Corps de l’article

Unsetting Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag, edited by Pauline Greenhill and Diane Tye, is an insightful and uniformly well-written collection of case studies demonstrating how examining the intersections of tradition, gender, and modes of drag unsettles traditional studies of folkloric culture. Primarily focused within Euro-North American and European folklore, the thirteen chapters included in the collection expand the subjects traditionally conceptualized as folklore while remaining within disciplinary boundaries by drawing on and expanding the terms examined in Feintuch’s Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture (2003). Each chapter crosses genre, and so the book’s editors have eschewed a sectional arrangement. The contributors explore several broad areas of inquiry including: mediations beyond face-to-face interaction that complicate what constitutes a folkloric text; defining community as encompassing local and transnational groups; and, locating the fieldworker/ethnologist as a reflexive participant in the construction of folklore and narratives about folklore.

Each chapter examines intersections of tradition and gender, and some also address drag and cross-gender behaviour, to problematize dominant understanding of each category and demonstrate how hegemonic cultural understandings of heterosexism, heteronormativity, and patriarchal systems are simultaneously encoded and resisted in folkloric contexts. The book’s ethnographic and archival examinations of tangible and intangible cultural heritage engage feminist and queer theory, masculinity studies, transgender studies, and cultural studies to multiply address the intersection of folklore with sex, gender, and sexuality. The chapters transcend and thus decenter genre as a primary classificatory tool of folklore, opening up a space for interdisciplinary examinations of folkloristic practices in non-traditional contexts.

Four chapters engage masculinities. Ferrell’s chapter on male tobacco farmers in Kentucky examines how such men negotiate their contemporary, and thus inferior, masculinities in relation to the more valued and authentic masculinity embodied by their fathers and grandfathers. Contemporary farmers’ masculinities are threatened by feminization, as women become tobacco farmers, and their crop’s loss of sociopolitical and economic value. Mullen explores how male homosociality arises at the nexus of class, race, gender, and sexual representation in rockabilly songs about fighting, adding auto-ethnographic reflection to a textual analysis of song lyrics. Magnus-Johnston shows how American filmic representations of the Brothers Grimm elide the two men’s contributions to German folklore and scholarship by playing on the homosociality, failed masculinity, and latent queer potential of their travels together. In his chapter on French folklorist Jean-François Bladé, Pooley suggests Bladé experienced “combative masculinity” with one of his primary male informants, whose masculinity the folklorist purposefully constructed as more authentic, and valued, than his own.

Vaughan engages constructions of femininity and women’s voices in her chapter on The Distaff Gospels, a fifteenth century French text that places women’s folklore into male-authored narrative frame. Though the text intentionally makes fun of women and their knowledge, it also makes space for women’s voices and views, and thus decenters the maleness of the narrative.

Gender as it relates to international adoption features in Sawin’s narrative analysis exploring the construction of parenthood and family through a lens combining folkloristic and feminist paradigms. She questions the universality of concepts like parenthood and family, and shows how gender, especially the female identity of adoptive mothers, birth mothers, and some adopted children, impacts the adoption process and the experience of participants.

Xie explores sexual and gender relations between human and non-human entities in her chapter on the Chinese folktale genre zhiguai. She examines the reification of patriarchal systems through these tales’ depictions of sex between male humans and female ghosts, revealing gender relations that position women as non-human others. This chapter represents the book’s sole alternative to European and North American cultural conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality.

Two chapters investigate transbiological narratives encompassing the transformation of animals into humans (and back), and human-animal relationships. Roth demonstrates the sexualization of the Thanksgiving turkey as object of desire and icon for projections of predatory sexuality and consumption in the highly proscribed human-animal relationships, both queer and straight, which accrue around the holiday object. Møllegaard shows how filmic and novelized stories of selkies (seal-women) open up a postcolonial space to explore how traditional transbiological narratives can be repurposed to describe contact zones between national groups; in such modern adaptations, cultural differences replace the biological differences of traditional selkie tales.

In several chapters, drag is expanded to define performances of ethnicity, as well as gender identity. Wallen discusses ethnic drag in performances of Dutch identity on the Danish island Amager. This voluntary ethnic drag allows Dutch residents to pass in mainstream society, a social benefit that Denmark’s other ethnoracial groups may be unable or unwilling to achieve.

Three chapters explore gendered drag. Greenhill and Anderson-Grégoire reveal the “shift of sex” tale type as a space for transgender narratives of sexual and gender fluidity that permit the transformation of a girl into a man through a “curse” that subversively grants the hero(ine) exactly what s/he wants. This is the sole chapter to discuss narrative subjects manifesting explicit transconsciousness. The presence of gendered drag, however, does not necessarily indicate the presence of transgender identities. Male members of a Scottish pipe band in the Irish milieu of St. John’s, Newfoundland, perform Scottishness and problematic masculinity by wearing kilts in Tye’s chapter, while Fehr and Greenhill show how Mennonite men in southern Manitoba perform ethnic and gender drag in the homosocial context of Brommtopp mumming. Ethnic and gender drag allows these men to counter their traditionally circumscribed social roles, but they appear to lack transconsciosness, and thus reinforce local masculinities rather than enact trans experiences. Likewise, Tye’s pipe band uses the “feminized” (or hyper-masculinized?) kilt to reinforce masculinity rather than perform trans identities or explore femininity.

The editors designed this volume for courses that examine women, gender, and sexuality in traditional and popular cultures; their primary purpose is to fill a lacuna in teaching collections for such courses and expand on their 1997 volume Undisciplined Women: Tradition and Culture in Canada. Beyond its utility as a teaching text, the book’s highly interdisciplinary and well-researched studies of diverse cultural practices and folkloric subjects lend themselves to scholars working in a variety of disciplines and subject areas.