For this #FolkloreThursday I want to talk about stereotypes. There are a few potential tie-ins for folklore studies here, and they all have important implications for the intersections of religion, culture, and politics.
The most basic definition of stereotype is an oversimplified generalization about a group of people. There may or may not be a kernel of truth to stereotypes, and they can be about one’s own group or another group. Stereotypes, being generalized statements about humans, are not necessarily a distinct genre of folklore; rather, I’d say they’re a cultural category that get expressed through folklore.
My folklore mentor Alan Dundes has done significant work on stereotypes. His book Cracking Jokes: Studios of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes justifies the importance of studying stereotypes from a social and political perspective. Here he sets the stage for the study of national character stereotype specifically:
“Folklore provides the principal means of transmitting and disseminating national character stereotypes. The study of traditional slurs involves such topics as stereotypes, national character, ethnocentrism, prejudice, imagery, and humor. These topics fall within a number of academic disciplines, and each has its own vast scholarship. Yet it is surprising and disappointing how little attention professional students of ‘ethnopsychology’ or ‘national stereotypes’ have paid to the materials of folklore. A proverb or a joke told by members of one national group about another may be more responsible for the first group’s attitudes about the second than any other single factor. Some Americans, for example, have very definite notions about the alleged character traits of the English, the French, and the Germans – even if they, as individuals, have never actually met a member of the national group in question. In the same way, a young WASP child has almost certainly learned the stereotypes of Afro-Americans or Jews years before he encounters a representative of that group. How has he learned them? Most often, by hearing – and perhaps telling – ethnic jokes” (96).
I’ll define jokes from a folklore perspective in another post, but for now I’ll note that just as many avenues of culture can be the venues for stereotype transmission (pop culture and the media; institutional culture like laws and religions), jokes are but one of the folklore genres that can transmit stereotypes. We might also see them in slang, proverbs, and folk narratives such as legends.
In Cracking Jokes, Dundes focuses on ethnic slurs and blason populaire, which are both verbal genres of folklore (ethnic slurs are traditional insults based on cultural or national group identity, while blason populaire is the French name for a genre that’s basically an ethnic slur mocking regional/cultural identity). Stereotypes also clearly exist about other groups of people, classifying (and often mocking) them based on gender, religion, political party, language/dialect, age/generation (think of all the Millennial jokes), and more.
Simon Bronner discusses Dundes’s distinction between national stereotypes and national character thus: the former refers to “what people perceive they (or others) are like” and the latter refers to “what people actually are” (181). Further, stereotypes carry some subjective weight, in that while they can be observed to be generalizations, it’s not always clear whether they have a positive or negative value. Dundes writes that while ethnic slurs and blason populaire have “a pejorative c0nnotation…many elements of folk stereotypes have positive value. Jews tell and enjoy apparently anti-Semitic jokes, just as Catholic priests relish anticlerical tales” (118). Thus, the identities of the teller and the audience can impact whether a slur or stereotype is perceived as insulting.
I’m not too hung up on the potential truth value of stereotypes, being in agreement with Dundes when he states: “Stereotypes in slurs deal with traditional images of reality rather than reality itself” (103). However, stereotypes can also play into stigma, which I define here an identity or attribute that is discrediting, unwanted, and/or confers a spoiled or tainted characteristic to someone. Once someone is seen to be a member of a stigmatized group, the stereotypes will cluster around that person like an unwanted swam of flies, coloring how others perceive them (and, likely, discriminate against them).
This is a major reason why we need to be more attuned to the cultural weight of stereotypes: they intangibly impact how we perceive and treat others. And the study of folklore can lead us straight into this tangle of beliefs, pointing at intersections where specific notions have become traditional and thus transmitted without the force of an institution to propel them. As Dundes notes: “Prejudice and stereotyping exist, with or without folklore. Folklore is a mirror of culture; it doesn’t work to blame the mirror for the ugliness of the view” (139-140).
And indeed, stereotypes today give us a very ugly view: caricatures of political parties, extremist religions, and sexist and heterosexist depictions of both mainstream and marginalized groups persist in various media forms. Ignoring stereotypes doesn’t make them go away; only education and open discussion can help us make sense of them and hopefully, someday, see beyond them.
Of course, Dundes is thoroughly Freudian, so we might want to take his interpretations with a grain of salt. When writing about political jokes, he asserts:
“As a folklorist, I have come to believe that no piece of folklore continues to be transmitted unless it means something – even if neither the speaker nor the audience can articulate what that meaning might be. In fact, it usually is essential that the joke’s meaning not be crystal clear. If people knew what they were communicating when they told jokes, the jokes would cease to be effective as socially sanctioned outlets for expressing taboo ideas and subjects” (vii).
I heartily agree with Dundes that folklore is always meaningful, but I don’t necessarily think the meaning has to be that deeply hidden in order for the folklore to effectively serve as a code for uncomfortable topics. However, it’s important to study stereotypes rather than brushing them aside, and I think we need all the theoretical tools that might be remotely relevant… so if a psychoanalytic lens seems useful, I say go for it.
What are some stereotypes you’ve seen expressed in folklore, or other realms of culture? Do you think they’re inherently harmful? What are some ways we might interpret them?
Bronner, Simon, ed. and intro. The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007.
Dundes, Alan. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1987.