In several essays in Letters From New Orleans, I explored some of the distinct, yet interlocking, versions of Mardi Gras that unfold every year. So I know that Carnival is rich territory. But can it be addressed with academic rigor? Perhaps so.
The Miller-McCune website (I have no idea what that it is — it says “turning research into solutions,” whatever that means) offered up several summaries of actual scholarly Mardi Gras research recently. Specifically:
- “Studying Drunken Promiscuity At Mardi Gras.” This studies reveals that men tend to overestimate the likelihood that they’ll hook up during Mardi Gras, and women tend to underestimate the degree to which they’ll do the same. Surprising? No. But this detail is noteworthy: “Almost one-quarter of the men reported having at least 16 drinks per sitting; 15 percent of women reported the same.” Wow.
- “The History of Mardi Gras Beadwhores.” Scholar discover “female festivalgoers who expose their breasts and, in turn, have beads or other small gifts showered down upon them.” You don’t say. Anyway there is again one interesting detail: The practice “began in the late 1970s, but its occurrence sharply increased from 1987 to 1991.” What do you all think — is that right?
- “The Evolution of Mardi Gras Rituals” is likely to seem more surprising, at least to people who are aware of Mardi Gras primarily via TV news clips of Bourbon Street. The scholars have apparently laid out the case that the day’s rituals revolve largely around affirming and performing class structures and societal norms: “Masked aristocrats, riding through thousands of people on raised platforms, casting beads, doubloons and other tokens into the crowd. In this allegory, the upper class — the hereditary elite of an agrarian social order — offers gifts to the shouting, scrambling peasants.” Actually … I think there’s some truth to this, and I sort of get at it in a different way in the book. That said, I also think this is just one layer of Mardi Gras, that is completely irrelevant to many participants. Also I think the researchers’ further assertion that the emergence of flashing for beads is a form of empowerment is ridiculous. “Participants gain control over the conditions of the exchange,” they write. C’mon. To the extent flashers gain “control,” they are taking it from other, non-flashing “peasants,” not from the “aristocrats,” who continue to perform their end of the transaction in precisely the same manner and on the same scale as before, but now receive even more affirmation of their own power. (I’m just addressing this stuff on the researchers’ own terms, you understand. And yes, I am very, very aware that only a small section of a typical parade route is likely to be the site of actual flashing, most of which involves people from other places, so really the whole aristocrats-and-peasants thing doesn’t really apply to this segment of the crowd at all, in my view.)
- Finally: “Unmasking Mardi Gras Deviants” puts Mardi Gras in the context of “sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1963 theory of ‘backspaces’ — places where people can escape the glare of judgmental neighbors and bring out hidden sides of their personalities.” The practice of masking underscores this behavior. I think that’s basically right, and in fact it’s kind of a theme of Letters From New Orleans, recurring in each of the essays related to Carnival, and pretty explicitly articulated in the closing chapter, “The Schloegel Findings.” But check this out: The scholar who wrote this paper “spent a total of 500 hours at seven New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, attending every year from 1994 through 2000.” That was his research! Sheesh, maybe I should’ve gone to grad school after all!