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  • Response to Kathleen Ragan's "What Happened to the Heroines in Folktales?"
  • Jonathan Gottschall (bio)

There is much to admire in Kathleen Ragan's article in this issue of Marvels & Tales. The idea of overlapping filters (of tellers, collectors, and editors) is inventive and simple in the best way. Above all, I admire the cleverness of the methodology and the attempt to address a sensitive question in the most principled and objective fashion the author could devise. Getting humanists to adapt scientific methodologies for their own studies has been a sort of crusade of mine (see Gottschall, Literature), so I am especially appreciative of this effort.

Below I describe two limitations I see in Ragan's sampling and methodology and one issue I see in the framing of her results. I then go on to offer a somewhat different, though I think complementary, response to Ragan's intriguing question: What did happen to all the heroines in the folktales? I hope these [End Page 437] remarks will be received by all in the constructive spirit in which they are intended.


At first glance, Ragan's sample of 1,601 tales is satisfyingly large. From another perspective, however, the sample is quite small. It consists of only 32 collections of folktales drawn from significantly fewer distinct cultures, which raises questions about whether the sample is big and broad enough to be considered representative of world folk traditions. Moreover, some important subsets of the data contain very few cases. Consider, for instance, Ragan's key comparison of FFF versus MMM (that is, her comparison of tales told, collected, and edited exclusively by males versus exclusively by females). Ragan says that her findings "indicate that the predominant gender represented in a tale is related to the passage through a triple, single-gender filter (MMM or FFF)." But this result is based on a very small sample (table 4 lists just 50 tales from the FFF filter and 102 tales from the MMM filter). What these results actually mean is that in the very few collections that included information on the sex of the teller/collector/editor, there was a dramatic difference between MMM and FFF.

In short, I believe Ragan hangs claims that are too big (e.g., every previous study of the folktale that did not take into account Ragan's specific gender variables "should be considered compromised") on pegs of data that are too small.

Elimination of Moderating Effects

Ragan writes, "This paper analyzes the differential representation of tales with predominantly female or male characters as defined by a tale with more than two-thirds of one gender in the nominative case, therefore this analysis does not include tales that are not dominated by one or the other gender." It is easy to miss the import of these sentences if one reads too quickly. Ragan has eliminated from statistical consideration tales that are well balanced in their gender depictions.

We can imagine gendered dominance of a tale occurring along a continuum between 0 and 100, with total dominance of male characters represented by 0, with total dominance of female characters being represented by 100, and with perfect gender parity represented by 50. Ragan's method simply eliminates all tales that fall in the moderate range between the numbers 33 and 66-that is, it drops from consideration every tale that happens to have a pretty equitable gender distribution.

This is not an attempt at sleight of hand. Ragan tells us what she is doing: she is focusing only on tales in which characters of one sex or the other dominate. But it is important for the reader to appreciate that the figures Ragan reports [End Page 438] do not tell us how the different filters affect the representation of male and female characters. They tell us how the filters affect the representation of male and female characters after all moderating tales have been stripped from the analysis. How much of an effect did this methodological choice ultimately make on the reported numbers? We do not know, because we have not been told how many moderating tales were dropped from consideration.

In my view, Ragan's two-thirds threshold is a...


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pp. 437-442
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