"I Read the Rules Backward": Women, Symbolic Inversion, and the Cajun Mardi Gras Run

By Carolyn E. Ware


The French Louisiana house visit tradition known as le courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run, is performed annually in both Cajun and Creole communities in Acadiana's prairie parishes. The custom, which in south Louisiana probably dates to eighteenth-century settlement (Spitzer 1986; Kinser 1990), today enjoys renewed interest after some decades of waning popularity. The rural Mardi Gras celebration and its conventions vary somewhat from community to community, and the tradition continues to change and to adapt differently in each location. Most runs share a similar pattern of performance, however. Masqueraders on horseback, and in trucks or trailers wind through the countryside and small towns, traveling in bands that may number only a dozen or several hundred riders. The guisers are known as "Mardi Gras," and to participate in the ride is to "run Mardi Gras." An unmasked capitaine leads the procession and maintains order with the assistance of one or several co-captains. As the riders visit homes, stores, and bars along their route, they dismount to beg for foodstuffs or money and to entertain onlookers by singing, dancing and clowning (Ancelet 1980; Spitzer 1986; Ancelet 1991; Lindahi 1995; Lindahl 1996). Before departing for the next stop, the Mardi Gras invite their hosts to join them later that evening for a shared gumbo and Mardi Gras ball.

The Capitaines wrangle a Mardi Gras. Photo: Carolyn Ware.

Historically, most Cajun Mardi Gras runs included only male riders, and today all but a handful of community runs continue to exclude women. Women traditionally play supportive parts which are more or less extensions of their domestic roles: they sew the Mardi Gras costumes, cook the gumbo served at the end of the run, applaud and dance with the maskers. Their contributions to the event have generally received less attention than those of men; nevertheless many Cajun women say that they have always felt deeply invested in the custom.

Throughout the years, however, some Cajun women have challenged the all-male nature of the Mardi Gras run and found means to run Mardi Gras themselves. In some cases, women participated in small, family-based Mardi Gras runs in which married couples and children masked and rode together in buggies, wagons, or trucks. Other women organized their own courirs de Mardi Gras or insisted on joining existing men's runs.

The women Mardi Gras visit a house. Photo: Carolyn Ware.

Cajun women's Mardi Gras runs are largely undocumented and little is known of either their history or their prevalence in the past. At least one oral account offers a description of women running Mardi Gras near Soileau during the early decades of the twentieth century (Courville 1992), but female Mardi Gras are primarily characteristic of the decades following World War II. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, women formed "ladies' runs" in at least six (and probably more) prairie Cajun communities. Some of these runs disbanded after only a few years, while others survived longer. The towns of Eunice and Basile both hosted women's Mardi Gras runs for many years until the women's organizations eventually merged with previously established men's Mardi Gras associations; today men and women run Mardi Gras together in both communities. Tee Mamou (Little Mamou), a rural area of Acadia Parish, alone continues to sustain a separate women's courir de Mardi Gras on the weekend before Mardi Gras, as it has done for more than two decades.

The traditional Mardi Gras run is a highly symbolic event which, as Abrahams observes of West Indian Carnival, "operates neither as an aesthetic alternative to life nor a direct reflection of reality, but as a stylized rendering of some of the central expressive practices and moral concerns of the group" (1983:98). Cajun courirs de Mardi Gras, like the Creole runs described by Spitzer (1986), symbolically act out competing values that exist in everyday life. Through the symbolic means of the festival, oppositional values like order and disorder, reputation and respectability, public and private space, and respect and aggression are played out.

A woman Mardi Gras. Photo: Carolyn Ware.

Gender distinctions remain central to the festival. Cajun Mardi Gras runs have frequently been described in terms of male values and competences, as (among other functions) an initiation rite which "defines manhood" (Lindahl 1996:5) and a celebration of "cowboy machismo" (Spitzer 1986:417). Louisiana French women are traditionally identified with the ideal values of home, family and childrearing, respectability, and order, among others (Spitzer 1986). These values stand in sharp contrast to the mischievous role of the March Gras clown, which often foregrounds disorder and "reputation" (Spitzer 1986). When women mask in what has traditionally been understood as a male performance, conventional meanings are inevitably challenged, as notions of gender-related values and behavior are brought to the fore and playfully reinterpreted.

Women have introduced a number of innovations and new meanings to the festival, through traditional means like disguise, role-playing and clowning, and spatial manipulation, female Mardi Gras performances act out some of the cultural oppositions which inform traditional perceptions and expectations of women. Their clowning symbolically challenges or inverts some normative gender roles while reaffirming others. This paper will focus specifically on Cajun women's Mardi Gras runs in the rural communities of Tee Mamou and Basile, and on the ways in which female maskers refashion the festival and its meanings.

A woman Mardi Gras takes off her mask to play with a child during a house visit. Photo: Carolyn Ware.

The area of western Acadia Parish countryside known as Tee Mamou hosts two Mardi Gras runs each year. An all-male run, in continuous existence since at least the early twentieth century, takes place each year on Fat Tuesday. A separate women's run, formed in the early 1970s by a handful of local women whose families were active in the local Mardi Gras tradition, occurs on the preceding Saturday. Over the years, the Tee Mamou women's run has grown from perhaps a dozen riders to an average of thirty or forty women today. Riding on a brightly painted, convened cattle trailer, the women Mardi Gras visit homes in a number of the scattered rural voisinages (neighborhoods) that make up Tee Mamou, following route largely different from the men's Tuesday run.

Although the Tee Mamou women's and men's courirs remain distinct from one another, they are closely related. Male and female Mardi Gras alike belong to the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association, which organizes both events, and the two runs share many of the same resources, including the trailer on which the Mardi Gras ride and many of the same captains, who are male.

The small Evangeline Parish town of Basile lies several miles north of Tee Mamou's boundaries. Like Tee Mamou, Basile has long hosted a men's Mardi Gras run, although its history has been somewhat sporadic. In the 1960s, a period when the popularity of the local men's run had ebbed (LeBlanc 1992; Lindahl 1995), Cajun women from Basile and Duralde organized a women's courir de Mardi Gras on the weekend before Mardi Gras. When the women's run later moved to Tuesday, the same day as the men's event, the two groups began alternating their routes each year. Eventually, the rising costs of maintaining separate men's and women's Mardi Gras runs prompted a decision to combine the groups, "to have one expense and one big trouble," as one organizer says. As in Tee Mamou, male and female riders join the Basile Mardi Gras Association. Their route, once primarily rural, now lies mostly in town and includes only one or two stops in the countryside.

A certain degree of separation is still maintained between male and female Mardi Gras in Basile. Women and men are led by separate captains and travel on different trailers, with the women's truck following the men's usually larger trailer throughout the day. Inevitably, however, a great deal of mingling takes place among the masked riders, and longtime women's captain Ella Ruth Young laughs that "half the time we have half the men in our wagon and the women in the men's wagon" (Young 1992). The size of the Basile courir de Mardi Gras, like that of most runs, fluctuates from year to year depending on such factors as work schedules, weather, and (for the women) child care. Typically it includes twenty-five to thirty-five women. The men's group is often slightly larger, but in some cases female Mardi Gras outnumber the men.

Women participants in both the Tee Mamou and Basile runs range in age from teen-aged girls (fourteen to fifteen is usually the minimum age for participation) to women in their forties and older, with the majority in their twenties and thirties. The runs include both countrywomen and town dwellers, and riders come "from different walks of life," a Tee Mamou captain says. Many of the more experienced Mardi Gras have participated regularly for at least fifteen or twenty years, and some have brought their own daughters into the run. Female Mardi Gras, like the men, usually have a regular partner with whom they run; these partnerships often last for many years.

Cajun Mardi Gras maskers in the past strictly preserved their anonymity, often going to great lengths to conceal their identities from the friends, neighbors, and relatives whose homes they visited. Many participants continue to take pride in remaining unrecognized throughout the day, but other Mardi Gras may unmask at the end of a house visit or wear the same costume for several years in a row. Disguise remains symbolically central to the performance, however. The Mardi Gras present themselves to their hosts as strangers, singing that they come from far away (l'Angleterre or England in both the Tee Mamou and Basile variants of the Mardi Gras song), and their costumes emphasize this strangeness. In the guise of temporary strangers, the Mardi Gras are free to act in ways which are unpredictable, uninhibited (albeit within certain boundaries), and frequently at odds with conventional expectations of women.

Disguise allows the Mardi Gras clowns to adopt alternative roles and issue a "challenge to the usual order of life" (Abrahams 1983:103). Role reversal sometimes takes the form of gender inversion, long a convention of Cajun men's Mardi Gras runs. Burly men dressed in women's clothes, with bosoms and hips hugely padded, still play the comic role of the frequently pregnant vieille femme in many all-male or combined runs.

Female Mardi Gras throughout the years have sometimes crossdressed, too. Debbie Andrus, who has run Mardi Gras in the Basile women's run for twenty-five years, remembers that when she first started participating as a schoolgirl, "you always had some that had to try to dress comically, you know. . . . We'd have different old men's masks or old ladies' masks, or whatever" (Andrus and Lopez 1991). Husbands and wives sometimes traded gender roles to compete for prizes at the Basile Mardi Gras dance. These disguises, like crossdressing among male Mardi Gras (Ancelet 1992; Lindahl 1995), were usually intended to amuse rattier than to actually deceive onlookers concerning the wearer's gender.

Today, a variety of costume styles is evident among Basile's women Mardi Gras. Many choose to wear the disguise many Cajuns consider the most traditional or "original" to their runs: tall, conical hats called capuchons; baggy and colorful Mardi Gras suits trimmed with fringe and bells; and handmade, painted masks of wire screen . A few dress in commercially produced rubber masks or distinctive homemade costumes like gorilla suits. Female Mardi Gras partners sometimes wear matching, thematic masquerade costumes, such as the pair who dressed as playing cards one year. Rarely, however, do Basile women now mask in men's attire.

Symbolic inversion among the Basile women is more likely to revolve around age or race than gender, as female Mardi Gras mask as Native American women, little girls, or old women. These costumes often emphasize the wearers' femininity and imply their respectable (and even venerable) status. Two female maskers at a recent Basile Mardi Gras ball wore long skirts with aprons and the old-fashioned gardes soleils (sunbonnets) traditionally associated with older Louisiana French women and, Spitzer argues, with respectability (1986).

The Tee Mamou women's run also lacks a tradition of explicitly gender-inversive disguise. Female Mardi Gras here, like male riders, are required to wear Mardi Gras suits, capuchons, and handmade screen or fabric masks. The highly individualized masks popular in Tee Mamou often bear little resemblance to those in other communities, however. Whereas screen masks in Basile are usually molded of heavy gauge wire screen and then painted relatively simply, Tee Mamou masks are often shaped of flexible, lightweight screening and are more highly elaborated. Many feature long, pointed fabric noses (sometimes dangling bells at the end), and are decorated with a variety of imaginative touches like vampire fangs, plastic insects, and protruding tongues. Some masks are covered with fleece-like material, and appear animalistic.

The image of the traditionally costumed Mardi Gras clown in capuchon, suit, and screen mask, can perhaps be read as implicitly male, since the role is traditionally a male one. Indeed, in Tee Mamou both women's and men's masks alike often sport beards or moustaches. However, female participants do not identify the role as specifically gendered; as a longtime female Tee Mamou Mardi Gras insists, "we're just Mardi Gras." Likewise, the Basile women's captain emphasizes the similarities between male and female Mardi Gras disguises in that community, commenting that there is "no difference at all" between male and female Mardi Gras disguises. In both communities, men and women often trade costumes and masks among themselves from year to year. In some ways, then, women Mardi Gras set aside or obscure gender when they mask traditionally. The baggy, androgynous Mardi Gras suits, often worn over bulky clothing, make many women virtually indistinguishable from male riders (at least temporarily), although some female Mardi Gras remain easily identifiable by their physiques or movements.

Although explicitly gender-inversive costuming is common in neither the Basile nor Tee Mamou women's runs, sometimes the female Mardi Gras playfully reverse gender markers. Usually they do so in highly ambiguous and humorous ways. In past Tee Mamou runs, women have incorporated men's underwear in their costumes to considerable comic effect: wearing boxer shorts impaled on the point of a capuchon, or men's briefs or jock straps over their costumes, for instance. During a recent Basile run, a pair of female Mardi Gras sported homemade "Cajun chef" costumes with aprons which lifted to reveal oversized fabric phalluses. One "chef" had "His" and "Hers" pockets stitched on her apron as well, concealing miniature male and female genitalia of yarn and fabric.

In a number of other ways, women distinguish themselves from male Mardi Gras, creatively adapting even very traditional costume styles. One Basile woman wore a scarf dangling from her capuchon, increasing its resemblance to a medieval noblewoman's headdress. Tee Mamou women sometimes add pipe-cleaner earrings, long eyelashes, bangs, or full satin lips to their masks. In a relatively recent innovation, a number of Tee Mamou women Mardi Gras wear needlework masks they stitch on plastic screening, in place of the customary wire screen masks. Incorporating traditionally female needlework skills, they have developed a style which sets the Mamou women's run apart visually from both the local men's run and Mardi Gras runs in other communities, and which suits their needs and abilities better than conventional screen masks.

Sometimes female Mardi Gras add new associations to old forms in the festival. Basile's older women Mardi Gras once favored mortarboards, a traditional hat formerly common to many rural Cajun Mardi Gras but now less frequently seen than the capuchon. Over the years in Basile, the mortarboard became identified with female Mardi Gras: a longtime Mardi Gras comments that in the past "the ladies didn't wear the pointed capuchons" which were considered a "man's headdress," but rather wore the "flat-top" hat (Andrus and Lopez 1993). Mortarboards are still occasionally seen on one or two Basile women Mardi Gras.

With occasional exceptions, then, the effect of the female Mardi Gras' disguises is not distinctly masculine. It may be gender neutral, emphatically feminine, or playfully ambiguous, as sexual boundaries are blurred through the juxtaposition of incongruous elements. In these two women's Mardi Gras runs, gender inversion occurs less through cross-sex costuming than through action, as the female Mardi Gras make mischief and "cut up" in ways that are inconsistent with cultural ideals of femininity.

Many social and class differences are minimized or obliterated in the rural Cajun Mardi Gras celebration. A sense of rapport and cohesiveness develops among the participants, who say that the run "brings the community together." Other distinctions remain important but are symbolically inverted and parodied within the festive frame: men dress as women, whites as blacks (and vice versa), and farmers as bishops (Ancelet 1992: Mire 1993). Yet, as Carl Lindahl has argued, the Cajun Mardi Gras run is strictly hierarchical in its structure, creating its own set of hierarchies specific to the festival (1996). These reverse the everyday social order in some ways, but parallel and affirm it in others.

The formalized power structure of the Mardi Gras run provides one such example. Women's Mardi Gras runs typically resemble men's courirs in most aspects of style and structure, including the distribution of power. Control of the group rests primarily with the head capitaine, who leads the masked band from house to house, mediates between hosts and Mardi Gras, and maintains discipline among the riders, meting out punishment (including banishment from the run) as needed. The captain, "through intensified value-related behavior," acts as "the symbolic embodiment of respectability and order for the community" (Spitzer 1986:460), and in theory at least assumes near-authoritarian control. In most Cajun runs, one or more co-captains occupy a second tier of authority, assisting the capitaine in controlling the Mardi Gras and enforcing rules. Experienced riders are also expected to help maintain order; they may reprimand newer Mardi Gras they feel are behaving inappropriately, and can petition captains for removal of unruly participants.

In most women's Mardi Gras runs as well as men's, the roles of head capitaine and co-captain have customarily been male, and female Mardi Gras in the past frequently recruited their husbands or the leaders of local men's runs to act as captains. The Tee Mamou women's run, for example, has been headed by male captains since its inception, and the possibility of a female captain was never seriously considered. After two or three years of unstable leadership, several Tee Mamou women approached Gerald Frugé, the capitaine of the Tee Mamou men's run, about "captaining" for their group as well. Twenty years later, Frugé continues as the head captain for both the men's and women's runs. He is assisted by a senior co-captain and four or five younger male assistants, most of whom also captain for the men. Several longtime women Mardi Gras suggest that their group is too rowdy for a female captain to control, and that the gender differences provide much of the entertainment.

The hierarchy of Basile's courir de Mardi Gras is somewhat less clearly defined and has evolved over the years since women began running Mardi Gras. The Basile women's run was led initially by male capitaines, usually current or former captains for the men's courir. In today's combined run, a male captain leads the men, and a female captain the women. They are usually accompanied by one or two male or female assistants, often members of the captains' families. Although in theory each head capitaine is responsible for maintaining discipline among his or her own charges, in reality their responsibilities overlap and they share the task of controlling the entire group.

The long-time president of the Basile Mardi Gras Association also plays an important leadership role in the run; indeed, in many instances he wields more real power than any of the captains. The authority of the female capitaine is sometimes seen as secondary to that of both the male capitaine and Association president "Potic" Rider, especially among male Mardi Gras. As Ella Ruth Young says, "Yeah, they listen to Potic. Me, if I tell them something, they don't listen to me, I guess I'm a woman so, you know, that don't go too far. Now, the women does, but not the men" (1992). Not surprisingly, few local women are interested in taking on the demanding position of captain. When illness recently forced Ella Ruth to retire, one of her sisters somewhat reluctantly assumed the role of women's captain.

In both Basile and Tee Mamou, captains wear work clothes which sharply contrast with the colorful disguises worn by the Mardi Gras and establish their status as leaders and representatives of order. Basile's captains are further distinguished by the short red or black capes they wear. Likewise, the braided burlap quoits carried by Tee Mamou captains and the leather whips of the Basile captains signal their positions of authority. Captains' whips were once primarily instruments of control and still play a part in disciplining the Mardi Gras . For the most part, however, whips are part of the "show" today, as the Mardi Gras misbehave in order to provoke a whipping by captains, As Potic Rider of Basile says, "If you ain't been chased, and you ain't been whipped, you ain't run Mardi Gras" (1992).

In many ways, the hierarchical structure of the Mardi Gras run is neither "normal social life. played in reverse" (Leach 1961:135) nor a criticism of the social order, at least as far as gender roles are concerned. Rather, the run appears to replicate and affirm established inequalities in the distribution of power. In quotidian life, women have less access to what Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo has termed "culturally legitimated authority" than do men; they take for granted Rosaldo's "universal fact of male authority" (1974:21). Likewise, women are rarely Mardi Gras captains. When they are, female leadership is likely to be considered less valid than male authority.

Respect for, and complete obedience to, the captains' authority is central to the Mardi Gras run. However, playful challenges to that authority are equally integral to the role of Mardi Gras clown in Tee Mamou and Basile, for as Nicholas R. Spitzer remarks, the Mardi Gras clown's "role is to oppose [the] captain" (1986:442). "Picking at" and challenging captains is a convention for both women and men in these two community runs, as is being chased and whipped in response. Through verbal teasing, tricks and pranks, and mock-aggressive horseplay directed at captains, the Mardi Gras continually subvert the run's hierarchic order. The captains' symbols of authority become particular targets for the maskers. In Basile, Mardi Gras momentarily blind the captains by tossing their capes over their heads. In both communities (and in Tee Mamou in particular), the maskers try to wrest whips away from the captains, turning the quoits against their leaders or hiding them in the truck. Helena Putnam, a frequent participant in the Basile Mardi Gras run, explains that the clowns attempt "anything to get at a captain, anything to upset . . . that order, you know, change things around. I'm the boss now, I've got the whip'" (1991).

The conflict between the competing values of order and chaos is most literally performed in the mock battles between captains and Mardi Gras, which provide a "capsule drama of authority against disorder" (Lindahl 1995:17). When these contests take place between female Mardi Gras and male captains, they take on an added significance, dramatizing a struggle between official male authority and female counter statements of insubordination and "illegitimate" power. In the Tee Mamou women's run, this contest can become highly physical.

The captains' authority is reinforced by a system of rules providing a framework of shared expectations for behavior during the run. These rules, many of which are injunctions against excessive unruliness and drunkenness, protect the group itself and ensure that the run remains acceptable to the community. The rules for the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras run are printed and distributed to participants at planning meetings. In Basile, the rules are less formalized, and the captain simply reminds the maskers of a few simple prohibitions before the group leaves their hall on Mardi Gras morning.

Captains and Mardi Gras alike understand the importance of the system of rules which underlies and contains their performance, but they also understand that different rules are weighted differently. There are some rules that are rarely transgressed, such as injunctions against destroying property, while others are open to a certain amount of challenge and negotiation. Much of the entertainment during the Mardi Gras run derives from participants' playful attempts to challenge or subvert certain rules.

Understanding the distinctions between rules that are "made to be broken" (in one former captain's words) and those that are inviolable, and knowing how far boundaries can be pushed are essential competences for a Mardi Gras clown. Skilled women Mardi Gras in Tee Mamou respect the underlying intent of the rules, but often express a humorous irreverence and a readiness to play with them. Three of the most experienced performers joke together that "Gerald, he always tells us the rules. And we always break them. . . . We shake our heads 'Yeah' and we go along with whatever he says, and then. ..." Merline Bergeaux continues, "I'm the first one to read the rules. . .[but] I read them backwards" (Bergeaux, Hébert and Reed 1988).

Some rules not only carry different weight than others, but are sometimes applied differently to women and men. For example, the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association's rules explicitly forbid wrestling with captains. Because women are typically not as strong as men and are considered less of a physical threat, however, they are often granted more latitude in rough housing. Tee Mamou female Mardi Gras are allowed to jump on and wrestle with captains much more freely than are male Mardi Gras, so their licensed play frequently becomes more physical than the men's . Capitaine Gerald Frugé says, "It's pretty to see a woman act up. Because it's easier to control the woman . . . over a man." Allowing male Mardi Gras to do the same can "get out of hand quicker." He comments, "I don't mind when women tackle a captain. It gets the women excited that they were able to knock this man down, you know," and "It kind of livens the crowd up, gets everyone excited" (Frugé and Frugé 1992). His wife Linda, who frequently runs Mardi Gras in Tee Mamou, adds that if captains really wanted to prevent the horseplay, "we wouldn't have a chance to do anything. So, that's . . . what makes it different" from the men, for whom "it gets to be a macho thing" (Frugé and Frugé 1992).

Women, whom S B. Ortner and H. Whitehead suggest are crossculturally associated with passivity and submissiveness (1981), become the aggressors as Mardi Gras. Although the captains, and thus order, ultimately prevail (Spitzer 1986), the Mardi Gras are often the temporary victors in these contests. Two or more female Mardi Gras frequently unite to overwhelm a captain, pinning him to the ground until other captains come to his rescue, in a recent run, several women surrounded a young captain, hiding him from the other captains' view while they hogtied him. As the Mardi Gras topple, straddle, or ride on the backs of the young captains, Natalie Zemon Davis's image of the "woman on top" (1978) is evoked in a very literal way.

These contests are consensual, an expected part of the Mardi Gras "show." Linda Frugé suggests that often captains collaborate with the Mardi Gras on mock battles, or at least willingly allow themselves to be drawn into the pranks.

When it's between the women and the men, when it . . . gets rough, what it looks tike to the audience and what is really transpiring [is different.] The captain and the lady Mardi Gras have discussed it before: "You're gonna let me get the best of you and we're gonna put on this good show," you know. So to those looking on, it's real cute. (Frugé and Frugé 1902)

The capitaine himself occasionally urges the women to stir things up when the pace slows. Gerald Frugé describes a recent house visit:

I told them, I said, "Well, it's getting kind of boring," oh at one of the places, and I said, "Y'all go knock Joe Todd [a co-captain] down." "Oh, that big old thing, we can't." I said, "No," I said, "people'll come help." So I saw these two heads turn to each other, and after a while the whole Mardi Gras jumps on Joe Todd. They got him down and there were about five or six girls. (Frugé and Frugé 1992)

Many of the women need no encouragement to tackle the captains, even the largest young men. Nor are the male captains always completely willing or complicitous victims. One of the most irrepressible female Tee Mamou Mardi Gras proudly describes pinning a young captain:

That big one, did you see him roll over me? . . . During the day, he rolled over, and I mean my capuchon-the cardboard, it was all torn up from him rolling over. . . . I tackled him. . . . And I had him in a scissors hold, and he couldn't hit me and he couldn't get loose. And you could hear him hollering, and calling to?[the other captains, who] just stood back and laughed . . . until he begged me to let him loose. (Launey 1991)

All involved-captains, Mardi Gras and audience-share an understanding that the roughhousing is roleplaying. A longtime Mardi Gras explains that "it's to put on a show for the people, it's kind of like earning what they're gonna give us." At times, however, the Tee Mamou women's "cutting up" tests the boundaries of good-natured play and (however briefly) becomes a contest for dominance, as young male captains or determined female Mardi Gras refuse to concede defeat. Like all transgressive play, the horseplay and whipping occasionally threaten "to break out of the frame and become subject to the accountability of everyday behavior" (Abrahams 1983:15), resulting in resentment or injuries. Recently, for example, a young Mardi Gras sharply scolded her brother, a co-captain, when she felt that he had whipped her too hard.

There is less physical play among Basile's female Mardi Gras, who are unlikely to tackle or wrestle with captains. Like the Tee Mamou women, though, they may be granted more license in some ways because of their gender. Helena Putnam observes, "The captains will let the women go a little further than the men. Why, I'm not sure. I think because they can be brought back a little easier," and "women respond quicker to . . . the captains' efforts to correct them, to . . . corral them back" (1991).

A still playful but ultimately more substantive challenge to the captains' authority occurs when female Mardi Gras try to exceed the limits captains placed on their alcohol consumption. Overindulgence in alcohol creates the potential for serious discipline problems and disrupts the performance as the Mardi Gras become unmanageable. Beer, wine, and liquor are dispensed only during the beer stops called by the captains, who try to pace the participants' drinking by the timing of stops. One captain jokes, "A sober woman is hard to put up with. Now you take twenty or thirty drunk women, it's bad."

Male and female captains alike suggest that moderation in drinking is especially crucial among women Mardi Gras. Female Mardi Gras in general drink less than male riders, and many do not drink at all during the run. However, participants suggest that women are often unaccustomed to the steady drinking that takes place during the Mardi Gras run and are less likely than men to know how to pace themselves. According to one captain:

A man that's drank, he knows when, you know, how long he can drink. Now that's a long time, yeah, from 7:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night-you know, to drink. And . , . stay pretty active, that's a hard day's work. . . . You know, the men realize how long, and how hard ii is. and they know if they get drunk early what it is, and once you're drunk, that's it. But the women don't realize that. (Durio and Durio 1992)

Even those who feel that female Mardi Gras are naturally more rule-abiding than men say that women can quickly become unruly when they drink. Ella Ruth Young says of the Basile women, "They are more rowdy than the men, when they get to the country. Well, you see they drink when they, I guess the women are not used to drinking as much as the men. So when they do start drinking good . . , they get wild fast. It don't take them long ... to get riled up (Young 3992)."

Inevitably, some female Mardi Gras try to circumvent controls on their drinking. In both Basile and Tee Mamou, women make a game of trying to trick captains into giving them an extra drink during beer stops. A few Tee Mamou women smuggle contraband alcohol onto their truck, where they hide it from the captains' searches. These women attempt to control the pace of their drinking, the degree of their own inebriation and thus their own disorderliness. Others, often older, experienced Mardi Gras, frequently assist captains in averting such overindulgence among younger women.

Unlike some Cajun horseback runs which charge headlong at the houses they visit, the Tee Mamou and Basile Mardi Gras approach their hosts respectfully and politely, as "beggar-clown[s]" (Spitzer 1986:428). The masked band must ask permission to visit the house, and thus, as Roger D. Abrahams and Richard Bauman argue of West Indian Christmas mummers, "control is in the hands of the householders-they are the hosts and the maskers are the guests" (1978:205). Only after the captain has requested and received the hosts' permission do the Mardi Gras dismount from their trucks, in both communities the Mardi Gras present themselves as supplicants, singing in French a traditional song which declares their intent. The Tee Mamou song asks hosts for "un peu de chose" (a little something), and the Basile variant assures listeners that the visitors are "not wrongdoers" (pas de malfaiteurs) but young people from good families, seeking donations for their gumbo. However, once permission to visit is granted, the Mardi Gras often try to transgress both spatial and behavioral boundaries.

As the Mardi Gras approach, the homeowners typically stand in front or slightly to the side of their house. The front yard becomes a public space, the maskers' stage as they sing, dance, and beg. Spectators following the run often crowd into unfenced yards to watch as well. Tee Mamou's rules specify that the Mardi Gras "must stay in front of houses unless otherwise told to go in the back." Basile has no such specific rule, but it is generally understood that the Mardi Gras' performance takes place in front of the house.

If the host or capitaine throws a live chicken to the Mardi Gras, however, the ensuing chase frequently takes the riders out of the front yard into nearby fields, gardens, barns, and other outbuildings. Even without the excuse of a chicken chase, the Mardi Gras try to break away from the front yard in search of mischief to make or goods to pilfer. Although officially off-limits to the Mardi Gras, these areas become negotiable territory. As a former Tee Mamou captain says, "If everyone stands in front like a marching band, it's not pretty" (Durio, Frugé and Frugé 1988). Mardi Gras are expected to try to scatter, and captains make a show of chasing, dragging, or whipping them back toward the front.

Entering the house itself is strictly forbidden except by invitation, and transgressions of this boundary are generally regarded as serious infractions. Those who are invited inside must unmask, and thus temporarily discard the role of Mardi Gras. The home is the "cornerstone of respectability" (Abrahams and Bauman 1978:203), representing family and female space. During the Mardi Gras' visit, it is the traditional refuge of frightened women and children, from which male Mardi Gras in the past tried to lure women in order to engage them in a dance. The Mardi Gras respect the rule against trying to enter the house, but they often play with its facade, climbing porch supports, peering through screen doors and windows, crawling underneath the house, and sprawling on porch steps or swings.

In their interactions with their hosts, the Mardi Gras slip easily from respect to aggression and back. Despite the maskers' polite requests for la charité, an inherent tension between begging and intimidation, between polite requests and theft, always underlies their performance and lends it ambiguity (Spitzer 1986; Ancelet 1991; Lindahl 1995). Stealing was frequently a part of Mardi Gras runs in the past, but was limited to food: chickens, eggs, sausages, and donuts were considered fair game at certain stops. Although the threat of theft is primarily a playful one today, the pretense at least of misbehavior remains. Pretending to steal from their hosts, whether live chickens or patently useless objects like old mattresses or tires, remains a fundamental form of clowning for the Mardi Gras. The thieves usually make sure that spectators and captains notice their misbehavior, so that they are whipped and forced to return the goods. Occasionally, though, a Mardi Gras manages to smuggle a captured chicken onto the truck undetected.

In Basile, begging is particularly persistent and can verge on playful extortion or intimidation. Decades ago, male Mardi Gras in Basile used to sing to ungenerous hosts that they hoped all their chickens would die in the coming year (Lindahl 1995). Basile Mardi Gras today sometimes untie onlookers' shoes or pull off their belts and caps until they are handed coins. In both Tee Mamou and Basile, the maskers often surround and immobilize passing cars, reaching inside to demand a donation.

Although the hosts agree to accept the Mardi Gras, the maskers in effect perform a mock raid on each household visited, a raid which threatens the privacy and order of women's traditional domain in particular. The economic resources threatened by the Mardi Gras house visits are frequently those associated with women. Chickens and eggs, the most common targets for real or pretend theft by Mardi Gras, have traditionally been under the control of the women of the house, whom Carl A. Brasseaux calls the "keepers of the barnyard" (1992:42). Indeed, Spitzer suggests that the chicken has a strong symbolic association with women, and "stands for women, their work and their respectability" (1986:502). Mardi Gras may also raid their hostess' vegetable garden to steal green onions, as two Tee Mamou Mardi Gras recently did. The female Mardi Gras' performance also symbolically threatens family stability, as they pull male (and female) householders into their dances, chase their hosts' children, and pretend to kidnap married men and children.

The forms of mischief-making described above are common to both male and female Mardi Gras, but they are particularly inversive and subversive when performed by women. In their invasion of their host's household and yard, the women Mardi Gras symbolically challenge their own domain and by extension their traditional identification with the everyday norms of home, order, and respectability. At the same time, as Mardi Gras they claim access to wider spaces and to alternative roles in the social order.

Certain conventions exist for the part of the Mardi Gras clown, some of which have been described above: begging, pretending to steal, and "picking at" captains and spectators, for example. But within the role of Mardi Gras, women have access to a range of different behaviors. Lindahl describes the "many overlapping roles" he has observed in rural Mardi Gras runs, those of "outlaw, trickster, beggar, thief, and fool," and suggests that each community Mardi Gras "creates its own identity by elevating one or more above the others" (1995:13). Similarly, individual Mardi Gras frequently privilege a particular role above others.

Women Mardi Gras and their captains also describe various roles and ways of clowning, although they often use different terms. Many female Mardi Gras identify with the clown role (to the extent that one Tee Mamou woman formerly costumed as a circus clown), choosing to play in ways which are "mischievous" and "comic" but generally non-threatening. They depend more on what some participants call "witty" or "cute" pranks than on daring or aggressive stunts, as they hide in barrels, pantomime playing basketball, ride bicycles, pretend to carry on animated conversations on public telephones, or warm themselves over imaginary fires . Longtime Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Patsy Hébert says, "We're more comical than the men. . . . We're not as rough and rowdy. . . . We're hilarious," Her sister, Shirley Reed (also a founder of the women's run), adds that male Mardi Gras are "stronger than we are, but we're more comical and we have a tendency to really relate to the people. I think" (Bergeaux, Hébert and Reed 1988). Captain Gerald Frugé agrees, remarking that "the women are pretty to watch, I find, because they ... can be wittier I find than the men without being afraid of hurling somebody" or destroying property, He comments that, as a Mardi Gras, "you can do a lot of cute little things . . . that's Mardi Gras. . . . [Like] picking ... at a kid, or you might untie his shoe, or if there's a little toy in the yard, you get on your knees and play with the toy . . . [and] just act . . . witty in various ways" (Frugé and Frugé 1992).

For many women, then, catching chickens may be less important than finding clever ways to amuse their audience. In contrast to these clowns stand the female Mardi Gras, who assume a more physically aggressive, though still comic, role. These women's "cutting up" has much in common with the machismo often associated with male runs, as they compete to catch chickens, climb trees and fences, ride pastured ponies or cows, halt cars on the highway, conceal stolen chickens under their clothes, and wrestle with captains. A longtime Tee Mamou Mardi Gras calls herself and her partner "the chicken stealers. We're the ones that always manage to get the chicken" no matter what. Her partner adds that "where the others might be afraid to get dirty . . . we're in the mud, the barbed wire" as they chase chickens (Bergeaux, Hébert and Reed 1988). The festive license of Mardi Gras allows them to display the reckless physical prowess and dare devil try usually associated with men.

In some ways, though, even the most unruly women never depart very far from their everyday roles. For example, most participants agree that even as they play at theft and destruction, the women are generally more careful not to damage their hosts' property or frighten their children than are men. In their interactions with children, the women remain closest to traditional ideal values, and even the most unruly Mardi Gras take pains not to frighten children, as Lindahl (in Mire 1993) and Barry Jean Ancelet (1992) have also observed. Female Mardi Gras often unmask and stoop to reassure crying children, and engage children in dances and games of chase or tug-of-war . For many years, the Tee Mamou women have offered candy to children at each of their stops, to lessen their fear of the maskers. At the same time, the Mardi Gras' clowning sometimes parodies their everyday roles as mothers, like one clown who ineptly tried to diaper her partner with a discovered Pampers, finally sticking the diaper to her partner's back.

As Mardi Gras, then, women often behave in ways that are conventional to the Mardi Gras role but inconsistent with traditional expectations of women. Much of their clowning foregrounds disorder, disrespect, and aggression rather than more traditional feminine values. However, female Mardi Gras have also refashioned the performance in subtle ways, and have access to less inversive roles characterized more by comical, "witty" clowning, and maternal attention to children. Skilled performers can shift easily from role to role, toning down their performance for households with older residents or young children, for example.

In Basile, the female capitaine also plays a slightly different role than her male counterpart, tempering authority with caretaking qualities. Ella Ruth Young carries a needle and thread with her so that women Mardi Gras can repair ripped costumes as they travel. As a longtime Mardi Gras laughs, "Those men, they don't care. They're torn, but the women have got to have that draft in the back fixed" (LeJeune 1991).

When women assume the role of Mardi Gras, they do not leave behind their own or others' cultural expectations about gender differences. Captains and maskers alike often differentiate between "lady Mardi Gras" and male Mardi Gras, and social conventions shape male captains' responses to female Mardi Gras. Captains often treat women Mardi Gras differently than they do men, not only allowing the women more latitude in physical play and whipping them less vigorously, but also courteously lifting them down from trees after pursuing them there. A female Tee Mamou Mardi Gras notes that male captains are "rougher with the men than they are with the women, and they hit a lot harder." Another Tee Mamou woman who is always quick to tackle captains offers a similar opinion:

Well, I guess the men think, you know, being women, they can't whip as hard-which I can't tell they're hitting any lighter, to tell the truth. It still hurts. . . . But they're under the notion . . . [that they] can't handle the women as rough. Therefore the women get away with more and cut up more. (Launey 1991)

Cultural conceptions of gender roles can cause dilemmas for male captains during the Mardi Gras run, and many female Mardi Gras are quick to turn the situation to their advantage. A sometime Tee Mamou captain calls captaining for the women "a different game altogether" and "the toughest job." He explains:

By noon you lose track of the fact that these are women, because they are really rougher than you are expecting them to be. And you've been reserved all morning, and they haven't been. . . . Because, again, you are dealing with women, and all that entails, and you try to be courteous to them, and yet they're still willing to drop you and roll you and get you dirty and all that. And then you try to temper all of that and . . . it's a tough job. It really is. (LeJeune 1992)

A younger Tee Mamou co-captain similarly remarks, "The women are a lot rougher than the men, I know that. . . . The women, you got to kind of watch, you know, how you treat them. ... A man won't [jump on a captain], you know. [The women] can, because they know we're not going to whip them. . . . Yeah, some of them get it, though" (Durio and Durio 1992).

Women's courirs de Mardi Gras, as Spitzer argues of Creole runs, do not deny the normative order; they are rather a "powerful statement of the established order and chaos of everyday life" (1986:437). Although chaos is often foregrounded, the female Mardi Gras' clowning includes a range of behaviors encompassing both disorder and order, both conformity and nonconformity to cultural expectations of femininity; these "male and female ideals and counter ideals" (Kinser 1990:126) co-exist within the women's performance. Through such means as appropriation, juxtaposition, and parody, among other coding strategies described by Joan R. Radner and Susan S. Lanser (1993), women Mardi Gras reshape a traditionally male role into a symbolic self representation which offers a variety of competing images.

That the performance is an ambiguous one (and for at least some participants, a coded one) is evident in participants' descriptions of the Tee Mamou and Basile Mardi Gras runs. Individuals often describe the festival's meaning in quite different terms and emphasize different aspects of the event. For example, some female Mardi Gras and male captains alike agree that women are more naturally obedient and rule-abiding, and less likely to seriously "go over that line" than male Mardi Gras. Others emphasize the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the women's performance, suggesting that women Mardi Gras are more disorderly, "rowdier," and more difficult to control than men Mardi Gras. The women who espouse the latter view appear quite proud of this rowdiness.

Different women play different roles in the celebration. The few women who play the most inversive roles and push the boundaries of the performance through physical daring, drinking, or other means are in fact "rowdy" Mardi Gras, difficult for captains to control and often transgressive (within limits') in their behavior. I would argue, though, that cultural stereotypes of women also contribute to this perception of female unruliness, and that traditional notions of gender roles strongly inform the ways in which both men and women perceive female Mardi Gras. When Cajun women assume the role of Mardi Gras (one which typically suggests disorder and misrule), the powerful and disturbing image of the "unruly woman" (Davis 1978:150) is foregrounded. Women, usually associated with restraint, are seen publicly behaving with unaccustomed abandon, potentially (although rarely actually) out of control.

Natalie Zemon Davis notes that in medieval Europe, the image of the disorderly woman was popular in festive play, drama and other art forms, and was used to symbolize misrule; "in hierarchical and conflictful societies that loved to reflect on the world-upside-down, the topos of the woman-on-top was one of the most enjoyed" (1978:129). Woman was believed to be unstable by virtue of her womb, and thus subject to "striving to rule over her betters" (1978:129). Images of the "disorderly woman who gives rein to the lower in herself and seeks to rule over her superiors" (1975:133) abounded in comic play and humorous illustrations of wives beating husbands, or of Phyllis riding Aristotle.

I have suggested that images of the "woman on top" are often seen in women's Mardi Gras runs, as Mardi Gras wrest whips and turn them on the captains, or a female Mardi Gras "acting horse" rides a young male captain's back. The validity of parallels between modem French Louisiana and medieval France is of course limited. But even today, playful attempts by women to resist male control and dominate men provoke laughter and perhaps also a degree of disquiet.

Women's Mardi Gras runs license and intensify the "disorderly and indecorous behavior" (Abrahams and Bauman 1978: 204) which, although contrary to many feminine ideals, exists at all times among some women as well as men. Although most Mardi Gras may "push [the boundaries] a little bit," as a captain says, those involved in the most transgressive play are typically those with reputations for such behavior in everyday life, as Abrahams and Bauman have observed of other such festivals (1978). Thus, although masking allows a degree of freedom and license to those running Mardi Gras, festive roles are not completely divorced from social roles.

To a certain extent, a double standard exists for male and female behavior within the Mardi Gras run, perhaps most particularly in mixed-sex runs. One female Mardi Gras in Basile comments of clowning in view of husbands and boyfriends, "It's not such a good thing to be acting so silly where the men can see. Of course, it's fine for him." Standards for women Mardi Gras sometimes seem to operate in ambiguous ways. Although women are allowed more license in roughhousing (it's "prettv" to see a woman act up), repercussions (especially in terms of social disapproval) when they transgress certain boundaries may be as harsh or harsher than for men.

Women's adoption of the Mardi Gras role represents a departure from the festival's traditional male focus, but female participants see themselves as preserving rather than changing the custom. A number of women ascribe their interest in running Mardi Gras in part to their desire to "show our children what we were born and raised with." They emphasize the importance of maintaining and preserving their community Mardi Gras tradition, and feel strongly about the festival's significance in their own lives. Debbie Andrus says, "Like I tell my husband, if I'm in the bed sick and I hear that accordion, I'm up" to run Mardi Gras (Andrus and Lopez 1991). By running Mardi Gras or acting as capitaine, by bringing their children into the tradition, and by educating others through school programs and festival performances, the women help to ensure the survival of their local courirs de Mardi Gras.


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Abrahams, Roger D. and Richard Bauman. 1978. "Ranges of Festival Behavior." In The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, ed. Barbara A. Babcock, 193-208. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ancelet, Barry Jean. 1992. "Playing The Other: Ritual Reversal in the South Louisiana Country Mardi Gras." Paper delivered at American Folklore Society annual meeting, Gainesville, Florida.

_____. 1991. "Singing Beggars and Outlaws with Whips: Mardi Gras in Three Louisiana French Communities." Paper presented at American Folklore Society annual meeting, St. John's, Newfoundland.

_____. 1980. "The Country Mardi Gras Celebration." Attakapas Gazette 15:159-64.

Andrus, Debbie and Suzie Lopez. 1991. Interview with author. Basile, Louisiana. 5 November.

Bergeaux, Merline, Patsy Hebert and Shirley Reed. 1988. Interview with author. Iota, Louisiana. 20 December.

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Courville, Marion. 1992. Interview with author. Eunice, Louisiana. 25 March.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1978. "Woman on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in the Early Modem World." In The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, ed. Barbara Babcock, 147-90. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

_____. 1975. Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Durio, Claude and Joe Todd Durio. 1992. Interview with author. Basile, Louisiana. 16 June.

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Frugé, Gerald and Linda Frugé. 1992. Interview with author. Basile, Louisiana. 28 June.

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Lindahl, Carl. 1996. "The Cajun Country Mardi Gras and Bakhtin's Carnival Laughter." Folklore 107. Forthcoming.

_____. 1995. The Presence of die Past in the Cajun Country Mardi Gras. Unpublished paper.

Launey, Suson. 1991. Interview with author, 30 July. Eunice, Louisiana.

Mire, Patrick. 1993. Dance for a Chicken: The Prairie Cajun Mardi Gras. Attakapas Films.

Ortner, S.B. and H. Whitehead, eds. 1981. Sexual Meanings, the Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, Helena. 1991. Interview with author. Basile, Louisiana. 23 July

Radner, Joan N. and Susan S. Lanser. 1993. "Strategies of Coding in Women's Cultures." In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, ed. Joan Newlon Radner, 1-29. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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Spitzer, Nicholas R. 1986. Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rural French Louisiana. Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin.

Young, Ella Ruth. 1992. Interview with author, Basile, Louisiana. 20 January.

This essay was first published in Southern Folklore in 1995. Dr. Carolyn Ware teaches folklore at Louisiana State University in the Department of English.