« Program: Living in New Orleans, Part 1: All on A Mardi Gras Day

Vicki Mayer Talks to Ned Sublette

Vicki Mayer
Assistant Professor of Communications, Tulane University, March 2005

NS: What do you study?

VM: I look at different kinds of media producers and audiences in historical and ethnographic contexts.

NS: What sort of work have you done?

VM: All of my projects look at the making and consumption of media. My first book was a study of Mexican-American media producers and media audiences in San Antonio, Texas. I worked there for about four years and tried to understand how identity shapes the way we make and consume media.

NS: You’ve been living in New Orleans for how long?

VM: Almost two years at this point.

NS: How did you get started with this present project involving Mardi Gras?

VM: Because I look at local contexts and local cultures for media production and consumption, when I came to New Orleans I was challenged to look at a media practice that didn’t involve jazz or blues or music cultures, which is generally the most studied medium in New Orleans. I wanted to look at film, television, video, and of those array of media, it seems like Mardi Gras videos were not only the most popular, but the medium most associated with New Orleans.

NS: When you say “Mardi Gras videos,” what are you talking about?

VM: They come under a number of different company names, such as Dreamgirls, Girls Gone Wild, GM Videos, Wild Party Girls. It’s essentially commercial videos of women flashing their breasts or their bottoms in exchange for beads, both during Mardi Gras and during the kind of re-enactment of Mardi Gras that happens virtually every weekend on Bourbon Street.

NS: This has become a sort of tradition all its own.

VM: Well, it’s not only a local tradition, but it’s an international tradition in the sense that flashing and flashing rituals and bead exchange really attract an international tourism industry to Bourbon Street to participate in a kind of Mardi Gras experience, even outside of Mardi Gras.

NS: Mardi Gras is all about these odd traditions that have been invented at some point, really, in the fairly recent past. This seems to be the newest one. It’s a newly invented tradition, but it’s become the thing everyone knows about Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans. It’s the first thing a lot of people think of.

VM: It’s true. Bead exchange dates back to the ’20s. Beads have always been associated with carnival as thrown objects, and nudity has been part of the Storyville tradition. But the actual joining – that is, the ritual that’s now expressed on the street as beads for tits – really didn’t start until probably the late 1970s, as best we can trace back. I’ve done a number of interviews with local bartenders and people who worked the streets, because this is a ritual that was largely marginalized in the official histories of Mardi Gras, and yet kind of sprung out of a kind of sexual liberation movement that spread to the French Quarter by the late 1970s. The videotaping of flashing for beads really didn’t take off commercially until 1988, when the first tapes were distributed, either through the bars themselves or through catalogs.

NS: The bars were selling tapes of women flashing first? That’s how this got started?

VM: Yeah, it’s actually a really interesting story. There was a bar on Bourbon Street that made a kind of informal agreement with a commercial videographer to take pictures of women flashing, which, in the case of this videographer, were a lot of his friends and people he would hang out with on a regular basis at Mardi Gras. And then these were packaged and they were displayed in this bar all year long and sold over the counter – fifteen bucks, twenty bucks a tape – and ended up spreading the tradition. Year-round, people could see flashing. And there’s great stories from people who worked in this bar that people would come into the bar and actually flash the television set that was playing this video!

NS: Which bar was this?

VM: This was one of the Johnnie White’s bars. It’s on the 700 or 800 block of Bourbon Street. This practice spread to many of the bars. It started there, but by 1990, there were three or four bars that were playing flashing videos kind of year round.

NS: Playing them in the bar while people would come in and drink?

VM: Yeah, it would be a kind of soft-core entertainment while people came in and tried to experience Bourbon Street. Another great part of this tradition was that at one point there was an open camera that was placed on Bourbon Street in front of one of the souvenir shops that was connected to a large-screen TV. This was in the early 90s when it was very rare to see one of the huge-screen TVs with an open camera. And people would walk by and typically flash the open camera to see themselves on television. And again, this popularized the practice of flashing – or the association between Mardi Gras and flashing – year-round. That is, until the police shut it down.

NS: You see people flashing on Bourbon Street but nowhere else. Is it permitted on Bourbon Street? Or do people just do it? Do they get busted, pardon the pun, if they do it in other parts of the city?

VM: Under the law, flashing is illegal. It comes under public decency standards. But it’s traditionally been seen as – you know, that law is seldom enforced during certain parts of the year. The law is more enforced outside of Bourbon Street, with the understanding that Bourbon Street is really an adult entertainment district. Flashing is very much not permitted in parade routes, with the idea that families go there, and children are there. But on Bourbon Street, the law of the street is: anything goes, within reason. And the times when there are crackdowns, it’s miniscule in comparison with the population that does not experience any kind of disciplinary action. The law of the street, as I put it, is all ta-ta and no cha-cha. That is, nudity above the waist is okay. Below the waist will be disciplined, and usually is enforced.

NS: Now why do people expose their private parts for beads, which are themselves intrinsically worthless? Have you gained any insight into what this mechanism is that makes people want to do this?

VM: Well, there’s many, many different reasons. One of the things that I’ve discovered in the two years that I’ve been hanging out on Bourbon Street watching this ritual enacted is that, like people themselves, there are endless different reasons why any particular woman would come and flash, but some of the recurring reasons are quite interesting. For some, this is a symbol of a kind of sexual liberation – something that is not permitted at home. Many people come from communities where public exposure is very much frowned upon. So this is a chance to kind of flout the laws of their own communities in a setting where it’s acceptable. For other people, this is a kind of mini-celebrity routine, right? You see celebrities now who have their own porn videos, so why not have ordinary people pretending to be celebrities on the street? The pornografication of the mainstream is what some scholars – Brian McNair, most famously, coined this term – that ordinary people are more prone to display themselves because celebrities are more prone to display themselves all the time and why not pretend to be a celebrity on Bourbon Street for a night? Other people, I’m convinced, have no idea what they’re doing. They’re so incredibly wasted that they’re liable to do anything. Often times all of these reasons mix. You know, you think of it as liberation, but you’re actually justifying the fact that you’re wasted, but you’re also able to play a different role, right? You’re able to be a kind of porn star for a night. There’s all of these different reasons, I think, that interact on the street. I think what’s interesting is our own fascination with why people do this. I in particular am interested in how these videos are made, and produced, and circulated, but almost everybody wants to know [whispers]: Why do the women do it? Right? That becomes the real secret, or the real source of interest now.

NS: What is your interest in it? Do you find yourself engaging in what you might call voyeurism?

VM: Yeah, it’s really interesting that when I go out on the street, people approach me as a potential subject for flashing, and also an observer – a voyeur – of flashing, because I’m interested in these transactions that happen between videographers, the women, the voyeurs, the people who just go there to watch, the consumers who buy these tapes, the bartenders who may be selling it. I’m interested in this whole kind of cultural world, but my own position as an academic is very fraught with contradictions [Laughs]. Who am I to be watching?

NS: When I found myself watching the parades — I just went through my first Mardi Gras, and I admit that I didn’t realize to what extent it was all about throwing beads. If you’ve never seen it, it’s kind of hard to imagine how many tons of these cheap acrylic beads get dumped onto the streets of New Orleans and hung in the branches of the trees, and the entire crowd goes mad, practically getting pushed under the wheels of these giant floats, to try to get these beads that are being thrown from passing floats, which are – they’re not magical beads, they’re intrinsically worthless. But you find yourself getting caught up and pretty soon you’re standing under the float with your arms up in the air, going “Throw me something, mister!” [gestures so actively he knocks mini-disc recorder onto floor, picks it up, makes sure it’s still working]. But I found myself getting almost immediately caught up in seeing how many beads I could get by raising my hands in the air – not by flashing, we’re talking about parades here. Have you experienced this pull?

VM: What’s interesting for people who come to Mardi Gras, whether you’re someone who’s been going for many, many years, many, many generations, or it’s your first time, this symbolic economy of bead exchange is almost – it is the economy. It’s the marketplace for the valuation of Mardi Gras. Everyone gets caught up. One of the reasons that women get really into flashing is to collect what’s considered the most prestigious beads on the street. So that even though they have no value outside of Mardi Gras, within Mardi Gras there’s an entire hierarchy of cheap throw beads – just simple plastic beads – and beads that are bigger, beads that squeak, or make noise, or light up. There are now beads that are shaped like Spongebob or anime animals. All of these fit into a hierarchy of value that is symbolic within the Mardi Gras ritual, right? So that to flash is really not just about exposing one’s body but getting the best beads possible for the exposure.

I kind of repress my desire to have beads, because that would mark me in a certain kind of way. I have enough trouble getting men to not approach me to flash, much less – you know, if you have too many beads on men will pursue you because they figure you’ve been flashing for them. By the end of Mardi Gras, I find myself – you know, [wearing] a couple of strands, just to feel a part of the system.

NS: I’m getting the impression from your description that being a woman on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, you find yourself in a sort of predatory environment.

VM: Very much so. I’ve talked to people who have been going to Mardi Gras for thirty. forty years or more, and we’re definitely in a situation these last five years where¬†there’s about one woman out there for every ten guys. And so to be a female and alone on the street, there is a kind of predatory environment, because the assumption is that you came there to flash.

NS: And of course the guys are there to see the women flash. I’ll flip you an anecdote. I was at my local bar – Parasols, in the Irish Channel, during the Mardi Gras period, early in the evening, just before everything got going. And there was a young blond man in there, maybe early 20s, quite drunk already, and somehow we got to talking and he introduced himself: “Mah name’s so-and-so from Monroe, Louisiana, and ah’m here to drank beer and see titties!” That was what he had come to New Orleans for. How many thousands of people must have come with that in mind! It must bring in a tremendous amount of tourism. Do you know if anyone’s attempted to quantify it?

VM: There was a study done in the 1980s by two sociologists at LSU who actually did quantify the number of flashes. They weren’t able to determine from their research who was a tourist and who was not, but we know that about 20% of New Orleans tourism is during Mardi Gras, so the city is largely filled with tourists. And they found that during the late ’80s, which is coincidentally when these commercial videos came out, that flashing during Mardi Gras – they had some figure, like, increased tenfold. That really the explosion in flashing during Mardi Gras happened during the late ’80s and when they quantified it, every year it would increase exponentially. Now my subjects on the street say that over the last five years since 2001, there’s been a drop in flashing.

You know, the amount of people who will flash. People are very aware of the videos. They see them advertised on television. This makes people more wary of exposing themselves on the street. So the word on the street is that flashing has decreased. And this would also match the decrease in tourism that Mardi Gras has been able to attract since 2001.

NS: Have you been able to find out in your research — who are these people? Who are the people who come and participate in the flashing ritual?

VM: It’s hard to generalize. Just like it’s hard to generalize why women flash. In part it’s hard to generalize because there are so many different kinds of people on the street. You would never know the class status of people by just watching people on Bourbon Street, because you have rich people and middle-class people and they’re all dressed in different ways, and poor people– who are probably locals, because that’s not the tourism industry – all together. But I would say one thing: racially, it is coded as particularly white, and it is sexually segregated as well. So, you know, Bourbon Street is fairly coded as a white tradition, and then you have Bourbon Street that’s divided on the 800 block, dividing heterosexual flashing and gay flashing rituals. There’s actually different parts of the street for those sexualized traditions.

NS: So you’re saying that the women who flash are white women, and black women don’t flash?

VM: Well, some of this is mythology, right? People who say, “black women don’t flash.” Black women do flash, but far less. And that would reflect in part the tourism that does come to the city for Mardi Gras, but also the dynamics of – you know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because it’s not that no black women flash, but the rarity of it does call into question – you know, what does the display of breasts mean for white women versus for black women? I’ve had several kinds of hypotheses, none of which I’ve been able to test in any sufficient way, but it does seem that for white women, that Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is a place to kind of invert sexual norms for white women’s purity, or virginity, or repression, whereas for black women, to show your breasts would be a kind of a re-stereotyping of black women’s already exoticized image in popular culture, or in media.

NS: What about the male side of Bourbon Street?

VM: Well, it’s interesting also. It’s not that there are no black men on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. But that the rituals – particularly around property exchange – are very much racially coded.

NS: What do you mean by property exchange?

VM: Property exchange? Beads for tits. So when you’re talking about beads-for-tits rituals with white men, it’s kind of assumed that when white men touch white women, that there’s a kind of an exchange of property: women might flash and a man might hug the woman, or kiss the woman, that’s okay. But when black men hug, kiss, touch, a white woman who’s flashing, sometimes that could be cause for a riot. I’ve seen fights break out over black men who attempt to in some ways handle the merchandise, you could say, on the street. Joseph Roach, who’s written about carnival traditions, says that during Mardi Gras the law of the street really kicks into play. And the law of the street is that white men can exchange their women for beads, black men cannot.

NS: Thank you, Dr. Mayer.

VM: Thank you.