Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras: Gender and Race and Everyone in Their Place

Carnival is supposed to be the time when everything is turned on its head. Poor men dress like kings, men dress like women, sinners dress like priests and angels, pious women dress like harlots. But does Mardi Gras really question anything? In some ways, doesn't it just reinforce the idea that everyone in society has their place and that, even at Carnival time, they should stick to it?

Most Mardi Gras parades consist of similar elements: a King and Queen, Maids, Dukes on Horseback, Riders on the Floats, Marching Bands, Dance Teams, Flambeaux Carriers and Crowds.

2010 was my fourth New Orleans Mardi Gras, so I think it's fair to note some discernible patterns; most of these elements are formed by gender and racial boundaries. Men and Women have specific roles in each parade, as do White and Black people. People who don't fall into neatly into societal roles of Man or Woman or White or Black often have no visible representation in Mardi Gras parades. There are Krewes specifically for Men and for Women, for White people and Black people, but there is no Transgender Krewe (that rides Uptown, anyway), there is no Hispanic or Vietnamese Krewe.

The patterns usually fall like this:

Men: Kings, Dukes, Masked Riders on the floats, Marching Bands, Flambeaux Carriers
Women: Queens, Maids, Dance Teams

Unless the Krewe is made up of women, like Muses or Iris, women generally do not ride on the floats except as Queens or Maids.

White: Royalty, Riders on the Floats
Black: Marching Bands, Dance Teams, Flambeaux Carriers

The Krewe of Orpheus is (to my knowledge) the only fully integrated Krewe with both Men and Women, White and Black people riding on the floats.

The Crowds at Mardi Gras are the only truly integrated thing about it. Everyone and their mother comes to watch, it doesn't matter who you are.

Certainly, these patterns were well-established over one hundred years ago. Most Krewes had strict admission policies and women and blacks were specifically excluded. Even if most Krewes now have open policies, tradition still persists and what were once all male all white parades are often still that way.

Royalty from the Krewe of Okeanos, 2010

Royalty of Zulu, the traditionally black Krewe. There are few others.

Marching Bands and Dance Teams are overwhelmingly black high school students. Does this reflect the nature of public schools in New Orleans? Some Catholic schools march, and some schools seem integrated and have boys and girls of all races. Some bands have girls playing instruments, but most are boys.

There are exceptions to most of the generalizations I am making in the post - but they are just that, exceptions.

I have never seen a female flambeaux carrier. I saw a few white men this year, but historically and presently, this job is held by black men.

Muses is an all female Krewe, and their parade is wonderful. But why the shoe? Do all women wear and crave stilettos?

Another interesting aspect of Muses is the presence of men marching in dresses. They have the usual high school bands and dance teams, but they also have men in dresses dancing and marching in the parade. But are the men true transvestites? Is this really a place for people who don't fall normative gender roles?

Racial Passes

All Dukes on horseback wear costumes like this. Some are red or green or purple. But when they wear white, the mask does look an awful lot like a Ku Klux Klan headdress. Does no one else in New Orleans see it that way? The costume is probably drawn from a time older than the KKK, possibly a European tradition. But it is eerie, isn't it?

Everyone who rides in Zulu wears blackface. Everyone. (Or maybe just the men.) That means when white people ride in Zulu, they wear blackface too. It's tradition. You don't question tradition. Or do you?


Heather said...

So my friend Cara just gave me this observation:

"I saw a female flambeaux in one of the parades, I think Proteus or Orpheus."

So, there really is an exception to everything pattern I've just described.

Nicole said...

I agree that the Duke on horseback's mask has an eerie similarity to KKK masks. I think the B&W photography was a good choice to illustrate that point.