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Stripping off inhibitions in the ‘free market’ of Mardi Gras

BY Talia Mindich  March 4, 2014 at 5:07 PM EDT
Revelers with cameras crowd Bourbon Street on February 20, 2007.

Revelers with cameras crowd Bourbon Street on February 20, 2007. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It was Mardi Gras 2011. Beads rained down on Claire and her friends as they pushed through the Bourbon Street crowds. Men lined the balconies with barrels of beads and women danced down the center of the boulevard. Swept up in the energy, Claire lifted her shirt.

Claire, 24, who had driven with friends to New Orleans from her Midwestern college, became one of countless out-of-town revelers who has flashed a body part on the French Quarter streets in exchange for an important currency: beads.

Flashing for beads is a ritual with murky roots. Exactly when it first appeared at Mardi Gras is unclear, but it is believed to have become widespread in the mid-80s. So how did this phenomenon originate? And is it simply an expression of sexual indulgence on a holiday known for the stripping away of behavioral norms, or is there more to it?

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A cross-section of European, African and Caribbean heritage, New Orleans has long been associated with “libertine exceptionalism,” particularly in Protestant American communities where public nudity is forbidden. Vicki Mayer, a communications professor at Tulane University, writes that tourists can experience the “primitive and exotic within this space that is neither the U.S. nor the Caribbean.”

New Orleans Mardi Gras rituals like flashing may offer tourists, especially women, a reprieve from the repression they face at home, according to Robin Milhausen, associate professor at the University of Guelph, who has studied sexual behavior among tourists at Mardi Gras.

“Society regulates our behavior so thoroughly, in so many contexts, that it’s wonderful that we have a place where we can express ourselves and be more free than we normally would be able to be in our day-to-day life,” Milhausen said. “So I guess it’s a consequence of how our society is generally around sexuality that these little pockets spring up where people can skirt all of the normal rules.”

For Claire, who asked that her last name not be used, this theory rings true.

“Needless to say, not much compares to the feeling of being able to let go like that, knowing there won’t be any consequence to showing the world my body,” she said.

(Note: Louisiana state law prohibits exposure “with the intent of arousing sexual desire or that which appeals to prurient interest or is patently offensive.” However, on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, officers tend to prioritize crowd control.)

Back in the mid-90s, Wesley Shrum, sociology professor at Louisiana State University, took an academic look at flashing for beads, which he considers a “ceremonial ritual.” Shrum and fellow researcher John Kilburn filmed 700 instances of disrobement from three camera locations, and then observed how revelers used the beads to negotiate. The ritual, they concluded, was less about the debauchery, or even the nudity, than it was a celebration of the free market economy.

“That’s what ceremonies like Mardi Gras do. They allow you to take something that’s important in your lives and to transform it into a symbolic version of that same thing,” Shrum said. “As Americans and in Western societies generally, the market is not just one way of organizing yourself — it’s more than that. Its something that we feel is good and right and magical.”

Like money, Mardi Gras beads come in different denominations, he pointed out: They range in size, color and degree of elaboration. Shrum compared the circulation of a $5 bill to the journey of a single Mardi Gras bead:

“Guys, especially, will go down Bourbon Street during the day, and they’ll drop their trousers, and they’ll get girls on the balcony throwing them beads, and so they’ll accumulate a bunch of good beads,” explained Shrum. “And then at night, they’ll be throwing those beads up to the balcony to get girls to show their breasts. So the beads themselves circulate.”

He says the practice has numerous origins. Among them, a group of nudists at a 1975 festival who held up signs offering to bare one body part in exchange for another, and later incorporated beads into the mix.

Mayer has another explanation. She links flashing for beads to the rise of soft-core porn like “Girls Gone Wild” — the video series featuring mainly college-age women exposing themselves and kissing in public at Mardi Gras and other “Spring Break” locations.

According to Mayer, the earliest videographers of such films made a conscious decision in the 1980s to take the beads from the local parades on St. Charles Ave., and bring them into the French Quarter to exchange for the nudity already prevalent among exotic dancers. “[The cameramen] looked like walking shopping malls — just covered in hundreds of beads,” Mayer said.

She argues in a 2007 article on the subject that these videos commodify and distort female nudity.

Close-ups of breasts, butts and vaginas replace the complete female form in these soft-core Mardi Gras videos, Mayer writes. The technique of zooming in on these parts, she says, “reduces the distance between the spectator and the sex object to its limits. Through these close-ups, Mardi Gras becomes a production site of the grotesque, as ordinary bodies are made extraordinary through their manipulation by camera technology.”

As for the revelers, many of them shrug off the scholarly explanations.

“It is exhilarating.” Claire said. “I didn’t really want a reward for it. I didn’t want to be that typecast girl that wants to collect shiny things. It was just my way of being on parade that year.”