Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Youth

He Chose Poorly, You Have Chosen Wisely

 Chosen Wisely

In April the rhetoric surrounding college admission inevitably comes to embrace the notion of choice as many students weigh their options prior to the National Candidates Reply Date on May 1. To be sure, the month of April is a portentous period for college-bound students and their parents as families begin to transition and necessarily start to contemplate a change in their configuration. Emotions run high as excitement and hope twine with a nervous energy that, in part, stems from a fear of missing out (FOMO, if you must). Here it would seem that much of the work of counselors lies in our ability to help students and families retain perspective through this process, validating their concerns even as we try to reframe them. On a practical level, individuals are often concerned with selecting the “right” college to attend and yet I cannot help but think about the invocation of “choice,” its assumed power, and its relationship to young people.

Back in 2012 I taught an undergraduate class on marketing ethics for USC’s Marshall School of Business and I began to cause a minor fuss over a recent Old Navy commercial that I had seen. Ostensibly aimed at a demographic that was of my age or older, I began a rant over how a company had come to appropriate the notion of choice in order to sell jeans that were functional but not necessarily noteworthy (which, I mean, is the whole purpose of commercial advertising). Although my students were generally too young to understand the original reference, I began to explain to them that I was upset because this move represented a blatant effort to wrest agency away from persons, presenting them with the illusion of choice while absconding with its power.

Taking a different approach, I had the students read the Beverly Hills, 90210 “I choose me” scene against the love triangle presented by Twilight—and the relative impossibility of readers aligning with Team Bella—to think about how the presentation of choice has changed in recent years. Young Adult (YA) fiction, in particular, has become an interesting place to explore the concepts of choice due to its relatively recent mainstream popularity and the rise in dystopian settings, which are often concerned with people making difficult choices and their ability to do so. Although some of my thoughts regarding the theme of choice in YA are reflected in a piece for Slate that reads Harry Potter against Divergent with respect to clans/identity/choice, what is more directly salient is not just the relative importance of choice but the implications of being asked to declare a binding allegiance as a young person. While useful as entry points, I also encouraged students to push back against the presentation of choice in Harry Potter and Divergent as both tended to focus on the connection between innate qualities and group identity, legitimizing individualism and genetics over context, environment, and existing social structures.

In spite of my occasional quibbles with them, I still think that there is a way to use YA texts like Divergent and Harry Potter (or, if you like, Enclave and Quarantine) to think about what it means for young people to make a decision that is, for them at least, often perceived as life-changing and somewhat irreversible. At its core, what does it actually mean to make a choice—in this case perhaps the choice of which institution to attend—in the college admission process? Is there merit to reframing the discussion in order to deemphasize the name of a school in favor of highlighting what the experience itself might bring? How can we change the college-going culture so that young people (and their parents) feel better equipped to make choices when they are presented? How do we get students and parents to complicate the notion of choice in order to consider that while an individual decision might be their own, the range of choices that they have are often influenced by external factors—for example, while an institution’s ranking might not be important in which school a student ultimately attends, a larger view also considers how the logic of ranking infiltrates education and makes particular avenues more salient for particular students in the first place—while remaining cognizant of the information overload that already exists? In what ways must we be self-reflexive as we guide students and parents toward making particular choices? Put another way, how do we, like Old Navy, encourage students to make particular kinds of choices in favor of others and what are the potential implications of our actions?

For me, the answer begins with a critical examination of choice:  I want to support the ability of students and families to make informed choices but the question always remains, “A choice to do what?”

I want students to choose wisely.


Like So Much Processed Meat

“The hacker mystique posits power through anonymity. One does not log on to the system through authorized paths of entry; one sneaks in, dropping through trap doors in the security program, hiding one’s tracks, immune to the audit trails that we put there to make the perceiver part of the data perceived. It is a dream of recovering power and wholeness by seeing wonders and not by being seen.”

—Pam Rosenthal

 In Pieces

Flesh Made Data:  Part I

This quote, which comes from a chapter in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Control and Freedom on the Orientalization of cyberspace, gestures toward the values embedded in the Internet as a construct. Reading this quote, I found myself wondering about the ways in which identity, users, and the Internet intersect in the present age. Although we certainly witness remnants of the hacker/cyberpunk ethic in movements like Anonymous, it would seem that many Americans exist in a curious tension that exists between the competing impulses for privacy and visibility.

Looking deeper, however, there seems to be an extension of cyberpunk’s ethic, rather than an outright refusal or reversal:  if cyberpunk viewed the body as nothing more than a meat sac and something to be shed as one uploaded to the Net, the modern American seems, in some ways, hyper aware of the body’s ability to interface with the cloud in the pursuit of peak efficiency. Perhaps the product of a self-help culture that has incorporated the technology at hand, we are now able to track our calories, sleep patterns, medical records, and moods through wearable devices like Jawbone’s UP but all of this begs the question of whether we are controlling our data or our data is controlling us. Companies like Quantified Self promise to help consumers “know themselves through numbers,” but I am not entirely convinced. Aren’t we just learning to surveil ourselves without understanding the overarching values that guide/manage our gaze?

Returning back to Rosenthal’s quote, there is a rather interesting way in which the hacker ethic has become perverted (in my opinion) as the “dream of recovering power” is no longer about systemic change but self-transformation; one is no longer humbled by the possibilities of the Internet but instead strives to become a transformed wonder visible for all to see.

 Daniel

Flesh Made Data:  Part II

A spin-off of, and prequel to, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Caprica (2011-2012) transported viewers to a world filled with futuristic technology, arguably the most prevalent of which was the holoband. Operating on basic notions of virtual reality and presence, the holoband allowed users to, in Matrix parlance, “jack into” an alternate computer-generated space, fittingly labeled by users as “V world.”[1] But despite its prominent place in the vocabulary of the show, the program itself never seemed to be overly concerned with the gadget; instead of spending an inordinate amount of time explaining how the device worked, Caprica chose to explore the effect that it had on society.

Calling forth a tradition steeped in teenage hacker protagonists (or, at the very least, ones that belonged to the “younger” generation), our first exposure to V world—and to the series itself—comes in the form of an introduction to an underground space created by teenagers as an escape from the real world. Featuring graphic sex, violence, and murder, this iteration does not appear to align with traditional notions of a utopia but might represent the manifestation of Caprican teenagers’ desires for a world that is both something and somewhere else. And although immersive virtual environments are not necessarily a new feature in Science Fiction television, with references stretching from Star Trek’s holodeck to Virtuality, Caprica’s real contribution to the field was its choice to foreground the process of V world’s creation and the implications of this construct for the shows inhabitants.

Seen one way, the very foundation of virtual reality and software—programming—is itself the language and act of world creation, with code serving as architecture. If we accept Lawrence Lessig’s maxim that “code is law”, we begin to see that cyberspace, as a construct, is infinitely malleable and the question then becomes not one of “What can we do?” but “What should we do?” In other words, if given the basic tools, what kind of existence will we create and why?

Running with this theme, the show’s overarching plot concerns an attempt to achieve apotheosis through the uploading of physical bodies/selves into the virtual world. I found this series particularly interesting to dwell on because here again we had something that recalls the cyberpunk notion of transcendence through data but, at the same time, the show asked readers to consider why a virtual paradise was more desirous than one constructed in the real world. Put another way, the show forces the question, “To what extent do hacker ethics hold true in the  physical world?”


[1] Although the show is generally quite smart about displaying the right kind of content for the medium of television (e.g., flushing out the world through channel surfing, which not only gives viewers glimpses of the world of Caprica but also reinforces the notion that Capricans experience their world through technology), the ability to visualize V world (and the transitions into it) are certainly an element unique to an audio-visual presentation. One of the strengths of the show, I think, is its ability to add layers of information through visuals that do not call attention to themselves. These details, which are not crucial to the story, flush out the world of Caprica in a way that a book could not, for while a book must generally mention items (or at least allude to them) in order to bring them into existence, the show does not have to ever name aspects of the world or actively acknowledge that they exist.


Admission + Confession

If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.

 

Individualism and Neoliberal Thought

Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.

Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah:  Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.

Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.

 

The Manifestation of the Post-

And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).

The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture:  Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.

Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.

 

Problematizing Irony as Social Critique

How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.

One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?


Admission People Problems

This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.

Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?

I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.

We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”

In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.


Insufferable People Problems

This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.

Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?

I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.

We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”

In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.


On Obsession with Choice

A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.

Case (A):  Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks.  The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.

Case (B):  Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office.  The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.

Question:  Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?

After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.[1]

Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.

Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.

Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.

Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.

After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.


[1] For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.


Morphology of the Folktale

Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp

 

 

The fairy tale, on the other hand, is very much the result of common conscious and unconscious content having been shaped by the conscious mind, not of one particular person, but the consensus of many in regard to what they view as universal human problems, and what they accept as desirable solutions.

-Bruno Bettelheim

 

Bibliography

Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). (L. Scott, Trans.) Austin: University of Texas Press.

 

 

Biography

Vladimir Propp was trained as a philologist, meaning that he studied the historical development of language. Trained as a Formalist, Propp is perhaps most famous for Morphology of the Folktale, his attempt to identify fundamental components of Russian fairy/folktales and the relationship of these elements to each other. In this, Propp responded to Antti Aarne, who focused on motifs (i.e., repeated story elements) and developed the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, by arguing that Aarne identified patterns but ignored the function(s) of these elements. Propp’s work would also go on to influence Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, individuals working in mythology and folkloric studies. Given that Propp was interested in written language, his study of folklore has been criticized for its emphasis on the written form, disregarding that folklore had traditionally been transmitted orally.[1]

 

Summary

In accordance with Russian Formalism, Propp believed that literature was composed of discrete identifiable units and that appropriate analysis would result from the description of these elements and their relationship to both one another and the story as a whole. In order to tackle a study of the breadth of Russian folktales, Propp endeavored to create a comprehensive morphology that listed key elements or constants.

 

For Propp, the appropriate unit of analysis was the function of dramatis personae (i.e., character plus action), which differed from Aarne’s use of motifs in that Aarne placed more emphasis on the action itself whereas Propp argued that the action must be contextualized by an understanding of its actor (in this case the subject of the action is considered part of the action itself and not its own independent element).

 

Indeed, the “who” is not particularly important in fairy/folktales as the characters are relatively unambiguous and often derive their names from their social relationship or occupation (which itself hints at a type of social relationship). The individuals who inhabit a fairy/folktale are simple and largely free from internal conflict:  characters who seem good are good and those who seem bad are bad. In a sense, these characters are not really people so much as they are devices.

 

Furthermore, due to the lack of internal psychology, Propp did not use dimensions like motivation in his analysis. Although modern storytelling in America would seem to place a premium on the “why” (see, for example, the way in which intent is central to the legal system), the straightforward nature of the characters in fairy/folktales made this type of analysis unnecessary.

 

Propp identified 31 unique functions (see below) in Russian folktales, a morphology that bears a certain similarity to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. However, looking at the elements in both schemas, one can immediately see that fairy/folktales are much more straightforward in that they consist of a specific actor/action while the elements of the monomyth speak much more to a process akin to character development.

 

It should also be noted that folklore is different than postmodern storytelling, which may use some of these familiar elements but will often combine them in new ways or otherwise play with conventions. For an example of how Propp’s attempt at morphology might be applied in a modern context, see The Periodic Table of Storytelling below.

 

 


[1] See, for example, Philip Pullman’s assertion that “A fairy tale is not a text … It’s a transcription made on one of more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing:  a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs.” (Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, xviii)

 

 

Fairy/Folktales vs. (Mono)Myth

 

Fairytale

Monomyth

1

One of the members of a family absents himself from home The call to adventure

2

An interdiction (limitation) is addressed to the hero Refusal of the call

3

The interdiction is violated Supernatural aid

4

The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance The crossing of the first threshold

5

The villain receives information about his victim Belly of the whale

6

The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him The road of trials

7

The victim unknowingly helps the villain by being deceived or influenced by the villain The meeting with the goddess

8

The villain harms a member of the family or a member of the family lacks/desires something Woman as temptress

9

The lack or misfortune is made known; the hero is given a request or a command; the hero goes on a mission/quest Atonement with the father

10

The seeker plans action against the villain Apotheosis

11

The hero leaves home The ultimate boon

12

The hero is tested The refusal of the return

13

The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor The magic flight

14

The hero uses the magical agent Rescue from without

15

The hero is transferred to the general location of the object of his mission/quest The crossing of the return threshold

16

The hero and villain join in direct combat Master of two worlds

17

The hero is branded Freedom to live

18

The villain is defeated  

19

The initial misfortune or lack is set right  

20

The hero returns home  

21

The hero is pursued  

22

The hero is rescued from pursuit  

23

The hero arrives home or elsewhere and is not recognized  

24

A false hero makes false claims  

25

A difficult task is set for the hero  

26

The task is accomplished  

27

The hero is recognized  

28

The false hero is exposed  

29

The false hero is transformed  

30

The villain is punished  

31

The hero is married and crowned  

 

Periodic Table of Storytelling