Folksplaining October 31, 2016

Guest post by folklorist Kerry Kaleba

Did you ever hear the one about the Buzzfeed article on legend tripping that was pure seasonal click-bait? Some say it’s still being circulated on Facebook.

Photo by Julia Raasch from Unsplash.
Photo by Julia Raasch from Unsplash.

October is the unofficial month of folklore; the change of seasons and promise of Halloween is the time for everyone to bring out their dusty, half-remembered stories of Samhain and the family ghosts, murmur knowingly about the prospects of winter storms, and treat the arrival of pumpkin spice lattes the way we might view the first robin of spring.

October is the month of the folksplainers. Coined during a particularly interesting panel at the recent annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, the folksplainer is a curious breed. A subset of the “mansplainer,” the folksplainer functions in the same manner: a person assumes a superior knowledge position, and proceeds to hold forth on a subject, despite the experts in the room.

For my colleagues and me in that conference panel, the folksplainer is a fellow scholar ignoring the clearly marked limitations of research to assure everyone that the presenter has failed to acknowledge the commenter’s own area of research. This is rude, and sidetracks us from the content of the presentation.

But most of the time, folksplaining happens outside of these academic conversations. When I introduce myself to people at parties and say I am a folklorist, the most frequent response is, “oh, do you know the real story of Sleeping Beauty/Snow White/Disney? I do. What really happens is….” In each case, I smile, say yes, that is one version and there are many others, and hope we can move on before my vocation is judged worthless. The folksplainer is my conversation partner who needs to assure me of his incredible knowledge that cannot fathom the existence of a Tale-Type Index.

The folksplainer is the media that fails to consult with area experts before putting out seasonal puff pieces. My local living magazine, Washingtonian, offers a list of the “7 Places to Scare Yourself Silly” in the region. This year my social feeds are giddy about a news piece highlighting Irish turnip carvings that preceded our familiar pumpkin jack o’lanterns. When I’m not scrolling through the latest updates to #FolkloreThursday I’m collecting all my charms and wondering what I can do to help the Cubs beat the Curse of the Goat. Many of these articles are produced with minimal research, but nearly all make an appeal to “folklore.” Audiences love these stories, and I am happy to share what local legends I have.

The difficulty of folksplaining is the position of authority; folklore belongs to the folk, and as such anyone can feel she has the necessary knowledge to make a claim to being the superior knowledge bearer. Recent public cries of “Heritage Not Hate” have complicated this. Any time “tradition” is used to explain away terrible deeds, the folksplainer is present. The folksplainer has a short attention span, and is assured of his knowledge because he once read an excerpt from Joseph Campbell. Folksplainers are happy to dismiss fairy tales as simplistic fluff, but will launch into a monologue about the true history of a local legend. And folksplainers will take entirely too long to ask a folklorist about creepy clowns.


Further Reading

Original Irish Jack-o-Lanterns were truly terrifying and made of turnips

When the “Heritage” in “Heritage Not Hate” Is More Skynyrd Than Stonewall Jackson

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