Unsettling Assumptions: Tradition, Gender, Drag.
It's a perfect title. I considered myself fairly knowledgeable on gender issues, if not history, and settled down for an easy, familiar read.
Not to be. The essays in this volume address queer identity and sexuality in such varied places as Mennonite mummers' plays and Chinese folklore. In case the reader was about to dismiss the writings as not relevant to contemporary American life, rockabilly culture and cinematic interpretations of the Brothers Grimm are also covered.
Each independent essay is well researched and cited, and the authors' short biographies show varying levels of expertise and education.
Sadly, the person who would most benefit from Unsettling Assumptions would not read it. That is, practices examined in the book are often a common part of American culture, but the "person on the street" would not likely wish to read this book. The subject is relevant to the non-academic person, but not packaged attractively. It is, while not difficult, fairly academic in tone, as one sees from the first sentences of the Introduction, "What do Thanksgiving turkeys, rockabilly, and bar fights, and Chinese tales of female ghosts have in common? Each offers an example of how tradition and gender can intersect--sometimes with modes of drag--to unsettle assumptions about culture and its study."
However, the authors do not assume expertise on the part of the reader on each subject. Clear, concise descriptions are included, as with The Distaff Gospels. "The Distaff Gospels (Les Evangiles Des Quenouilks), a 15th-century French manuscript, presents a series of about 230 items of folklore--beliefs, sayings, and remedies--within a frame narrative."
At once the most familiar and most challenging chapter for the non-academic reader will be the chapter on the Brothers Grimm and their treatment by the American cinema. The author, Kendra Magnus-Johnson, writes that, even in biopics about the Brothers, attention to biographical detail was not observed. The author observes that the Brothers' "failed masculinity," in part, made it impossible to tell their story straightforwardly. I would say that the brothers were simply too odd, too gender-nonconforming, for a TV movie for general consumption. Magnus-Johnson addresses the Brothers' tendency to be "patriarchal appropriators and silencers of female storytelling," even as she addresses the repeated fictions about their lives. I almost get the feeling that they asked for it.
The tone of the whole volume is remarkably neutral, given the incendiary topic and the many authors. Repeatedly, in different times and locales, practices which I had not noticed or believed had any particular gender identification significance are revealed to be important, but the authors uniformly point them out without anger. For example, Thanksgiving is given as a day when "division of labor between males and females becomes more pronounced than usual," and these practices are examined in the context of several popular movies such as Home for the Holidays and Brokeback Mountain. The general tone is: "This is what you have really been seeing, so are you going to do anything with this information?"
On the whole, Unsettling Assumptions was not at all unsettling for this reviewer. On the contrary, it was at once comforting and inspiring. The fact that gender roles have been challenged, even if in a hidden way, for so much longer than even a life-long ally knew, is inarguable once one looks at folklore through the lens of this volume. With cultures other than white and western included here, the universality of the subject is addressed.
I would recommend Unsettling Assumptions for college libraries, for anyone doing gender studies, or for adults who enjoy reading folklore.
Frieda Toth, Librarian Crandall Public Library, Glen Falls, NY