The place  of
folktales  and folklore
in  Bulgarian  culture

Folklore has been occupying a central place in the national consciousness of Bulgarians since the beginning of time. Mythologies and stories about normal and fantastical people have been used through the ages to transfer the community’s belief and value system through oral storytelling. Then during the 19th century, as the Bulgarian Revival was blossoming, the interest in cultural and ethnographic endeavors was rising. There was a substantial effort to collect, write, and analyze that folklore by evident writers and scholars like Kuzman Shapkarev and Yordan Kovachev (Stoykova, 2001). Shapkarev’s collection, Sbornik ot balgarski narodni umotvoreniya (Collection of works of the popular Bulgarian spirit) that came out in the mid-20th century contains an invaluable account of 1300 songs, rituals, customs, rites, and beliefs, spread across four volumes. The 19th century was a pivotal moment in Bulgarian history as it was marked by the collapse of the Ottoman empire and thus the end of the Ottoman occupation. This sudden surge in cultural curiosity can be attributed to the desire to find the Bulgarian national identity and consciousness that needed to be formed, now that Bulgaria became an autonomous territory (Stoykova, 2001). Ivanichka Georgieva (1983) provided a synthesized account of those efforts in her book, Bulgarian National Mythology. Georgieva outlines the significance of mythology and folklore for the people occupying the land of Bulgaria today and pays attention to repetitive motifs and how their meaning has changed through the ages. Her work is an incredible resource for seeing trends across folklore items, especially when it comes to mythical characters like samodivas (featured in the animation), dragons, creation stories, etc. As these topics were of interest to me in the earlier stages of my project, I engaged with them a lot, but as the attention started shifting more towards gender relationships in those stories, I got back to her and focused primarily on her findings about samodivas and the general place of folklore in Bulgarian consciousness.

Folklore was crucial for the creation of national consciousness in Bulgaria. Its core values of hard work, love for the family, and being brave and honest resonate in people’s minds until today. The project of creating a coherent Bulgarian national identity that lies on those values has been undertaken both during the Revival period (while Bulgaria was still under Ottoman occupation) and later during the Socialist regime, with some questionable decisions, but effective nevertheless.

Folklore, oddly paired with the Christian belief system, was the last straw to hold Bulgarians as a community between the 15 and 19 century. As Angelov (1995) mentions, the first folklore collections from the end of the 19th century show that the song and narrative folklore was used to process the everyday lives of people in Bulgarian villages, as they were working, building families and “trying to stay safe”. Even though the intensity of the Ottoman occupation is quite questionable, the written folklore showcases the severe “us vs. them” mentality that was being spread around through songs and traditional dances. The big juxtaposition between “the dark scary Turk” versus the “white tiny kind Buglarian girl”. Regardless of the presence of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarian folklore seems to rely heavily on the moral superiority of hard work, honesty and selflessness. These values conveniently translated to the Socialist ideals a few decades later and many of them live until today. It is important to note that it is very possible that this continuity is this evident just because the Socialist regime could have successfully wiped out everything that doe s not support their agenda. Even now, many of those values continue to be circulate through school literature and widely accessible children’s books.

As we are acknowledging the omnipresence and importance of folklore throughout time and space, it is important to think about the assumptions that are built into Bulgarian identity to achieve those values. More specifically, let’s talk about gender roles and the place of women and men in the world of folklore. To achieve that, we will take a look at the kinds of stories that guide a young person’s relationship with folklore, i.e. the school literature curriculum, where there are over 100 folklore bits spanning throughout the entire mandatory schooling years

The relevance of folklore today seems to be primarily lingering from the Revival and the socialist efforts of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the characters and the stereotypes they represent linger in the collective consciousness and serve as a good guiding point when we talk about gender roles.

Women in Bulgarian Folklore

A substantial part of the Bulgarian folklore system lies on the binary opposition of male-female. Each concept in the folklore universe is gendered. From a structuralist point of view, it is important to talk about the presence of this binary because they exist to shape the readers’ worldview into accepting one and rejecting the other (Levi-Strauss, 1955). For example, we can’t perceive what good is if we don’t know what evil looks like. With that in mind, when it comes to the female half of the binary symbolism, there are two broad categories of “female” concepts - the cluster of the home and the cluster of the mystical, the unfathomable. So, this half of the binary has its own binary engrained in it too. In my animation, the two characters, the Golden Girl and the Samodiva, respectively, occupy exactly these two categories, the housewife, and the forest spirit. And in the Bulgarian folklore universe, the binary is not strictly male and female. It’s not entirely that the “female = evil” and “male = good”. There is a place for the female in the male binary, and there is a place for his supporter, but the independent woman represents a lot of what is “evil” in the world.

From a male-centric point of view, the two clusters are the “conquered” and the “unconquerable”. This patriarchal attitude seems to transcend the boundaries of political regimes and remain solid over the past 500 years or more. For example, the Socialist Regime in Bulgaria did plenty of work to tune folklore with socialist values, making sure to highlight how hardworking the female folklore characters were (Silverman, 1983). But they did not have any interest in shifting the patronizing attitude that floods both clusters of the feminine.

The Homemaker Cluster

The housewife cluster is accepted and admired by the tone that folklore adopts, implying that a woman should be hardworking, a good daughter at first, then a good wife and a good mother, and a good keeper of the house. It is not questioned and it is supported from various directions. Sometimes the main character is a woman that is exceptionally good at these things and everything works out for her (i.e. she is able to find a good husband). On the other hand, sometimes the main character is a woman who is “lazy” for not being able to take care of the household and go to work and she is punished for that. Caring in itself is not a bad quality at all, in fact, it is an incredibly beautiful, important, and difficult role to play in the world. As Maria Tatar mentions in her 2021 book, The Heroine with 1001 faces, this is indeed an important quality of women characters across folklore systems around the world. She talks about how the care, empathy, strength, and intellect that it takes to stay at home need to be acknowledged way beyond the expression of fidelity and patience. It does need to be highlighted, but in an empowering and grateful way that recognizes the importance, the agency, and the responsibility that comes with being a caregiver.

In Bulgarian folklore, however, this role is just assumed and women are not praised in a way that is grateful and appreciative, but it’s rather the dynamic of “my wife and daughters need to stay at home, whereas I and my sons will go out and do fun heroic stuff. This is where they belong”. From the 100+ stories that I read, none of them were from a female perspective that shows the woman as an empowered main character. Yes, there are plenty of stories about girls and women, but they still present them as subjects and not conscious agents. For example, in the story about the Golden Girl, which serves as the basis for my collective housewife character, she just gets thrown around by various parties in her life (her father and stepmother who kick her out of the house, and then by the forest witch that takes her in) and the only actions she undertakes are to prove how diligently subservient and good she is in order to receive the approval either of her family or of the witch. The caretaking qualities are paired with being goodhearted, and beautiful, but also fragile and in the need of protection. In that same story, there is the other stepdaughter that is the antithesis of the golden girl, as she does not do chores, and is thus, evil. This is a structure that underlies a lot of the basic folktales, versions of which appear in multiple folklore collections and in the school curriculum. The underlying structure here is a female character that does not exit the universe of the home and is praised for the pre-approved set of characteristics (being kind, caring, hardworking, and beautiful in a fragile way).
Title Translated Title SummarySource
Златното момиче The Golden Girl The pretty, kind, and hardworking daughter is hardworking in a lot of situations and she is rewarded with gold, whereas the lazy stepdaughter is rewarded with disgusting creatures. Source
Сливи за сметPlums for trashA bachelor is looking for a wife and he is casting through women bringing him bags of trash they collected in their houses. The plot twist is that they are looking for the smallest bag of trash (i.e. that the woman is extremely tidy). And the kind hardworking girl that has the tiny bag marries the man. Source
Който не работи, не трябва да ядеWhoever doesn’t work, shouldn’t eatA girl is married into a family. She has not worked her whole life and now she doesn't work either. The new family starves her until she starts working. Source
Заспала е бяла Неда  White Neda fell asleep Neda fell asleep on the field. She got kidnapped by three Turkish men and they told her that she will never see her family again. Source
Драгано робиньоDragana the slave Someone is asking Dragana why she is sad. She is saying that she is rushing to finish the work in this field so that she can go work in another field. Source
Хубава Pада, гиздава Pretty Rada, pretty

Rada was pretty but very unlucky. She cared for a lot of people and brought them back to life. But then she got sick and died because there was no one to help her. Source
Седела яна седенкувала Yana (can’t translate the rest) Yana was preparing her dowry all night, but she was sick and she died in the morning. Her mother is mourning her in the morning and praises her for doing all the work and bringing water from the well. Source
Янкин брат янка думаше Yanka’s brother was talking about YankaYanka’s brother tells her to take the horse to drink water. She is attached to the horse. The horse runs away and she can’t control it. She is upset that her brother is not there to save her. Source
Чуваш ли Радо, гледаш ли Are you listening, Rada, are you looking [A guy is singing to Rada] He tells her that his mother organized a spinning contest. Rada completed much less than the other women, so his mother disapproves of their love and she doesn’t want them to get married. So, he suggests that they commit suicide together. Source
Малка мома вада копаTiny girl is digging a ditchA tiny girl is digging a ditch all by herself so that she can go water her garden. Source

Some of the underlying structures in the housewife cluster are that a good daughter/wife does not leave the daily routine of work in the fields and housecare, and she is exceptional at it. In the stories when the character deviates from this path even slightly(i.e. when Rada doesn’t spin as much as the others or when Neda fell asleep on the field), she is punished by society (Rada is rejected by her potential stepmother and Neda is kidnapped. In these examples, the underlying binary is good(hard work) vs bad (resting and hanging around). Characters that are on the wrong side of this binary communicate what will happen if you deviate from the pre-approved path. So, from these stories, we can distill a list of characteristics that a good woman should have:
  1. Family oriented (first your own family and then your husband’s family)
  2. Be pretty and kind in a slightly fragile way (so that you can live under the man’s wing)
  3. Be very hardworking and sacrificial, you want to take care of everyone. Hard work is a source of pride for you and your family
  4. You don't need a community, you don’t need help, and you don’t need to be saved. Martyrdom for the sake of hard work is welcome.

To go back to Tatar (2021), some of these qualities, like being hardworking, caring, and nurturing,  would be wonderful, if there was some degree of agency and respect coming with them. Even though there is a lot of strength associated with being able to perform all this work, it seems like none of it is acknowledged in those tales. In fact, they chose to portray those characters as weak and fragile, still requiring the protection of the men around them - brothers, fathers, potential suitors, etc.

The Mystical cluster - The Samodiva

Samodiva, samovila, vila, rusalia, yuda, these are all nouns that are used to describe a figure in Bulgarian and Southern Slavic folklore that embodies the unknown, the mystical, the unexplained forces of nature. According to Todorova (2019), all these words have converged in meaning. Even though some folktales use the name samodiva, others samovila or yuda, they are referring to the same symbol. This system of images and forces is one of the most prominent legacies of the pagan worldviews. Of course, it has been influenced by Christianity, but in no way eradicated and it is one of the symbols that has not been adapted to fit the biblical narrative (Iliev, 2000). Samodivas kept existing in various forms in oral history and later in written folklore. Kirova (2008), Georgieva (1983), and Angelova-Damianova (2003) all agree on the general symbolic meaning of the existence of these characters. They live in far, remote places, usually mountains, mostly around rivers and water sources. Their community is only of women of various ages. They wear white and they dance together, they eat fruits and their “horse” is a “sur elen”, a mythical deer that holds the sun between its horns. They live in virgin and remote places, where humans don’t go. They are the guardians of water and generally of nature. Georgieva talks about how they are the guardians of water springs and fountains. There are multiple landmarks that are named after them - i.e. there are multiple lakes named Samodiva’s lake, Samodiva’s meadow, etc. Many of those names stand until today.

This is where the agreement in the literature ends. There are various sources (Georgieva has collected many), that describe them as creatures that are against humans, that are trying to harm them, whereas other sources describe them as forest fairies that bless people with herbs and their relation to nature is not that devastating to humankind. Either way, they are creatures that exist separately from humans, even though they interact with them occasionally. They live their lives by their own principles and any collisions with humans leave them unchanged. As Georgieva (1983) says, killing the samodiva is the only way to defeat her, but she wouldn’t betray her community’s principles. When they are perceived as good creatures, they still hold the very strong values of sisterhood and unity with nature, but they help humans by curing them of chronic illnesses, etc. The way their interactions are perceived and evaluated by humans is subjective, but the list of events and actions that are associated with them remains. They are the face of nature that seems to embody the unknown, the untouched, the pristine, the forces that humans can’t seem to be able to tame. For example, in the next section, you will see the summary of a story where a dead samodiva’s eyes become lakes and her corpse becomes a tree. Another one is the guardian of the twelve springs and a third one explains the existence of whirlwinds. And so, they are at the very least removed, or in a lot of cases, demonized, as they are used to describe unfathomable events, but mostly the unpleasant ones. This shows a rejection of two entities - self-sufficient women and the close connection and relation to nature as a bigger and unpredictable force, here the binary is both male/female and culture/nature.

This collision of the “wild” woman and nature tells us a lot about how the Bulgarian patriarchal society perceives both of them. Let’s look at one prominent example, versions of which appear in various folklore collections. The main characters are Krali Marko and a samodiva. For context, Krali Marko is a character that appears throughout various folklore pieces and is used as a symbol of masculinity, strength, heroism, etc. His character and what he stands for are immediately recognized.
Крали Марко и Самодива

Събрали се триста момци,

триста момци в Шар планина

да си мятат тежък камък.

Никой камък не подигна

нито можа да го хвърли!

Ей го иде Крали Марко,

той си дигна тежък камък

и го дигна и го метна

от планина до Пирина!

Камък падна у градина,

у градина самодивска,

та поломи дребно цвете,

дребно цвете - ран босилек.

Щом го видя Самодива

натъжи се, разсърди се,

че си грабна люти стрели,

дигна лък от жилав корен

със тетива тънка коса,

тънка коса самодивска,

че си яхна сури елен,

че си метна бяла нога

у зенгии до две змии.

Съгледа си Крали Марка

на рътлина под планина

дето слиза с бърза коня,

с коня слиза, песен пее.

- Стой почакай, Крали Марко,

да ти хвърля първа стрела!

Трепна Марко и застана,

щит издигна нанагоре,

прозвънтя ми люта стрела,

юнак Марка не улучи.

Разсърди се Самодива,

набърчи си бяло чело

събраха се облаците

на поляна самодивска...

- Стой почакай, Крали Марко,

да ти хвърля втора стрела.

Трепна Марко и застана,

щит издигна нанагоре,

прозвънтя ми люта стрела,

заплете се коню в грива.

Разгневи се Самодива,

от очи й искри хвъркат -

светна, тресна тъмен облак

над поляна самодивска.

- Стой почакай, Крали Марко,

да ти хвърля трета стрела!

Спря се Марко и застана,

щит издигна на високо,

прозвънтя ми люта стрела,

щит удари по средата,

отхвръкна ми като сламка.

Разфуча се Самодива,

лък захвърли, па заплака -

зароси ми дребен дъждец,

та измокри Крали Марка!

А Марко й проговаря:

- Не сърди се, Самодиво,

не гневи се, посестримо!

Ех, жена си - ще поплачеш,

ще поплачеш, ще ти мине.
Krali Marko and Samodiva

Three hundred men gathered

Three hundred men in Shar mountain

To throw a heavy rock

No one could lift the rock

Or to throw it

Here comes Krali Marko

He lifted the heavy rock

And he lifted it and threw it

From the mountain to Pirin mountain

The rock landed in a garden

In a samodiva’s garden

And it killed a tiny flower

A tiny flower - early basil

When Samodiva saw him

She got sad, she got upset

She grabbed her bitter arrows

Lifted her bow from a tough root

With a bowstring - thin hair

Thin hair of a samodiva

She got on her deer

She threw her white legs

In the stirrups next to two snakes

She caught sight of Krali Marko

In the ridge of the mountain

Coming down with his fast horse

Coming down with the fast horse, singing a song

-Wait, Krali Marko, wait

For me to shoot my first arrow

Marko flinched and stood still

He raised his shield up

The bitter arrow rang

The hero Marko it did not hit

The samodiva got upset

She wrinkled her white forehead

The clouds came

To the samodiva meadow

-Wait, Krali Marko, Wait

For me to shoot my second arrow

Marko flinched and stood still

He raised his shield up

The bitter arrow rang

It got tangled in the horse’s mane

Samodiva got enraged

Her eyes are throwing sparks

A dark cloud lit up, thundered

Over the samodiva meadow

- Wait, Krali Marko, wait

For me to shoot my third arrow

Marko stopped and stood still

Rised his his shield hup

The bitter arrow rang

Hit the shield in the middle

Flew away like a straw

Samodiva threw a tantrum

Threw the bow away, and started crying

A tiny rain started sprinkling

And it drenched Krali marko!

But marko said to her:

-Don’t get upset, Samodiva

Don’t get mad, my sister

Ah, you are a woman - you will cry for a bit

You will cry for a bit, and you will be fine.

The plot of this poem helps us identify various structures when it comes to the man/woman binary together with the nature/culture binary. The table below outlines the specific opposing features that Krali Marko and Samodiva embody.
Krali Marko Samodiva
Man < >Woman
Strong <>Not strong enough
Calm and collected< >“Unreasonably angry and upset”
Culture/ Human Progress < > Nature

The only element that is missing from this specific piece of folklore is the element of sisterhood, as opposed to a male-dominated society, where the woman only exists in relation to her family. The following table outlines the summaries of 11 more pieces of folklore that include samodivas.
No.Title Translated Title Summary Villain or

1Иван Попов и Самовила Ivan Popov and Samovila Man encounters samovila, samovila refuses to leave (it sounds like shes just chatting with him). He threatens to torture her. Then, he marries her and locks one of her wings in. He lives with her for three years, she gives birth to a child. Then she tell him to give her her wing back so she can go dance. They are reluctant because they are scared that she will escape. Then, she actually escapes and everyone is angry.Villain Source
2Димо Кавалджия и Гюргя самодива Dimo the caval player and Gyurgya Samovila Gyurgya captures Dimo and takes him to the mountain. He shows exceptional musical talent and takes Guyrgya as a wife back to the village. She stays with him for three years and gives him a child. It was time to baptize the child and she tricked him and flew away and never came back. Villain Source
3Самодива погубва овчар Samodiva kills a shepherd The shepherd has met a mysterious woman in the mountains and he can’t figure out where she is from and whose daughter she is because she wouldn’t tell him. Then, his mother gives him a special blend of flowers and herbs that she would accept if she is a woman and would run away from if a samodiva. Then, the samodiva realizes the trick that he is trying to play on him and she kills him Villain Source
4Вида самовила заключила дванадесет извора Vida Samovila locked up twelve springs

There was a water shortage in the village and someone told Krali Marko that Vida locked up all the springs. He goes there and he kills her. Justice restored (Graphic descriptions of how he killed her exactly). Villain Source
5Драгана и самодиви Dragana and samodivas Dragana was dancing in her village and then a whirlwind came and lifted her up. Then, she wanted her brother to take her to a samodiva lake. There, the samodivas took her away as one of theirs. Villain Source
6Дете и три самодиви A child and three samodivas A mother forgets her child in the fields, then she finds three samodivas over it, chanting that they will take it away to their lands to show it what is real spring, what is real fruitfulness. They won’t take it away now, but when it grows up. Villain Source
7Трима овчари и самодива Three shepherds and samodiva Three shepherds want to take their herds to three separate mountains. A samodiva meets all of them to ask for a “meadow tax” and they trick her and the youngest brother kills her  Villain Source
8Ранен юнак и самодиваWounded hero and a samodiva A guy is wounded at war and he is laying in the mountains. A mean eagle is threatening to eat him. Then, he calls a samodiva and she comes and heals him with herbs. Friend Source
9Юнак улавя самодива A hero catches a samodiva A “hero” is playing around in a samodiva’s territory. She tries to shoot him with her bow and arrow and she can’t. After the third attempt, he catches her. Villain Source
10Марийка и самодиви Mariika and samodivas Mariika falls asleep at the field. As she wakes up, she discovers that three samodivas are around her. They tell her, “Come with us to our lands. It’s really beautiful, we don’t go to the fields, we don’t have to work. We just dance together and sing and dance”. It is unclear whether she decided to go with them. Unclear Source
11Овчар убива самодива Shepherd kills a samodiva A shepherd leaves his herd on samodiva territory and the samodiva takes his sheep. He goes and kills her with an arrow between her eyes. From her eyes, two lakes formed. From her “thin” body grew a tree. From her blond hair, a fine clover grass grew. The shepherd goes with his herd to that place now. The song praises him for providing this to the people. Villain Source
12 Крали Марко и самодива Krali Marko and samodiva (the translated one above). Krali Marko plays with a rock and that rock kills a plant in the samodiva’s garden. Samodiva gets angry and tries to kill him. He dodges all her attempts. She starts crying out of rage and he dismisses her anger because she is a woman Villain Source

When we look at these 12 stories together, we can see that the entity of the samodivas is seen only in relation to people that encounter them. I wasn’t able to find any stories about what samodivas do when there are no humans around. In 10 out of the 12 stories, the samodiva is the clear opponent of humans and they have to defeat her. The victory over the samodiva is portrayed as a win for humankind. But, upon a closer look, we can see that all they are trying to do is to protect their territory, to try to keep it pristine and theirs. In all of those stories, the man is trying to intrude their territory for their own gain (i.e. for his herd). And when she shows up, not too happy about that, the only thing to do is to kill her. This shows the clear binary of man/woman and nature/culture. Man/culture have to win over woman/nature at all costs and whenever the latter appears to be stronger, it has to be tricked and defeated. In stories where the samodiva manages to escape the captivity of man, she is still the villain, even if the story clearly shows that she was kept against her will. The underlying value that this collection of stories is aiming to establish is twofold:

  1. The patriarchal society should be kept going at all costs (culture > nature)
    1. Samodivas that protect anything that humans want, need to die
    2. Samodivas that are forced to exist within that society, but if they escape, they are condemned
    3. Samodivas that want something in exchange for giving away their nature need to die
    4. When samodivas are killed, everything they stand for becomes man’s possession
  2. A woman that wishes to exist outside of that society is harmful (man > woman)

Of course, the nature of folklore is to exaggerate events and turn everything into a life/death situation, but it is interesting to see how all these stories reject any sort of coexistence with nature. The way to interact with nature is to conquer it. The way to interact with women that don’t want to be a man’s possession is also to conquer them or to kill them if they don’t want to cooperate.

The folktales and songs that are available to me fail to encapsulate what samodivas do when people are not around, but the twelve stories hint at the fact that in their distant lands, they have fun and stay together, they don’t work and they just have a good time. Georgieva (1983), however, has collected information from various sources around the country from oral folklore and what people’s perceptions have been over time -  sisterhood and deep connection with nature persist. The twelve stories put the samodivas in clear opposition with humans/men and do not pay that much attention to the samodiva’s redeeming qualities. They are the enemy. In almost all of these stories, the humans invite the samodivas anger and their frustration is completely dismissed as unreasonable (and worthy of being killed).

This demonization of feminine anger and power reminds us of the story of Medusa from Greek Mythology. In the end, Perseus kills her and takes her head, both as a trophy and as a weapon. In her 1975 essay, “The Laugh of Medusa”, Hélène Cixous talks about how the myth of Medusa is one of the most misinterpreted stories in our histories and it is a symbol of women’s repressed creativity and power. She further extends that idea by saying that women have been taught to fear their own power and are taught to subject their bodies to control and regulation. The mention of her almost always implies something malevolent, something monstrous that seeks to destroy (men), but simply because she is perceived by those men as a trophy, as something that needs to be defeated, even though the myth itself shows that none of the reasons why she is “evil” is any of her fault - she was raped and then punished for being raped.

Even though the figure of the samodivas is not that intensely connected to human intervention at the beginning of their existence, there is a lot to be learned from what Cixous (1975) and others say about the demonization of the feminine and what that means for the structure and functioning of society. The samodivas embody deep power, which is both supernatural but also deeply rooted in knowledge and connection to nature, that seems to be inherently opposed to human civilization. But also, their community is attributed to the inexplicable forces of nature in the pre-Enlightenment society of Bulgaria (whirlwinds and epilepsy, among other chronic illnesses) (Georgieva, 1983). As Cixous (1975) says to explain the Medusa phenomenon, the feminization of monsters is a tool to demonize women themselves. Similarly, as Bulgarian folklore feminizes negative and destructive natural events (like whirlwinds, droughts, and storms) they create an implicit connection to the fact that if women embrace their full power, it will be destructive.

So, once this tight connection is created (powerful women = samodivas = natural disasters and illnesses), then the other characteristics that samodivas embody quickly follow that negative perception. Sisterhood and deep connection and protection of nature become associated with the demonic. In Krali Marko and a Samodiva, our attention is pointed to the fact that the samodiva gets furious because Krali Marko kills a plant in her garden with his very unnecessary game, but what is highlighted is how he manages to escape her attacks because he is so strong and important. In the end, he dismisses her rage by saying “You are crying because you are a woman, you will cry, you will cry, and you will be fine eventually”. This specific piece of folklore knowledge points to the fact that the demands of the samodivas (or of nature) are unreasonable and that the human (or man) wish will prevail. In this duel between brotherhood (playing with a giant rock) and sisterhood (growing a garden with herbs), the former is the winner, even though there is no logical reason for that to happen. The only reason is that the mystical and untamable are bad and we should try to defeat them at all costs.

Ultimately, the message that the folklore system spreads to its female audiences is that if you are unpredictable (to men), if you are untameable (i.e. if you have your own autonomous thoughts and desires), and if you are powerful and you have a strong community (sisterhood), you are a threat to society and you are the reason why bad things happen to good people (whirlwinds and illnesses). So you should take the path of least resistance - learn how to be a good daughter to your father which will make you a good wife to your husband which will make you a good mother to your sons. This conclusion inspired the samodiva character in the animation.

Chapter II:

How do I relate to all this gender stuff?

So, how does one become a promising young woman? Being born with a vagina clearly is not enough, as we saw in Bulgarian folklore - being a woman can mean being a samodiva OR being a golden girl. Bulgarian folklore's system of underlying values can serve as the basis for identifying the kinds of people that can exist in a society. Of course, folklore has plenty of limitations, as it is no longer evolving to reflect the values of today's society in Bulgaria. It is primarily contained in literature textbooks and written collections. Nevertheless, it gives an important pointer to some roles a vagina owner can occupy in society.

When we talk about gender, we immediately realize that there are many ways one can be this gender. Some ways are approved, and some are not. It is tempting to start thinking about what it means to be a certain gender? What does it mean to be a woman in society? What role does that prescribe to you?

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman

To begin my ponderings about gender identity and how it comes to existence, I would like to focus on Judith Butler's 1986 essay, Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, where this quote comes from. As a secondary source explaining de Beauvoir's thoughts on gender identity, infused with Butler's own interpretations, I would like to take it as an anchor point to think about the concept of gender and what it means in our social world. I will use some quotes from the essay and relate them back to how I perceive they relate to my own experience. Overall, Butler is talking about how de Beauvoir takes gender as a "project," something that an individual builds throughout their life that interprets and then acts on certain social norms, it is a choice and acculturation. I find de Beuvoir's take (through Butler's words) a very important framework for me to think about gender as a medium through which one's body communicates with the past and the future of society.

[...]her theory of gender, then, entails a reinterpretation of the existential doctrine of choice whereby 'choosing' a gender is understood as the embodiment of possibilities within a network of deeply entrenched cultural norms. [...] As a condition of access to the world, the body is a being comported beyond itself, sustaining a necessary reference to the world and, thus, never a self-identical natural entity. [...] gender is a contemporary way of organizing past and future cultural norms, a way of situating oneself with respect to those norms, an active style of living one's body in the world.

This formulation of how choice plays into gender identity resonates deeply with me. The idea of the body as a medium to interpret the past and contribute to the future gives an excellent context to think about gender norms and how there is a choice about how to develop your gender identity, but the choice is constrained by what is already accepted in your society. And the idea of the body as a "medium" exists on so many levels. On the one hand, the body is a medium for the individual to express themselves intrinsically, then, it is a medium for the people surrounding the individual to interpret and impose their own conditioning, and then, the body is a medium for expression (or the demise) of larger societal structures, a communicator about what was in the past and how that carries on to today. The idea of gender "expression" has never meant anything to me because I have never felt that there is anything that needs to be expressed, so this formulation of gender as a medium and the broad interpretation of it by de Beauvoir/Bulter makes it much more relatable to me - it is still an expression, but it expresses way more than merely my idea of myself. So, in my animation, this shines through. Baby Ivana is guided to see how the various characters express their genders. Those "expressions" are vessels for the social norms that those characters portray, and so, Baby Ivana sees them as instructive of "different ways one can be a woman or a man" and struggles to figure out how she wants to respond through her own body.

Later on, Butler describes the logical connections that de Beauvoir makes to try and figure out how female people should reclaim their freedom and reasons through various formulations.

The language of "transcendence" suggests, on the one hand, that Simone de Beauvoir accepts a gender-free model of freedom as the normative ideal for women's aspirations. [...] On the other hand, insofar as transcendence appears a particularly masculine project, her prescription seems to urge women to assume the model of freedom currently embodied by the masculine gender.

They respond to this further in the essay, but the way they formulate seems a bit confusing to me. However, this part of the essay poses some questions that resonate deeply with the core of my animation: Girl wants to be free and live her best life. Man seems to be free. Therefore, girl should identify with the way men live their life to be free. That way, baby Ivana rejects the perceived ways one can be a woman and tries to go to the ways one can be a man to achieve that. Essentially, baby Ivana tries very hard to embody the cultural norms that define men in pursuit of transcending her gender and living an exciting life within the socially acceptable bounds. Later on, older Ivana realizes that and is still trying to fix it (and thus the existence of this project).

Then, to talk about this role that Baby Ivana starts to assume at the end of the animation, I would like to transition to Butler’s own 1988 essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, where they explore the idea of gender as a set of performative acts. In this essay, they arrive at the idea that gender is an identity that comes through the stylized repetition of an act. This formulation is the logical next step of my ponderings about the body as a medium, as discussed above, because it provides more thoughts about how one uses their medium from a first-person perspective. Butler uses the analogy of a play. According to them, the actor repeats those acts that constitute someone’s gender, and the mundane social audience (including the actor), believes this performance:

The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act that has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.

Another aspect of this performance is that it is fueled by social sanctions. If you fail to perform within the bounds of the play, you are punished by society. Another important point that Butler makes is that gender is not an individual choice, but also it is not imposed on the person. There is some room for improvisation, but one should not get too far away from the script. The body can interpret its role within the confines of the script.

Butler also gets into the idea of expressive versus performative aspects of gender. She says that if we consider expression, that presupposes that there is something true to be expressed. When we talk about performance, that implies that the act is not based on a deeper truth. They say that,

That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex, a true or abiding masculinity or femininity, are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed.

So, when we talk about my animation, it is important to consider this idea of gender performativity. From Butler’s essay, the relevant takeaway is that gender is a social performance; one can choose how to perform their gender identity, but the room for improvisation is confined. Through the animation, I show how as a child, I identified three ways I can perform being a female person in the world. One is to perform the good daughter/housewife, then I could be a strong independent woman that does not subscribe to the pre-approved norms of her society, and the third is to try to embody the characteristics that are usually ascribed to men. With my current social conditioning at the time, it seemed like the good role to play is to be a moderately masculine girl.

What are the confines of the play?

From my child’s perspective, the confines of the play are what my parents approve, what my extended family approves, what my outside social circle approves, and what the media I consume approves.

My father plays the perfect role of a husband and father. He is strong, he is smart, he is adventurous, he cares for his family. He knows how to operate various fun tools and has wonderful taste in music. My mother is a shy, pleasant lady. She is fun to be around, but she doesn’t occupy much space. She does her chores, and she is a good caring mother. My aunt is a bit of an outlier, she is a single mother, and she is incredibly independent and self-sufficient. But she is alone (and depressed). Therefore, from the family list of confines, it seems like the way to go is either to be like mom or like dad, not like my aunt because she is depressed (i.e. she is punished for exiting the confines). So, I picked up on a binary opposition (a very unnecessary but understandable one), that there are only two kinds of people that I am allowed to be and that they are necessarily opposites. I chose to be more like my dad because society told me that it is more fun to be a man. It seemed like the confines of the play allowed for this interpretation of my role. From that, I perceived that the ultimate decision-makers of the confines were men and boys around me because my dad had more weight in the decisions and evaluations in my day-to-day life. So the approval of the male actors seemed to be the first important sift of what kinds of gender performances are allowed. I guess there are some actors that you look at when you are playing and some that you don’t pay as much attention to.

This rendition of the gender performance that I unconsciously chose seemed to be the best of both worlds. I was still partially performing the accepted girl role, I was interested enough in girly things like playing with dolls, but I spiced it up with an adequate amount of masculinity -, I demanded that my parents buy me a car for my barbies or a treehouse, etc. I was also adequately interested in things that boys perform - I used to beg my father to buy me a hammer or to teach me how to operate his various woodcutting tools. That way, I managed to customize my role to a place where it was still acceptable but could reap the benefits of boyishness. Upon hindsight, it appears to me that I very much agree with Butler’s thoughts on a personal level because I don’t think I ever felt like this act is an expression of something intrinsic. It was a play, and it still is. I used external validation to guide me towards becoming a good member of society that plays an appropriate role there.

The media I was exposed to provided a very specific outline of what is acceptable and what isn’t. The binary male-female existed really strongly and there was very rarely a third character (like the samodiva, or my aunt). I almost always rejected the overly feminine characters in movies. In Lady and the Tramp, I was not paying too much attention to the female dog, in the Aristocats, I was only interested in the boy cats because the girl and the mother were too feminine. Sometimes I thought the female is admirable too, so I still subscribed to some of - in The Little Mermaid, where Ariel is fun, goofy, and adventurous. I did think she was someone to look up to. So, with these mixed signals from the media and from my family, I managed to craft the perfect girl who cares about some girly things but also about a lot of boy things.

Later on, I realized something along the lines of my animation - that the role of my gender does not have to be that strict, that this desire stems from a misogynistic society that turned me into a tiny misogynist. That even though I had spent years of my childhood crafting the perfect mixture between boy and girl, the root of this was the aim to please everyone and to be liked by everyone. By being slightly boyish, I received the approval of my dad and of the boys at school. By being girly enough, I was still accepted by all the female actors in my life. I was essentially liked by everyone but at the cost of never looking at what I actually wanted, how I actually want to perform my gender, and my life in general.

Scaling up

This development of a misogynistic worldview and approach towards being a girl/woman seems to stem from places that go way beyond my interpersonal relationships. I, just like everyone else, am born into a system that favors men over anything else. I would like to zoom out even more for a second and talk about the institurional bias towards men as context of why I, and many other vagina-owners, developed this deep sense of intrenalised misogyny. A particularly enlightening piece of writing on that issue was Invisible Women: Data bias in a World, Designed for Men by Caroline Perez (2019). In this book, Perez lists systems in the current state of the world that were designed with men in mind and even when those decisions are based on science, they still largely favor men over women - from public policy to health and everyday products. An example that hit really close to home as I was reading the book was the fact that the default temperature of office/public space A/C was determined based on a study in the 1960s that looked at the resting metabolic rate of an average 40-years old, 70-kg man. Then, Perez proceeds to cite another more recent study that found that younger women have a significantly lower metabolic rate than men and therefore these spaces are often way too cold for women. This kept being a recurring theme in my childhood, my mother was always cold and my dad was always in his T-shirt. So, my mind automatically assigned her a “weak” label and him, a “strong” label. This is just one of the many examples where Baby Ivana fell into the trap of the data gaps and biases that come as a result of our very gendered society and assigned it a value that supposedly shows some sort of pre-determined intrinsic quality.

In an older and more academic piece of writing, Acker (1992), talks about the more overarching theme of gendered institutions and explores how the notion of gender is one of the core building principles of the establishment of politics, law, religion, education, you name it. She talks about how those institutions are, indeed, defined by the absence of women, and the ways they function further reinforce that pattern over time. An important identification Acker (1992) makes is that there is a strict divide between production and reproduction - and that our world today is intensely skewed towards the former, prioritizing business and industry as the sources of well-being. Thus, this puts reproduction (i.e. childcare, elder care, education) to be “viewed as secondary and wealth-consuming”. This relates to Tatar (2021)’s thoughts on the place of women in mythology and folklore, as she identifies that their role as caretakers and community builders is severely neglected in the priorities of the storytelling genres. The parallel, coming from Perez’s details and Acker’s overarching thoughts and the stories of different nations and communities is, unsurprisingly, very strong. It is interesting to see that on the individual, communal, and larger societal levels there are a lot of unfortunate similarities in the way young Ivana’s brain would come to be wired to favor the figure of the man over the figure of the woman and assign a lot of casualties when it comes to developing a sense of how the world is. I can’t blame her for choosing to side with the male’s place in the world. From the data that she gathered in the first years of her life, it seemed like it is both more exciting and easier to choose to reject femininity.

All of this being said, this animation is the result of many years of thoughts and conversations. It is an attempt to bridge those gender stereotypes and call for a more complex understanding of the self, one that sees and understands the stereotypes and the cultural norms and has the freedom to decide how to relate to them, if at all.