SWPCA February 2014
Popular Culture as Modern Folklore
Jack Zipes argues in Breaking the Magic Spell that “the folk tale was (and still is) an oral narrative form cultivated by non-literate and literate people to express the manner in which they perceived and perceive nature and their social order and their wish to satisfy their needs and wants” (7). He further states that “each historical epoch and each community altered the original folk tales according to its needs as they were handed down over the centuries” (8). However, in seeming contrast to these statements, he also argues that mass media and the commercial interests of the culture it reflects do not accurately portray the original intent, purpose, or stories of the original fairy tales (140).
I would argue that by stating that Zipes is missing an opportunity on two counts. The first is his work makes a clear distinction between “true”, original folktales and fairy tales and “less true” modern imaginings. The assumption that there is only one way to read these tales (true or less true) disregards any modern reimagining as being valid, or true. The second is he also draws a clear line between the cultures and societies that originated these tales, and the modern day. Zipes does not acknowledge that any connections can be made between these older, oral cultures, and popular culture today. I argue that due to the intertextuality of today’s popular culture, that it is the first time since the original time of these tales that an era has so closely replicated that of the original. If we substitute “oral-narrative” form for popular culture, then we have new lens through which to view popular culture, that of modern folklore. Further examining Zipes’ definition that the purpose of these tales was for “people to express the manner in which they perceived and perceive nature and their social order and their wish to satisfy their needs and wants” we can specifically look at aspects of popular culture where a groups needs, wants, and fears are addressed, the modern day horror film. The modern day horror film as a reflection of American cultures’ fears and cultural wants has been a focus of recent scholarship, most notably in Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, Horror Film and Psychoanalysis, and Men, Women and Chainsaws. Scholars have also focused on the reimaginings, or revisions of fairy tales and folklore in popular culture.
However, what has not been explored are the ways in which original popular culture functions as modern or new folklore.
In order to examine popular culture in this way, I first turned to the motif index of folk literature to identify narrative elements in several popular television shows. As you can see each of these shows has specific narrative elements associated with folklore.
However, as Koven argues, the methodology of identifying traditional narrative elements in popular culture is highly problematic. Rather than being the beginning and end of analysis, I argue that this identification has to be just the beginning. Instead, we must also examine “how the ethnographic and anthropological materials are being used” (49).
I followed Koven’s approach with looking at how these shows “build new beliefs and then recycle those beliefs back into popular culture” (viii). “Reintroduces the narrative back into the oral tradition” (72)
Koven argues that “certain popular culture forms succeed because they act like folklore” (7).
- Buffy: Buffy rewrote the female heroine, presenting the anti-final girl. The show also established the mythology of vampires as demon possessed people with no souls. That vampires turned to dust. It also presented this world as grounded in reality, and not fantasy.
- Eureka, Friends, The SImpsons, Xena, Charmed, Hannah Montana, Smallville, Gilmore Girls, Farscape, Will and Grace, Daria, True Blood, Dawson’s Creek, Heroes, Being Human, Bones, Family Guy, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, How I Met Your Mother, OUAT, Haven,
- X-Files: Focusing instead on the mythology the show created, rather than the folkloric tales it revised, the X-Files created a whole cloth mythology of aliens, tracing it from Roswell through modern day. It took random, unconnected stories of aliens and created a cohesive mythology from it.
- X-Files has been referenced in The Simpsons, Family Guy, Supernatural, ST: DS9, Buffy, Angel, Californication, Bones, Castle, Fringe, The Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, and Haven
- Battlestar Galactica: by creating a future where mythology became the basis for religion, BSG used folklore and mythology to shape discussions about current events, particularly the connection and perils of the contrast between humanity and technology.
- BSG had been referenced in shows such as 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Bones, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Heroes, NCIS, the OC, Veronica mars, Robot Chicken, Scrubs and South Park
- Supernatural: Supernatural is known for the folklore it investigates, but I argue that the new folklore it has created is focused on the presentation of heaven, angels and demons.
As Koven argues, folklore/tales are “One type of narrative content that has stood the test of time; these narratives would not be passed on to subsequent generations unless they had some relevance to the supporting culture” (64).
- Buffy Buffy’s importance as a symbol of girl power and as a prototype for subsequent female protagonists is often discussed as is Whedon’s storytelling and dialogue on television. But Buffy also provided a look at growing up without nostalgia and in a way that treated the experiences of young adults in a way that did not minimize their experiences
- X-Files Represented real fears about government control, and in the dawning millenium with the growth of the Internet and technology, what it meant to discover and pursue the truth
- Battlestar Galactica BSG allowed for big discussions about post 9/11 behavior, torture, war, and what it meant to be human. It also served as a cautionary tale of what can happen when technology outstrips or outruns humanity.
- Supernatural continues to explore issues of violence, trauma and faith, as well as to play with ideas of narrative, fandom and storytelling.
While all of these examples show evidence of revising and reimagining folklore, I believe that the argument for popular culture as new folklore can be seen in the way that the ideas, characters, and storylines of these shows have been recycled, revised, and referenced in popular culture since their premiere. How many people have based their ideas of vampires, demons, aliens, and technology on the ideas presented in these shows versus any other source? Terms such as Scooby Gang, Cigarette Smoking Man, “So say we all” or Hunters have entered the lexicon, and become a shorthand for certain people or situations in the same way that myths, fairy tales, and legends have. While identifying the folkloric narrative elements of these shows is a place to start, I believe that exploring popular culture for the ways it contributes to creating new folklore is a new avenue for exploring these works and analyzing their importance as a mirror of reflecting the issues and troubles of our times.
Brunvand, Jan . The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Hymes, Dell . Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
Sims, Martha C. and Martine Stephens. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and their Traditions. Pp. 1-2. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales Revised and Expanded Edition. The University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Print.