Academic journal article Western Folklore

Masking Gender: A German Carnival Custom in Its Social Context

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Masking Gender: A German Carnival Custom in Its Social Context

Article excerpt

In his essay on "Carnivals, Carnival, and Carnivalization" in this issue, Daniel Crowley observes that the "most astonishing characteristic of Carnival is its conservation of form in a situation designed to maximize innovation and creativity." Despite the staggering variety of costumes, customs, displays, dramas, and forms of organization found in Carnival celebrations over six continents, the festival ultimately consists of, as Crowley puts it, "such a narrow set of themes!" Among this small number of recurrent themes, surely none is more essential to the idea of the carnivalesque than what Crowley calls the "reversal phenomenon," the Carnival world upside-down, in which status, age, wealth, and, most prominently, gender get turned on their heads (Babcock 1978). It should come as little surprise that gender, a basic organizing principle in all human societies, figures so centrally in a festival which, wherever it occurs, involves temporarily inverting social norms. -The most notorious yet long-lived Carnival tradition," suggests Reid Mitchell, "was that of cross-dressing" (Mitchell 1995: 135). V.V. Ivanov also notes that "the inversion of the binary opposition male/female.. appears to be a determining factor in a significant number of carnival rites involving status reversal. In those areas of Western Europe where the ancient carnival tradition has been preserved, the donning of masks of the opposite sex by the carnival participants remains the salient feature of the ritual...." Ivanov concludes that "the archetype explaining the establishment of these rituals [of transvestism] and their continued practice (in both ritual and nonritual, ordinary behavior) is apparently universal" (Ivanov 1984: 12, 13).

The symbolic play with gender norms found in Carnival is one reason those scholars Crowley dubs "post-modern" have found the concept of the carnivalesque so appealing and fruitful. Yet despite the interest in carnivalesque gender inversions, surprisingly little ethnographic research has focused on the division of participatory roles between men and women, and the relationship of these roles to representations of gender within specific Carnival traditions. Instead, many of the post-modern scholars who have reinvigorated study of the carnivalesque prefer to read gender inversions on a symbolic plane and then, perhaps, generalize about their social significance, rather than the other way around. For instance, Ivanovl cites numerous examples to ascertain that "in contemporary ethnology, transvestism (as other carnival rituals) is considered to be an instance of a ritual neutralization of semiotically significant oppositions, in this case the opposition male/female" (Ivanov 1984: 14). But Ivanov offers little information about the men and women actually engaging in this transvestism, or their conventional positions within their own societies, and instead uses the insight about semiotic mediation of binary oppositions to interpret selected literary works. In his study of Brazilian Carnival, Roberto DaMatta observes that the "opposition between street and house is basic, and it can be a powerful tool in analyzing the Brazilian social world" (DaMatta 1991 [1979]: 64). Clearly this symbolic dichotomy is deeply invested in matters of gender roles and representations: "In the house relationships are ruled by the 'natural' hierarchies of sex and age..." (DaMatta 64). Yet DaMatta remains on the level of symbolic generalization, and barely touches on gender at either the social or symbolic level; he does, however, briefly conclude that "the women of Carnival parade as whores, high up on platforms where they draw the attention of everyone's eyes, or around the tables and boxes of the ballroom where they stir passions" (DaMatta 108). Presumably the women would disagree with at least portions of this characterization. At DaMatta's personal invitation, Victor Turnerwhom Crowley boasts of not mentioning in his paper-also turned his attention to the Carnival of Rio. …

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