Book Review: Four titles by folklorist Dr. Jeana Jorgensen

Folklore Made Simple series by Jeana Jorgensen
Dr. Jeana Jorgensen has been writing about folklore, fairy tales, and sex for ten years. Often these topics intersect in her work. Recently she has assembled that decade’s worth of academic papers and blog posts about this material and released it in compiled form under three major titles. You can find the whole Folklore Made Simple series here.

Themes that turn up frequently (and these are my paraphrases):

  • You participate in folklore all the time, even if you don’t know it
  • Sex education saves lives and helps make them worth living
  • That’s not actually in the Bible – some guy made it up less than 100 years ago

There’s so much to love here, where important notions are addressed pithily and simply, but I can’t quote them all. Here’s a core takeaway from Sex Education 101, also emphasized in Folklore 101:

  • …it’s not like meaning is some free-floating attribute out in space, it always comes bundled along with culture and people and their values.

Another winner:

  • And there is no value in taking a comparative approach to terror and trauma; there’s no ranking system that applies. All we can do is tell story after story, looking for the jagged edges of where experience ends and story begins, looking for language to convey experiences so strange as to seem inexpressible.

There are two authorial voices in these books. Jorgensen’s scholarly papers as reproduced in these books are written in the familiar academese, containing the requisite average of eight to fifteen latinate expressions per sentence. (Yes, there’s tons of juicy meat in those. Some of my favorites are mentioned below.) But the blogs reproduced in these books have a breezy, natural voice, informed by an academic blogger’s effort to make these topics public-accessible and youth-friendly. (I’m pretty old, myself. My first favorite writer on sex, marriage, and human rights was George Bernard Shaw, who was born in 1856. What that man did to the semicolon shouldn’t happen to an innocent piece of punctuation. Jorgensen goes easy on it, although she is fond of parentheses.)

What I take away from the points at which Jorgensen drops in a “sorry/not sorry”, for example, is that the younger generations of her readers, including the college students she teaches, are in agreement with her oft- and overtly-stated political positions on sex education, and that these readers have fewer negative folkloric hurdles about sex to overcome, particularly with regard to the human rights of non-cis-het-straight-rich-white-male persons. According to Jorgensen, some of the kids do still seem a little vague on birth control.

FOLKLORE 101: An Accessible Introduction to Folklore Studies (Folklore Made Simple)

Folklore 101 by Jeana JorgensenThis is an immense yet readable trove of introductory material, ordered in a list of buzzwords of the business, then by groups of folkloric study, then by more minute topics of folkloric study. Jorgensen offers it for a wide range of readers, from beginning folklore students to the average Jane interested in this stuff. I would recommend it for the undergraduate who is already on fire about folklore and has decided to pursue it into graduate studies, but, as they learn that graduate school doesn’t reward generalist approaches, they can’t decide where in particular to focus. Folklore 101 is a nice smorgasbord from which to snack, and a helpfully annotated catalogue of resources for dipping deeper.

Short take: the definition of folklore is less narrow than you might think. The Oxford English Dictionary counts, but so do The Urban Dictionary, and The Big Book of Filth, and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Greasy grimy gopher guts, the alligator in the sewer, the best way to tighten lug nuts on a truck assembly line. How we curse and bless, how we talk about sex and don’t, what sorts of folklore we think are fit for children to enjoy.

  • “We’re all the folk. We all have lore.”

Jorgensen’s very reasonable view is that you need to name and understand the parts of your baggage before you can unpack it. Each section addresses one of these parts, with examples and occasionally some history of how the part got its name and how it has evolved with the study of folklore. The sections are short. This book reads like lightning.

FAIRY TALES 101: An Accessible Introduction to Fairy Tales (Folklore Made Simple)

Fairy Tales 101 by Jeana JorgensenLots of fun, this is a fat collection of essays on specific topics relative to fairy tales and, occasionally and tangentially, to sex and fairy tales. Even where a fairy tale contains no sex, it often contains culturally normative or regulative messages about gender, sex roles, and even about sex education.

Among her many topics, Jorgensen debunks the notion of the “original version” fairy tale (think, “the golden age of science fiction is twelve”); she details how and why the Brothers Grimm heavily edited their famous collections between each edition, depending on the intended market; and she explains how princesses happen.

There are too many widely-spread topics to cover here, but they are all deeply interesting, with excellent resources listed for those interested in pursuing further. Here are a few examples of my favorites:

Making Peace with the Definition Beast
Structure and Structuralism
How to Legit Start Studying Fairy Tales
Why We Should Stop Obsessing over “Dark” Fairy Tales
Folklore, Fairy Tale, and the “Original” Version
and related, to that,
Why the Translation You Read of a Fairy Tale Collection Matters
and also related,
The Grimms on Censorship
A Rant on Helen Oyeyemi’s Fairy-Tale Novel Boy, Snow, Bird
Innocent Initiations: Female agency in eroticized fairy tales
Masculinity and Men’s Bodies in Fairy Tales: Youth, violence, and transformation

Again, the notes and resources in this book are gold for someone interested in diving deeper into the experts.


HOW TO GET LAID IN FAIRY TALESHow To Get Laid in Fairy Tales by Jeana Jorgensen

This is a free article available only to subscribers of Dr. Jorgensen’s newsletter, and discusses how fairy tales present matters such as how gender is negotiated in fairy tales, “pants” roles in fairy tales, and the fairy-tale double standard for sexual behaviors. Sign up here to get a copy.


SEX EDUCATION 101: Approachable Essays on Folklore, Culture, & History (Folklore Made Simple)

Sex Education 101 by Jeana JorgensenFascinating and thoughtful, this book can be a generalist guide to teachers of sex education. It can also guide any reader through an understanding of the sex ed they got – especially if they never got any formal sex ed. That’s where folklore comes in, and it comes from a surprising number of places. Packed with solid history and a detailed tracking of trends, movements, and legislation, this book explains how our society got this way, the consequences we’re living with, and suggestions for improving in that.

The resources and bibliography are worth the price of the book itself, particularly if you are an educator tasked with teaching sex education to under-21 students.

I found the lengthy history of sex education engrossing. Apparently, America is grossly backward in this area, compared with the rest of the Western world. Culturally we have a sex phobia that, combined with our approval of high levels of real and fictional violence as tolerable and appropriate, plays a key role in sustaining many barbaric regional laws and accompanying high levels of racism, sexism, STIs, teen pregnancy, and poor general education across the board. But then, I’m one of those voters who sees birth control as the keystone of civilization and a litmus test for candidates for any office. Jorgensen’s deep research and familiarity with the role that folklore plays in educating people (from people who don’t get any other kind of education, either, to those with quite high academic attainments) support this view.

My favorite section, if I have one, is the one on Trauma. Tapping into her understanding of how folklore functions and a nice grounding in the study of trauma, Jorgensen illustrates how poor sex education leads to unnecessarily high levels of trauma in all genders, and how trauma can be faulted for a lifetime of miserable experience with sex and with relationships even for rich-straight-white-het-cis men. Indeed, their culturally-asserted position at the top of our society can be bitter fruit when sexual trauma is poisoning their lives, hidden under the brittle shell of privilege, denied by folklore, and forced into concealment by shame.

The Trauma chapter also touches on one of my areas of study.  Dr. Jorgensen doesn’t delve much into the realm of recovery from sexual folklore and sex education (or lack of it), although she does mention the myth of “porn addiction” and recommends Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life” in connection with this myth. Find full references on this in Jorgensen’s footnotes and bibliography. My own bonus recommendation would be Body and Soul by Anne Stirling Hastings, particularly her book’s section on “the shame compartment.”

I have mentioned only one of the hundreds of excellent references and resources cited by Jorgensen in these books, because she refers to it so often. My TBR pile just got scary.

There’s a very good chance that the Folklore Made Simple books are not Jorgensen’s last word on the subjects. Stay tuned.

FOLKLORE 101: An Accessible Introduction to Folklore Studies (Fox Folk Press, 2021)
FAIRY TALES 101: An Accessible Introduction to Fairy Tales (Folklore Made Simple) (Fox Folk Press, 2022)
SEX EDUCATION 101: Approachable Essays on Folklore, Culture, & History (Folklore Made Simple) (Fox Folk Press, 2023)


Women of Other WorldsThis may be a good spot to mention a paper I wrote that’s tangential to Jorgensen’s materials: “Talk Dirty To Me: The shame compartment in action in Suzy McKee Charnas’ ‘Beauty and the Opera or The Phantom Beast.’” This paper was presented at Wiscon 20 and published in Women of Other Worlds: Excursions Through Science Fiction and Feminism, edited by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams (University of Western Australia Press, 1999). Charnas’s novella is a tour de force of feminist revision, a must-read for those interested in The Phantom of the Opera as a cultural phenomenon, and blindingly inspiring as a text about a woman seizing sexual power (and power power) in an impossible situation.

Jennifer Stevenson

Jennifer Stevenson's Trash Sex Magic was shortlisted for the Locus First Fantasy Novel Award and longlisted for the Nebula two years running. Try her romantic fantasy series Hinky Chicago, which is up to five novels, her paranormal romances Slacker Demons, which are about retired deities who find work as incubi, or her paranormal women's fiction series Coed Demon Sluts, about women solving life's ordinary problems by becoming succubi. She has published more than 20 short stories.

Find Jennifer at the Book View Cafe blog, at the second row at fast roller derby bouts in Chicago, or on Facebook.

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