Gender Shifts in Contemporary Legend

By Henken, Elissa R. | Western Folklore, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Gender Shifts in Contemporary Legend


Henken, Elissa R., Western Folklore


Contemporary legends, in addition to highlighting a culture's particular current fears, anxieties, or concerns, also provide glimpses of a wider range of attitudes and assumptions within the culture. Given that gender plays a significant role in multiple facets of United States culture, it is not surprising that it should play a role in legend narration. Gender may be a factor in who tells which legends to whom, as well as influencing the lessons a listener takes from a specific legend. Within the narrative, gender plays a part in the assignment of roles, even on such a crude level as victim and villain/rescuer. It can shape what behavior by a character is considered expected and acceptable (or punishable), and, as in the material discussed here, a change in the protagonist's gender can effect both gross and subtle changes in the narrative, reflecting society's attitudes towards gender and its expectations of gender-appropriate behavior and interests. While certain contemporary legends appear to be gender neutral (both men and women have eaten Kentucky-fried rat) and many are well established with one gender as the constant protagonist/victim (women are the vulnerable main characters in their dorm rooms and cars-especially at shopping malls; men figure as scuba divers being dropped into forest fires and office workers surfing the air currents to safety from the World Trade Center), still other legends, particularly those involving sexual activity, demonstrate various forms of gender shift.

The shift may present itself in one basic legend taking different forms simultaneously depending on the gender of the protagonist. One of the clearest examples of this in recent years is the legend that ends in the tag line, "Welcome to the wonderful world of AIDS." In one common variant, a woman while on holiday meets a charming man who shows her the sights, treats her to candlelit dinners and walks on the beach, and applies no sexual pressure at all. The last night of her stay she gives herself to him in love and gratitude, and the next day, as he is seeing her off at the plane, he gives her a small gift-wrapped package. When she opens it, she discovers a miniature coffin with a note inside reading, "Welcome to the wonderful world of AIDS." In the male variant, a man, out of town on a business trip or on a vacation, hooks up with a beautiful woman in a bar and takes her back to his room. When he awakes in the morning she is gone, but written on the mirror in red lipstick is her message of welcome. Both variants provide the same warnings about the dangers of infection by HIV, declaring most clearly that one unsafe exposure can transmit the virus and that one cannot judge a person's HIV status by his or her appearance or personality, but they reflect very different expectations of appropriate contexts for sexual activity. Each also shows the supposed ideal sexual encounter for the gender of its victim: Women desire romance and courtship; men prefer the one-night stand. The usefulness of this gender-specific approach in inducing the listener to identify with it was underscored in the first couple of years, in the early 1990s, when my students began reporting this legend.1 Women reported only the female victim variant; men only the male. In subsequent years, there has been a lot of cross transmission, though a slight tendency towards gender-matching has remained.

Another type of gender shift, however, occurs with legends that start out being told about one gender, and then, either on rare occasions or completely over time, switch to the other gender. For example, a legend about a rock star who, after collapsing on stage, is rushed to the emergency room where several quarts of semen are pumped from the star's stomach was originally told about a series of men-Rod Stewart, Boy George, David Bowie, Elton John, Bon Jovi-who were rumored to be gay or were in some way ambiguous in their presentation of sexuality. In the early 1990s, Alanis Morisette, and a few years later in the mid 1990s, L'il Kirn were named as the collapsing rock star-not women who are ambiguous in their sexuality, but rather ones who sing very openly and even assertively about their pleasure in heterosexual activity, behavior on the part of women that is considered as socially inappropriate and unacceptable as effeminate or gay behavior on the part of a man. …

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