USC Digital Folklore Archives / Stereotypes/Blason Populaire
Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Signs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Softball Apparel Signs and Sexuality

Informant: “In high school playing softball there was this secret code to show if you were lesbian. I know how ridiculous that is now, but if you wore ribbons in your hair, it meant you weren’t. Every girl on the team would put ribbons in their hair because they didn’t want people thinking they were lesbian.”

Context: This collection of folklore was done while the informant was home from Boston. We spoke with the intent to collect this piece of folklore when prompted with what are the sorts of folklore found in softball. The informant played softball for 4 years in high school, but does not play in college currently.

Informant Analysis Transcript:

Collector: “Where did you first learn this, or from who?”

Informant: “I think I first heard about the whole ‘lesbians play softball’ in middle school. My mom would always tell me that. The whole ribbons thing I only heard in high school. I think people on the softball team told me and I just assumed that I might as well join in.”

Collector: “Why do you think this folklore is used in high school softball, or like, your analysis of it?

Informant: “Uhm, I don’t know. I guess in high school you care a lot about what other people think of you, especially if you are female. The idea of someone thinking you are lesbian when you are not if you play softball was just a fear that many girls had. The whole ribbon thing kind of gives a little piece of mind, like, ‘ok! I’m ready to play now, put me in coach’ *laughs*

Collector Analysis: I believe that there is a fear in high school in girls of being perceived wrongly by their classmates. The use of ribbons is integral to the analysis of this folk sign. Ribbons seem closely tied with femininity in American culture, where as most people assume lesbian culture to be more masculine. This is a generalization of course, but the stereotype that cisgendered girls would are more likely to wear ribbons in their hair as apposed to their gay counterparts allows for people to assume the sexual orientation of another without having to ask. Especially at a time in life where many people are still figuring out their sexual identity, the whole topic of gender is painted with strict contrast.

Childhood
Gestures
Humor
Musical
Riddle
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Children Hand Sign Language about Sexuality

Collector’s Note: This child’s hand sign song has a particular hand motion that comes at the end of the first two sentences. It is followed by two more gestures within the second sentence after the word “this”. It is best to first read the song straight through and later refer to each sentence’s number and timing of hand motion while viewing the corresponding pictures in order.

“Good girls sit like this. (1)

Catholic girls sit like this. (2)

Girls who sit like this, (3)

get this, (4)

like this. (5) *snap* ”

Screen Shot 2019-04-24 at 3.13.11 PM

Context: This piece was collected at the childhood home of a friend of the collector from both elementary and middle school after speaking about their friendship as children.

Informant Analysis: While in elementary school around the age of 10, she remembers that girls would sing this song with the corresponding hand gestures to each other during recess. She said that it is “weird” to look back on that hand game since it seems to represent the sexual activity of women through stereotypes and body position. She recited the meaning as, “if you are a good girl, you keep your legs closed. If you are a Catholic girl, you really keep your legs closed by crossing them. If you are a bad girl, you sit with your legs apart, which for some reason means you will get d**k quicker? I mean, that is essentially what it says, but it says it politely.”

At the young age of when they preformed the hand game, she said that it was not necessarily considered to be sexual in nature, but more of a fun sign language you could teach other girls. She recalls that she never had seen a boy make the hand gesture and song while in elementary school, as it seemed to be like a secret code/handshake between girls. The informant was uncertain as to who taught her the game, but guessed that it was a friend. She also could not remember if this hand game was ever shared with adults, but believed it was probably not. Even though at the time they did not view the hand game as sexual, they did understand that if adults saw it, they would be punished, and they  “did not want to get in trouble.”

Collector Analysis: Being a participant in this folk gesture/song/game, there were a few key aspects that I had not noticed until interviewing the informant. It is easy to assume that this hand game is a way to teach young girls to suppress their sexuality with, what could be considered, the goal of having fewer teen pregnancies. This would imply that adults with knowledge of the effects of teen pregnancy would have to be the root of this piece. Another viewpoint is that the hand game is a way young girls teach each other about the image one presents to the world and it’s importance in not becoming promiscuous (perhaps an antecedent form of slut-shaming). However, I do not believe these interpretations to be the most nuanced if we take into account that the actual piece never mentions girls sitting with their legs open as being “bad” as the informant said.

We can also note that the hand game was played only between young girls. The explicit nature of the content may have something to do with why this piece is gender segregated. It could be that there may be a level of shame that perhaps young boys do not encounter as harshly with regard to their own sexual activity. However, there must be more to the gender segregated sharing of this piece since the young girls did not fully understand the meaning of the hand game at the time. Therefore, I argue that the gender segregated sharing could not only be the sexual shame that often occurs for women as they hit puberty. What the informant referred to as a secret code or handshake seems more probable a source to create the gender segregation. The hand game gives young girls, upon the sudden awareness of gender in elementary school, a way to form a group or friendship around gender commonality. Thus, the performance of the hand game would be an expression of being in the group by having intimate knowledge of their particular gestures.

Lastly, the game itself explicitly refers to girls while never mentioning the male gender except through a crude phallic symbol. To this extent, it is very much a childish thought to represent men only as their sexual organ while also only referring to it as “this” (perhaps taboo word). The game’s proliferation among girls occur by virtue of the excitement in referring to a taboo subject or word among children.

Folk speech
Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Trombone Player Joke

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant shared a joke told to her by her father, a professional musician.

Text:

Informant: My dad is a musician, and he has a lot of musician jokes. Basically he told me that, and I wouldn’t have gotten it, but basically he told me that like trombone players are apparently like the butt of every joke because apparently they’re like useless. So, one of the jokes he um told me is: What’s the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Interviewer: What is the difference between a rattlesnake in the desert and a trombone player?

Informant: The rattlesnake was on his way to a gig.

Interviewer: That’s really funny. So, do musicians say this to trombone players? Is it like a form of hazing?

Informant: It kind of is. I don’t know if my dad tells this to trombone players, but definitely among his musician friends they go back and forth with stupid trombone player jokes. I just had no idea that trombone players were the butt of the music community’s jokes, but apparently they are.

Informant’s relationship to this item: While the informant did not understand the joke initially, once her father explained that trombone players are often teased by other members of the music community, she was able to recognize the humor in her father’s joke. This is not a joke that the informant regularly shares with people who are not members of the music community, nor is it a joke that her father typically shares with trombone players.

Interpretation: The joke shared by the informant definitely qualifies as an inside-joke, or a joke that only a specific community of people would be likely to understand. Not only is the joke specific to the music community, who are the only people who understand that trombone players are regularly made fun of, but it is also not typically performed for trombone players. Additionally, the joke qualifies as a joke riddle, in which the listener is prompted to figure out the correct and humorous response to the posed question based on context clues. Finally, the joke qualifies as blason populaire, a term used to describe any kind of folklore (not just jokes) about a stereotypical identity or group. This specific joke is making fun of the fact that it is typically difficult for trombone players to find paid work.

 

Folk Beliefs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Dumb southerners

Main piece: A common stereotype is that people from the Southeast are fat, uneducated, racist rednecks.

Context: The informant (S) is originally from Marietta, Georgia, and their lineage traces back to Germany on both sides of their family. They are a high school student about to graduate and head off to Boston for college. They were raised Christian and consider themselves spiritual, but they do not align themselves with any organized religion. Our conversation took place over FaceTime while S cleaned their room and played Tame Impala in the background. S has heard this stereotype of Southerners their entire life, both from Georgians and non-Georgians alike. Interestingly, S even jokes about this stereotype having some truth to it: “When you go to school in the suburbs of Georgia and see people with confederate flag stickers on their cars, it’s hard not to label those around you as uneducated racists!” In all seriousness, S knows many people (including themself) who actively work hard to not become or buy into this stereotype. They want to prove people wrong and change the overall social climate of Georgia.

Personal thoughts: S and I will both maintain that this stereotype has tidbits of truth to it, but even more so than our personal experiences as Georgians, this conception of Southerners has solid historical basis – a quality that not every stereotype bears. To be obvious… the Civil War, in which the South was fighting to keep slavery alive and well. Some people may vaguely argue that the war was about “states’ rights,” but consider what rights Southern states were fighting to maintain – the right to own slaves. It would be naive to think that those age-old mentalities have simply disappeared, especially when almost every Georgian either knows somebody who owns a Confederate flag or owns one themself. One hundred years after slavery came the tumultuous yet impactful Civil Rights Movement, proving that racism never ended with slavery. Even today, lynchings and hate crimes occur way too often in the Southeast. So, while it is increasingly important for Southerners to educate ourselves on social/political issues, advocate for others and fight back against hate groups that give us a bad name, it is also equally important to recognize that these somewhat hurtful stereotypes derive from truth. Instead of getting defensive about them, we must acknowledge the South’s history of racism and subjugation, and prove with our actions that we are working to remedy that painful history.

general
Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Engineer’s Constant – A Stereotype about Engineers

Item:

The engineer’s constant is 3.  We don’t need to be accurate so we round e to 3 and pi to 3, and also g is 10.

 

Context:

I collected this piece from a physics lab partner who is also an astronautical engineering major at the University of Southern California.  Some of our calculations were off, so he joked about rounding the final answer to three.  When I asked why, he explained that three is the engineer’s constant.  As such, three would be a good alternate answer if we could not find the error in our calculations.  The informant said that he found the engineer’s constant for the first time on an engineering meme page.

 

Analysis:

This short piece actually reveals a bit about the culture of engineers, including their work habits and particularly stereotypes about them.  I have heard of the stereotype that engineers are not always the most accurate, and that they are quite liberal when rounding or making approximations.  There are also jokes about how engineering students should not be trusted with any technical applications of their studies because of this.  I think the stereotype comes from the fact that engineers often do quick, back of the envelope approximations of things in order to get a sense of what they are working with before they dive into the more detailed computations.  Furthermore, sometimes the exact answer is not as significant as getting the correct order of approximation.  My astronautical engineering professor has actually done this during class multiple times because the exact values of the computations were insignificant.  In most cases, he rounds the gravity constant from 9.8 to 10.  By extension, we round commonly used constants such as Euler’s number and pi to 3 for ease of computation as well.  As such, those outside of engineering may mistake this as what we primarily rely on when we work.  The stereotype is not insulting to engineers though, in fact, engineers themselves have also made jokes about it as seen on engineering meme pages.  The potentially insulting stereotype is countered by fully embracing it and taking pride in it as part of the group identity of engineers.  What this short piece reveals is how stereotypes may emerge about a group from those who are not in it, as well as how taking pride in these opinions can counter them and become a part of your identity as a member of that group.  In this case, the stereotype is about how engineers appear to be very generous in approximation, but engineers embrace this by claiming the engineer’s constant.

Folk speech
Game
Gestures
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Chinese Restaurant Clapping Game

Context

Having collected a fairly common children’s game, thumb wars, I sought a game or rhyme that was more obscure. While familiar with similar games such as Paddy Cake (which the informant mentioned for reference), I had never heard of the Chinese Restaurant variant.

Main Piece

When I was little, on the playground we used to have… it was a sort of “paddy cake”-like game that had, um… a rhyme about a Chinese restaurant. So you would start and you would clap your hands together and clap opposite hands with your partner, and it would be like:

“I went to a Chinese restaurant 

To buy a loaf of bread bread bread

The waiter asked me what I want 

And this is what I said said said”

and then you would point to your eye and say:

“I know karate”

then you would punch and say:

“Punch in the body”

Then you would cover your hands with your mouth and say:

“Oops I’m sorry”

Then you would wag your finger and say:

“Don’t tell my mommy”

And then the most upsetting part is that you would move your eyelids in accordance with people’s race, so you would say:

“Chinese” — pull your eyelids up — or down, I don’t remember

“Japanese” — pull your eyelids up and then you say:

“Freeze!”

And then whoever said “check please!” first would win.

Notes

As the informant notes, the game is upsetting, enforcing the kind of racial stereotypes and prejudices that would have been seen as innocuous in past decades. As such, I would classify it as an example of blason populaire. It is through games and rhymes such as these, shared among children during their formative years, that casual racism insidiously engrains itself into young minds. Thankfully, the informant grew up and now recognizes the problematic nature of this game, but many others likely do not, and maybe even teach it to their children one day.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Arab/Muslim Stereotype

Main Piece: “Every Arab who is a Muslim and is a male is either named Mohamed, Ali, or Yousef” Context:  On April 7, 2018 I called an Uber to go to a party. When the driver arrived I said “Hi, how are you doing today? My name is Jaeson. Nice to meet you”. He replied “ I am doing great. Yousef nice to meet you to. He then said “Yup… another Yousef”.  He then said “Every Arab who is a Muslim and is a male is either named Mohamed, Ali, or Yousef”. I said I am sorry can you repeat that. He said ok and repeated it. I asked him if I could write it down as a collection of folklore and he said yes. Background: Yousef is a 27 year old Uber driver who drives a red Camry. He is Arab and he is also a Muslim.  Analysis: I was intrigued to learn this stereotype about Arabs and Muslim from an Arab. I went to a high school that had a large population of Arabs and there was a large portion with the name Mohamed, Ali, and Yousef. However, it is not true that everyone single Arab has one of those three names. It surprises me how people could generalize a population with no evidence.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Cultural Joke

Interviewer: Do you know any folklore based on stereotypes or any jokes based on communities?

 

Informant: I know some jokes that I learned from my family.  I think one that would fit is a joke I heard from my mom.

 

Interviewer: How does it go?

 

Informant: Why do Mexicans make tamales for Christmas?

 

Interviewer: I don’t know, why?

 

Informant: So they can have something to unwrap.

 

Interviewer: That is actually really funny, I don’t think it would have the same meaning if I wasn’t Mexican.

 

Informant: Yeah I think it’s more relatable because my family has tamales for Christmas and it’s a big part of our celebration.

 

Interviewer: Yeah it was actually really funny and the first thing I thought about was how excited my dad gets around Christmas because he could honestly care less about the presents but loves tamales.

 

Informant: Yeah exactly.  If you weren’t Mexican it would be more like you thought it was funny because it fulfilled a stereotype but not because you actually understood the customs or the culture.

 

Interviewer: That’s so true! Thanks for sharing.

 

Background: The informant is a Junior at USC studying Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Change.  She is Mexican American and comes from a large family and extended family based in the greater Los Angeles area.  The informant is also the roommate of the interviewer and a close friend who shares many cultural traditions.

 

Context: This interview occurred during a lunch meal with friends where we discussed similar cultural practices.  The informant first heard this joke when at home with her family and then shared it with me.  She said her mother was the one to share the folklore and that she had heard it before from another within her community.

 

Analysis: At first this joke was really funny to me but then I thought about the cultural implications that went into creating the stereotype.  It was weird to see how other people thought about a given culture.  And it was interesting to analyze why it was funny to those within the group, and to me it was that people within the group are able to laugh because they are acknowledging but also counter acting the stereotype.

 

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Iranian “Turk” Jokes

  1. The main piece: Iranian “Turk” Jokes

“We have a lot of racist jokes. You know how some American jokes start with “a guy walks into a bar.” A lot of our jokes start with “what did the turk say” or “why did the Turk do this.” So there’s a region in Tehran, Tabriz, where there’s a lot of Turkish people, and they have a certain accent. So whenever we tell the Turk jokes, there’s a certain accent we use.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? The context of the performance?

“I mean, this is kind of embarrassing because it’s not the best portrayal of us. But it’s not like we really think this about Turks anymore, it’s just what the jokes have become and been for so long. Like dumb blonde jokes are still funny, even though we know blondes aren’t dumb. I’ve heard different family members and family friends tell these jokes at parties… I mean, they’re funny and remind me of jokes that people from my culture make.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

This piece is a clear example of stereotyping and Blason Populaire in jokes. It utilizes a common cultural bias or stereotype about a group of people who are not originally from the area, showing that they are being jested at because they are “different” and they are the minority. Stereotype and Blason Populaire jokes, when not utilizing stereotypes about a group to itself (i.e. Turkish people telling Turk jokes) alienate the group of people being made fun of in the jokes, and perpetuate the cultural differences between the two groups.

       4. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old Iranian-Canadian female. She was born in Iran but moved to Canada as a young child, then moved again to southern California as a teenager. Learning about her parents’ Iranian culture helped her feel a sense of continuity throughout the different moving experiences she had. They also helped her feel more rooted and attached to her place of birth.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

A Mexican Runs Into a Wall…

Item (direct transcription):

A Mexican with an erection runs into a wall. What does he break?

His lawnmower.

Background Information:

The informant read the joke on 9GAG, an online social media site.

Contextual Information:

The informant made it very clear that he would only tell the joke to someone he knew very well and was confident wouldn’t be offended.

Analysis:

This joke is a clear example of blason populaire, playing on the stereotype that all Mexicans are gardeners.

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