Academic journal article Western Folklore

New Orleans Mardi Gras and Gender in Three Krewes: Rex, the Truck Parades, and Muses

Academic journal article Western Folklore

New Orleans Mardi Gras and Gender in Three Krewes: Rex, the Truck Parades, and Muses

Article excerpt

Mardi Gras thus provides a case study of the complexities of cultural change. Carnival was not merely a diversion, or even a simple reflection of society. Cross-dressing, racial disguise, and manipulation of carnivalesque symbols reveal a struggle over the meaning of masculinity and femininity in a racialized society.

Karen Leathem

To perform also means, though often more secretly, to reinvent.

Joseph Roach

Multi-faceted and dynamic, despite its reliance on core traditions, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a complex series of events that illuminates struggles over class, gender, and race.1 One of the few studies of New Orleans Mardi Gras asserts that, "while there is community-wide maskery and enjoyment, Mardi Gras and Carnival have a pervasive upper-class association" (Raabe 1975:16). Since 1975, however, Mardi Gras has evolved. A comparative study of three Mardi Gras carnival organizations or krewes-including the most celebrated group, Rex; its tailcoats, the truck parades; and a relatively new women's krewe, Muses-this article focuses on the impact of gender in these primarily white organizations. Examining these three krewes reveals the increasingly active role of women in New Orleans Mardi Gras over time. While women's roles vary widely, ideas about gender shape the participants' experience of the festivities.

Considering three established krewes together reveals not only salient differences, but also the commonalities of tradition that make all three representative of New Orleans Mardi Gras's predominantly white krewes' adaptability. As I note at the end of this essay, the first version of which was written before Hurricane Katrina, the devastated city continued with Mardi Gras, with varying effects on the participants analyzed here. The krewes' continuance, even in the face of overwhelming tragedy, suggests the importance and meaning of these practices for the participants.

Thanks to a special issue of Journal of American Folklore (Spring 2001), a number of articles, documentaries, and book chapters, many folklorists know a great deal about Cajun Mardi Gras, including issues of gender and race raised by changing rituals and practices. But New Orleans Mardi Gras, often derided as too commercial, also has its folk side. In interviews, my subjects reveal a sense of self-awareness about the importance of their krewe's rituals. The most famous of all krewes, Rex is also the longest running (since 1872) of the social groups that still parade.2 The truck parades began much later (1935), and their participants represent the middle and lower middle classes. Finally, the much newer Krewe of Muses, an all-female organization, began just six years ago, in 2000. Though not the first all-female organization, Muses is the first in decades to run a nighttime parade (the Wednesday before Mardi Gras).3 Women have always played a role in Mardi Gras, but despite a century and more of representation, women's krewes have been marginalized and some, like Venus, have stopped parading.4 The Krewe of Iris, the first all-female parading krewe (Berry 2004:308) still parades, but it is a day parade two weekends before Mardi Gras, a less prestigious time slot than the Wednesday night before Mardi Gras occupied by Muses. Generally, the closer a group's parade is to Mardi Gras, the more elite it is (the truck parades being a notable exception). Nighttime parades are also considered more prestigious than day parades.

Interviews with participants in all three groups revealed the importance of class and gender to each; nominally racially integrated, members of all three groups attempt to minimize racial differences but their comments and practices reveal a sharp acknowledgment of class and gender. These three krewes comprise one interconnected aspect that is New Orleans Mardi Gras. Rex is seen as central to Carnival; the trucks follow Rex, and Muses self-consciously sets itself up in competition with Rex. It can be confusing to discuss Rex, because it is at the same time the name of the parade, the organization, and its "king"; he is never called King Rex (which would be redundant), but simply Rex. …

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