Carolyn E. Ware. Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Pp. xi+233, photographs, notes, index. $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.
In Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward Carolyn Ware furthers the field of folklore by focusing on an oft-ignored area of Mardi Gras studies: the contributions of women. Mardi Gras has been regularly described as a male-centered festival promoting and highlighting masculine virtues and values. Despite the professed prevalence of machismo in Mardi Gras runs, women have long quietly participated, supported, and perpetuated Mardi Gras traditions. In recent decades, women have both maintained their established services and assumed customarily masculine roles in these courirs, preserving and redefining Mardi Gras in the process.
After providing a historical and cultural context of Cajuns, Acadians, and their respective Mardi Gras traditions, Ware showcases the range of women’s activities in Mardi Gras by examining in depth female private and public routines in two rural Acadian celebrations of Tee Mamou and Basile. The author accomplishes this endeavor by first exploring mothers’, wives’, and sisters’ historical positions as costume makers, cooks, and tradition bearers for future generations, as well as dance partners and clowning “victims.” Next, Ware describes how women began to mask as Mardi Gras (as Mardi Gras participants are called), rejecting their former tasks of “just…work” for some of the “fun” in order to “crash” public dances (le bals de Mardis Gras) and maintain local customs in the wartime absence of men during much of the 20th century by forming children’s runs and running as Mardi Gras themselves. Ware also details women’s management responsibilities as organizers of Mardi Gras associations, runs, dinners, dances, parades, and public appearances, both independently and alongside men.
Following the above dissections of women’s conventional and recent dimensions of Mardi Gras participation as supporters, maskers, and organizers, Ware closely investigates the runs of Tee Mamou and Basile, respectively. Tee Mamou’s celebration, the sole remaining example of separate women’s runs in Acadia, embodies intriguing and explicitly gendered battles for power between wild female runners and male capitaines. Masking in Tee Mamou is a particularly rich platform for the renegotiation and subversion of feminine identity. Basile, alternately, features a co-ed run, though each sex possesses a separate capitaine and truck. Thus, the Basile run depicts instances of women in positions of authority. Basile women also shape feminine performance personalities based on clever and mischievous teasing to distinguish themselves from more aggressive male antics. The Tee Mamou and Basile examples illustrate distinctive modes of female Mardi Gras behavior. In Tee Mamou, women invert “normal” conventions of behavior to adapt the rowdy, masculine personas of traditional Mardi Gras. Female Mardi Gras from Basile, rather, rise to the challenge of carving distinctive performative identities apart from that of male Mardi Gras. By juxtaposing these two runs, Ware demonstrates the variety of innovative methods and modes for participation by women Mardi Gras.
Ware summarizes the themes evident in the runs of Tee Mamou and Basile in the chapter “Festive Reversals: Inversion, Intensification, and Coding,” which she dedicates to the analysis of the processes by which women examine and manipulate their personal and societal personas and responsibilities through disguises, leadership, and humor. She concludes with the assertion that the stereotype of rebellious and dangerous female Mardi Gras does not correspond to reality, as women are consistently less violent and destructive than male Mardi Gras. Instead, Ware states, the image of unruly women runners reflects social anxiety over the subversion of normative gender identities and power structures that Mardi Gras allows. Finally, Ware uses the personal recollections of four Acadian women to reflect upon the evolution of feminine presence in Mardi Gras celebrations as byproducts of societal changes due to movements such as feminism, as well as the vital position of women as perpetuators of local traditions.
Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backwards is a valuable exploration of a relatively un-acknowledged aspect of folklife studies. Ware relies heavily upon the participants’ interpretations, using them to navigate each chapter and form the epilogue. This unique approach allows Ware to deeply and critically investigate themes from the perspective of the Mardi Gras themselves. The thorough engagement of the cultural utilization of Mardi Gras as an agent of social service as well as a vehicle for the continuity of regional identity makes this work a useful contribution to scholars interested in the societal role of festivals as well as gender.