New Orleans does not change easily.
Just look at the months of tumult we endured over removal of the Confederate monuments. There were protests, arrests, a Lamborghini burned to a crisp.
So when Rebecca Snedeker brought cameras into the covert world of New Orleans’ Carnival royalty to create a documentary questioning its traditions, she expected a backlash. And she got it. But one of the complaints she remembers most vividly now, 12 years after the film’s release, wasn’t from her family or friends featured in the film. It was from an elderly black man who, instead of sympathizing with the film’s themes of exclusion, instead related to its depiction of deeply-rooted rituals.
“He said, ‘What, are you bucking your family tradition? No matter what, you don’t buck your family tradition,’” Snedeker told me Wednesday (Feb. 28). “There is a rich, cultural dynamic happening for a human being when they go through a ritual with their family. …
“Part of what’s so challenging about speaking up about a tradition when you’re part of it is you have relationships. So if you put your foot out or say anything about this being wrong, it’s like you’re offending everyone.”
I was born in New Orleans, but my parents were not, and so I was never a debutante. I did not come out to society, and my father was not a part of any secret organization. The closest we got to Carnival royalty was when we rode horses in a West Bank parade, or when my parents would walk in Krewe du Vieux. I’m pretty sure their sense of raunchy fun would not have been at home amongst the scepters and curtsies of formal Mardi Gras balls.
As I grew older, I’d see the photos lined up in The Times-Picayune of that year’s debutantes, but I couldn’t understand what they represented, why at Mardi Gras the front page of the paper would unveil, with fanfare, the identities of Rex and the Queen of Carnival.
And more recently, as we’ve seen purveyors of gendered pageantry on a national scale — like Miss America and Miss USA —face questions about whether they actually serve women or if they degrade them, I wonder why Carnival doesn’t get asked the same questions.
New Orleans has confronted tough questions about racism and Mardi Gras more than once. We are in the midst of a citywide conversation about whether Zulu should continue to parade in blackface. Our City Council once weighed in to force Carnival krewes to integrate. But in year two of #MeToo, we somehow still haven’t gotten around to talking about the role women play in this annual show of pageantry.
Snedeker, now the James H. Clark executive director at Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, attempted to start this conversation with her 2006 documentary, “By Invitation Only.” The film screened at various festivals, including the New Orleans Film Festival, and collected a number of accolades. In it, she followed a woman through her transformation into a Carnival queen while also asking pointed questions about the racial and gendered history of the tradition.
“By Invitation Only” also pointed to party invitations with racist language and imagery, framed the history of debutantes as a means for high society in the South to maintain a white ruling class by “protecting” their daughters from interracial relationships, and characterized the krewes’ royal-themed costuming as an outgrowth of wealthy Southerners who yearned for the days when they were masters of their own plantations.
While Snedeker is no longer part of that inner world, she says from her view on the outside looking in, not much has changed.
I spoke with a Rex official about women’s roles in that organization. “It’s held to a very fast tradition without a lot changing in terms of the role of the queen or courts or the presentation method at each ball,” he said.
“It’s very traditional and customary, and that’s part of the mystique and allure of this very unique celebration.”
The Rex official I spoke with (who, in keeping with the organization’s traditions, asked not to be named) said the young women who participate do not receive any formal education into the history of New Orleans debutantes. Former queen of Carnival and the current trainer for Rex monarchs Shelby Westfeldt Mills said she does try to include some history when she works with the court.
That training primarily focuses on how participants should carry themselves during the presentation, a physical manifestation that “what they’re representing is for the public,” Mills said.
Part of the tradition is the annual reveal of Rex and his queen. The Times-Picayune features both on the front page of the newspaper, their faces framed in gold. We present these two locals as consorts, equals, saying to the world that this man and this woman are worthy of our admiration. It casts a striking image.
While the man selected by his fellow Rex members to reign as king for the day is typically older — in the past decade, they’ve been between 54 and 75 — and considered a city leader, the woman is a debutante. She’s typically 21, a junior in college. She’s got varying interests and hobbies, perhaps an extensive record of volunteering, though usually no career yet. In one profile our newspaper presented in the past decade, she’s described as “willowy” with dimples.
But regardless of how they spend their free time, it’s not the women who are being honored; it’s their fathers and grandfathers. With every Carnival that passes, we endorse the stereotype that men become more valuable as they age, and women devalue with it.
As New Orleans-born author and former debutante C. Morgan Babst explained, “He’s at his highest value as a captain of industry or whatever. And she’s at her highest value at 21. … That’s the roots of this tradition.”
Babst wrote an essay about her experiences for the online Lenny Letter, after which she said she, like Snedeker, received thanks from other former debutantes for opening up about the ambivalence and strangeness they felt in continuing their family traditions.
Mills, the Rex trainer, looks back on her day as queen of Carnival in 2003 “as something I’ll never forget,” and she impresses upon new queens that it’s really meant to be a fun experience. She hadn’t considered the age difference between her and Rex that day as anything strange until out-of-town friends pressed her on it.
“That’s just what I knew it to be,” Mills said, calling it “two different honors.”
“I can see how that might seem strange – that the dates for the evening have that age difference – but it’s more, I think, for the pageantry,” she said. “You’re putting on a show, and I think the girls making their debut, that’s always been the age they’ve been.”
New Orleans itself has changed in recent years. The influx of newcomers after Hurricane Katrina and the slow development of the tech industry have introduced new faces among the city’s elite and powerful. Meanwhile, the ability to parade on New Orleans’ streets during Mardi Gras has grown more egalitarian with the rise of various krewes boasting lower barriers to entry.
But many Carnival organizations continue to segregate membership by gender. For women who want to parade or fully participate in New Orleans Mardi Gras, that often means not joining a group but forming a whole new one.
Though Carnival organizations overall have become more accessible to those without entrée to the city’s predominantly white high society, the group from which the queen or Rex is chosen, and the court presented to them, remains unchanged.
The Rex official I spoke with said the organization had never had a debutante with a same-sex escort. The organization, he said, has had debutantes who were people of color, but their escorts have not been.
“I will only say we do have African American members of the organization,” he said. “But it’s all been very traditional.”
The official said both his daughters participated in Rex’s annual presentation, and one of them was Carnival queen. Neither of his daughters, however, “would construe their being queens of Mardi Gras as necessarily defining in terms of who they have become as young women.”
It’s tempting to brush all this aside, to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s all make-believe for a specific segment of society. But how we fancy ourselves, how we play — these are all reflections of who we are. And have we not changed in the past 200 years?
“There are so many different shifts that could happen,” Snedeker said of the tradition, suggesting debutantes learn the complicated history of what they’re taking part in, or the allowance of same-sex escorts or those who are people of color. “Is there room in the tradition for everyone to be true to themselves?”
If the sorts of rites of passage we celebrate throughout our lives can’t grow and change and modernize, then they lose their ability to be deeply impactful experiences that mark the chapters of who we become.
By holding too tightly to the traditions of our past, we lose their connection to what’s meaningful in our present.
Chelsea Brasted is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Chelsea at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call or text with story ideas, tips and complaints 225.460.1350.