“BY INVITATION ONLY”— The Elite New Orleans Mardi Gras

“By Invitation Only”

The Elite New Orleans Mardi Gras

Amos Lassen

New Orleans filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker explores the insular world of the elite, white Carnival societies and debutante balls of New Orleans Mardi Gras. She questions their racial exclusivity, she takes an unprecedented insider’s look at the pageantry and asks: what does it mean to be the queen of the masked men? As she examines her own place in this tradition, she challenges viewers to reflect on the roles we all play in our lives. I love Mardi Gras but there is no place for me in it as a gay Jewish male raised, educated and bred in New Orleans. I have had many debutantes as friends, I have taught two queens of carnival and many of my former students hold esteemed places in New Orleans society and Mardi Gras tradition. I was invited to a very exclusive ball only to have my invitation withdrawn when it was learned that I am “of Jewish heritage” whatever that means.

For anyone who wants to understand racism and white privilege, this film is a must-see. Rebecca Snedeker declined her opportunity at a white glove and gown entrance to formal local society, her film “By Invitation Only” is both memoir and documentary as Snedeker reveals her own choice not to participate while she follows one friend’s paths through the process of preparing for a debutante ball and reigning as a Carnival queen. She interviews friends and family along the way, questioning them about the nature of a tradition with racially segregated origins. Gaining access to private parties and permission to film one of the balls help expose the krewes’ aura of secrecy, asking whether the “By Invitation Only” is a unique examination of class and race privilege, and shows us just how deeply embedded are the structures of entitlement and expectation for members of the ruling class, not only in New Orleans, frankly, but nationwide. New Orleans just happens to be the society on display here and the fact that it has Mardi Gras makes it truly unique. Snedeker explores the ways in which this system not only dehumanizes those who stand outside of it, but even those for whom its benefits were intended. “By Invitation Only” is a great place to start to understandof what was broken with the American class and race systems, long before Hurricane Katrina.  

Just imagine being in the center of New Orleans debutante and Carnival traditions and saying no to it all— the power and privilege. Snedeker had beauty, brains, money, and entitlement. “She records her stepping back, rethinking, reconsidering, reorienting herself into a wider way of being in the world, outside of the social and emotional prisons of her caste, class, and racial position.” She gives up some unearned privilege and lives a stronger and more coherent life as a result.

This is a personal documentary in which the filmmaker rubs against the upper-crust Mardi Gras traditions of her society family, realizing there’s no place in the celebrations for her African-American boyfriend. Here is her take on class and race that traces 100 years of parallel New Orleans history, both white and black.

This is a fascinating insider’s documentary on New Orleans’ Mardi Gras world of floats and parades, “and how racial exclusivity white kings and queens ruling an unreconstructed antebellum aristocracy of color—masks itself as innocuous family tradition and holiday reveling.” She gave up her own chance of a crown, but she comes out as a queen of a new realm.

New Orleans does not change easily and we saw that in the amount of time it took for the removal of the Confederate monuments. There were protests, arrests, and a Lamborghini burned to a crisp. 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 was correct.

“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 remember seeing the photos in New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune of that year’s debutantes, but I couldn’t understand what they represented and why at Mardi Gras the front page of the paper would unveil, with fanfare, the identities of Rex and the Queen of Carnival.

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. The 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 this 2006 documentary. 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’ (name for Mardi Gras organizations)  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.

A Rex official was asked 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 asked not to be named in keeping with the traditions of that organization and he 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 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.

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