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The Evolution of Mardi Gras Rituals

In this 'Wonks Gone Wild,' researchers say the hierarchical role-playing in Mardi Gras parades gave way to a free marketplace for beads, which included 'negotiated transactions.'
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But Mardi Gras is not solely about exhibitionism and one-night stands. Although the participants may not be aware of it, there is a sociopolitical component to the sexually charged proceedings, and it's more affirmative of societal norms than rebellious. At least, that's what Wesley Shrum and John Kilburn of Louisiana State University argued in a 1996 paper focusing on the festival's public displays of nudity.

"A practice that seems to be mere debauchery," they wrote in the journal Social Forces, "is an expression of moral commitment to the market economy, as well as conventional notions of gender and hierarchy."

They describe the traditional Mardi Gras parade as a class-based ritual, noting it features "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."

They note this hierarchical role-playing changed form in the 1970s, when participants began disrobing in public in exchange for ceremonial beads. While this no doubt reflected the more relaxed sexual mores of the era, for Shrum and Kilburn its true significance lies in the shift in symbolism. In this new paradigm, "participants gain control over the conditions of the exchange, making possible the exercise of personal choice in negotiated transactions."

New Orleans' annual Mardi Gras celebration has attracted a parade of social scientists over the years. For more on the scholarship inspired by the provocatively licentious pre-Lenten festival, check out:
The History of Mardi Gras Beadwhores
Unmasking Mardi Gras Deviants
Studying Drunken Promiscuity at Mardi Gras

"As a new ritual order developed, random gifts of beads gave way to the specificity of a targeted relation, where buyers and sellers negotiate the terms of a bargain," the scholars concluded. "The act of disrobement dramatizes the freedom of the marketplace through personal choice."

So as the middle class arose and the free market became king, new rituals developed to reflect this reality, and the current economic downturn has yet to put a damper on them. Cash for clunkers came and went, but beads for buttocks lives on.

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