan. These same relationships between men and women portrayed in these stories have persevered through time, continuing in many of the cultural attitudes and themes we see today. The Folkloric traditions of groups contain cultural constructs of gendered behavior that are still predominant in modern society.
Widely considered to be a fluid concept, the definition of folklore changes according to the circumstances and intent of its use. Its more common usage refers to the collection of beliefs, customs, and stories preserved in individual communities through regular retelling, generally employing a strong oral tradition or the learning of behaviors by example. Other common forms of folklore include mediums such as literature, art, narratives, rituals, and cultural performances. This “embodiment of tradition” is easily accessed and understood by those living in the community. (Roginsky) There are three primary relationships pertaining to the synthesis of folklore and reality. The first is folklore that gives a sense of reality, but which is held to none of the standard natural laws governing it. These types of stories can contain mythical articles such as dragons, unicorns, and enchanted princesses in need of rescuing. The second type of folkloric tale is that of a fictional story spun into the reality of this universe; people and events that didn’t necessarily exist but are portrayed in the same world that we live in. Lastly are the stories of true reality, descriptions of conquests and battles, songs depicting the atrocities of battle and hardships of service, or poetic verses that detail the wonders of the natural world. (Propp)
Historically, folklore has held an uncertain status in the study of culture and society. Many times the negative terms used to describe folkloric tradition, such as primitive, backward, and superstitious were also applied to the people who possessed the culture. On the other hand, words such as simple, pastoral, and close to nature have been put forward invoking an image of a cultural tradition that retains a more noble character. (Roginsky) This oral tradition was an early outlet for creative energy, providing an emotionally cathartic experience through the use of fantasy. Reaffirmation of cultural strengths and norms help bring the youth into the social fold of the community. “The tale may have been a social leveler in the sense that during the performance of the tale, barriers that would separate the sexes, classes, and age groups in other social contexts are broken.” (Opoku-Agyemang)
Influences of idealized gender behavioral roles, as well as the stereotyping of women, has shaped the collection, study, and presentation of folklore. In the early twentieth century, most of the folklore collected about women were witch stories from primarily native male perspectives. “Sometimes women informants were cited, but women seem to have been consulted only if male informants were unavailable or if the material concerned an area thought of as the woman’s prerogative.” (Farrer) During the interview process, many of the women remained quiet, waiting for permission from the men before adding their own voice to the conversation. As time progressed, more folkloric articles were written by and about women, although still limited by themes of marriage, birth, and charms.
Simon de Beauvoir, a French writer, intellectualist and philosopher once wrote that woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man…she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” (Farrer) This gendered ideal is a confining construct for women across space and time. Defining which behaviors are considered appropriate or improper, the influence of gender on the daily functionality of communities plays a prominent role in the assignment of tasks and behaviors in folkloric tradition. This view is a reflection of cultural attitudes towards gender expectations of behavioral standards. (Henken) Generally, women are confined to a much more limited form of socially acceptable behavior than men, with a significantly narrower line to walk in fear of punishment for stepping outside their cultural bounds. Confinement of behaviors has influenced the perception of folklore: Women’s expressions through behavior have long been deemed important to the study and understanding of folkloric tradition but were only considered so when they occurred within the characteristics of the prevailing image of women. (Farrer)
While the word ‘machismo’ has no direct translation into English, the term conveys a sense of strong dominant masculinity. In an effort to further understand this underlying social attitude in the Mexican culture, Manuel Pena, the author of Class, Gender, and Machismo, interviewed a group of undocumented male workers working on an agricultural farm just outside Fresno, California. Many of the men he spoke to regularly called women heartless, referring to them a sexuality derogatory manner in varying degrees. Women are singled out for a particular type of behavior that is illustrated in the folklore of machismo, sometimes portrayed only as a sexual object meant for the conquest and amusement of macho men. Relationships between the two genders seem heavily skewed in favor of man, in which women are “simply part of man’s dominion, to be completely subjected to his will.” (Pena) The men see nothing inappropriate about these values because some believe they are owed it as a composition for any sacrifice they have made. Many men also indicated that the crude jokes directed at women provide them with a better sense of manhood, reaffirming their supremacy.
This culture of male dominance and pride is manifested through sexually derogatory jokes and humor, charritas, that the men share while working in the fields or having drinks after. Although, studies have shown that part of the male feeling of machismo is a sense of respect for the idealized woman. Mothers, sisters, partners, and wives who don’t challenge the structure of male supremacy are afforded a great deal of protectiveness, courtesy, and admiration. Though, the same behaviors that are exemplified in this folkloric code of conduct can cause destruction and violence in these men’s lives. Excessive drinking and celebrations with a sense of absolute abandon can intensify feelings of masculinity leading to greater anger, fighting, accidents, and frequency and intensity of vulgarity in relation to the ‘treacherous-woman.’ (Pena)
Pena puts forward the theory that “the obsession with machismo goes beyond gender domination,” linking the folkloric based male role with problems of class inequality. Indications that men are not unaware of the forces keeping them in poverty are seen in their need to ‘prove they are men,’ thus keeping them in a perpetual state of uncertain economic status, leading to frustration that contributes to the overtly masculine ‘macho’ behavior and insensitivity to the role and status of women. Yielding to the sexist ideology of machismo Mexican male workers struggle to find the support and a political means to an end the exploitation of their position, living, instead, with the same ideals that are depicted in the folkloric traditions of the Mexican people. This submission to set cultural standards of behavior serves the advantages of the ruling class, keeping workers in the limited cultural and behavioral role of the working class that prevents them from forming a balanced relationship between men and women. “It is in this context that folkloric images of heartless deceitful women who drive men to the depths of alcoholic despair play out in their grim, mythic role.” (Pena)
Another set of cultural constructions of gender can be found in the Akan legends of Anansi, a folktale character that is considered to be the “spirit and knowledge of all stories.” Often appearing as a man, Anansi is a central character in a considerable portion of Akan folklore. In her article, Gender-Role Perceptions in the Akan Folktale, Opoku-Agyemang separates the general Akan folktale into five distinct gender relation constructs: marriage, parenthood, work, self-worth, and authority, discussing the variations between the roles of men and women in specific cultural situations.
Anansi is the main focus of the stories, with little emphasis on his wife, whose importance is reliant upon her that of her husbands. While all marriages are heterosexual in nature, they are not confined to the state of monogamy, as Anansi is portrayed as having many wives at any one time. Ideally, the husband in a marriage is a sincere and honest man who can continually provide for his family’s welfare, with the wife spending her time maintaining their home and raising the children. Although, the inability to produce children, which is a woman’s primary purpose in a marriage, can lead to an unhappy partnership. Men are afforded greater freedoms in the selection of their partner; women must maintain the precarious balance between personal choice and not insulting the authority of male suitors, a punishable offense. Both men and women work in varying positions in society. Women are generally confined to household duties including cleaning, cooking, hosting family and friends, and raising the children, sometimes tending to outdoor gardens or crops. Men are able to hold professional positions outside the home, working as medicinal experts, blacksmiths, priests, construction workers, or in other various positions. Singing is one of the few shared occupations between them, with only men allowed to play the instruments. (Opoku-Agyemang)
Self-worth of an individual is tied directly to the cultural constructs of gender in the Akan community. “Conformity to specific cultural ways of seeing and behavior is expected from both men and women, and their worth is measured accordingly.” (Opoku-Agyemang) Within a marriage, a woman’s self-worth is directly tied to that of her husbands, increasing the need and desire for women to support and help bolster their husbands’ reputations. To maintain a good reputation, a man must be able to provide sustained women support for his family. Another indication of self-worth is the expression of emotions; excessive display of emotions, especially weakness and grief outside the structure of the dirge is generally frowned upon for women more than men. In some of the folkloric legends, women are portrayed as untrusted, unable to keep secrets, and troublemakers who only cause misfortunes in the world. We can see this reflected in the machismo folklore of Mexican male workers. (Opoku-Agyemang)
Most of the social and cultural authority in Akan communities comes from the men who act as leaders, religious figures, husbands, and fathers. In the home, their authority extends over both wife and children, who are expected to obey any and all of his commands unquestionably. Women have the ability to exert their control in the daily running of the household and the raising of the children as long as they don’t conflict the overall authority of the man of the house. This small bit of power women are granted is an important influence specifically in the rearing of daughters, who are expected to grow up conforming the societal and cultural standards of the community. Notably lacking from the folktales, however, is any sexist language, portraying the relationship between men and women as complementary rather than conflicting. (Opoku-Agyemang)
The gender constructs and values presented in folklore and folkloric traditions can be seen reflected in modern society. Before the advent of women’s rights in the early 20th century and the feminist movement in the 1960s, women were generally expected to stay at home running the household and rearing the children, conforming to the set of social and cultural behaviors dictated by their position and time-period. All of these experiences by women have been similarly portrayed in various cultural folkloric tales. Both the legends of the machismo in Mexico and the relationship between men and women in the folktales of the Akan emphasize the general dominance of men in society and the home. Variations can be seen between the two in types of language they use to describe the division between men and women’s social, behavioral constraints. The male Mexican workers use derogatory and sexist language to ‘joke’ about treacherous-women who are claimed to be promiscuous, untrustworthy, and heartless in order to reaffirm their own power and masculinity.
Conversely, the Akan stories contain no sexist language towards women, presenting the relationships as more harmonious in nature. Some tales, such as those of distressed princesses in need to rescuing portray women as helpless and needy. “Cultural pressure can make it hard to think of men as vulnerable, but easy to accept a legend about such vulnerability when told about women.” (Henken) Even in today’s world, women are regularly regarded as the more vulnerable of the two genders, which can be shown in the experiences of women entering the Argentinian military. The men, who are held to their own standards of behavior, treat the women in a gentlemanly and protective manner, preventing them from experiencing the same aspects of the military as the men do. (Badaro) Cultural constructs of gender found in folklore are still prevalent and expressed in the social structure of our communities today.
Historically, men and women have had differing definitions of ideal gendered behavior which they are expected to maintain to uphold their reputations and therefore their social standing. Represented in the folkloric traditions of numerous cultures, these set behaviors are still prevalent in modern society. Still viewed as the weaker and more vulnerable sex in some places, women are afforded fewer opportunities and privileges than their male counterparts, as reflected in the folklore. Legends of machismo lead to the sexual degradation of women to reinforce men’s feeling of masculinity and purpose and tales of Anansi in the Akan folklore portray women as homebodies who submit to the will of the men. Across time, the folkloric cultural constructs of gender in society have held their influence over the behaviors and treatment of both women and men, showing us that it can take a significant change to move out of traditional standards of gendered behavior.
- Badaro, Maximo. “‘One of the Guys’: Military Women, Paradoxical Individuality, and the Transformations of the Argentine Army.” Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Caroline Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, Routledge, 2017, pp. 271–290.
- Farrer, Claire R. “Introduction: Women and Folklore: Images and Genres.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 88, no. 347, 1975, pp. v-xv. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/539180.
- Henken, Elissa R. “Gender Shifts in Contemporary Legend.” Western Folklore, vol. 63, no. 3, 2004, pp. 237–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25474677.
- Opoku-Agyemang, Naana Jane. “Gender-Role Perceptions in the Akan Folktale.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 30 no. 1, 1999, pp. 116-139. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/179370.
- Pena, Manuel. “Class, Gender, and Machismo: The ‘Treacherous-Woman’ Folklore of Mexican Male Workers.” Gender and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 1991, pp. 30–46. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/189928.
- Propp, Vladimir, “Theory and History of Folklore,” University of Minnesota Press, 1984. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/osu/detail.action?docID=310163.
- Roginsky, Dina. (2006). Nationalism and ambivalence: Ethnicity, gender, and folklore as categories of otherness. Patterns of Prejudice – PATTERNS PREJUDICE. 40. 237-258.