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Southern Culture Thursday: Rebecca Snedeker’s “By Invitation Only” (Film)

24 Jul 2014

written by Mod Mobilian



Southern Culture Thursday

Rebecca Snedeker: By Invitation Only (Film)

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In view of the confusion and controversy last week over our posting of Blake Bailey’s comment in the New York Times regarding the “dopey elitism” of the “tiresome local gentry” with their Mardi Gras krewes (note that New Orleans has “krewes” primarily while Mobile has mystic societies) – it is appropriate to introduce works by New Orleans’ Rebecca Snedeker about her city and its Mardi Gras to help clarify the comment.

In addition to her documentary film By Invitation Only, Snedeker is also the co-author of the New Orleans atlas Unfathomable City – which we will feature in the near future. (Normally we try to feature films and books readily available electronically for your convenience – although it is only available by order online it’s worth it.)

Although Mobile and New Orleans are clearly different, some Mobilians – particularly those that proudly say “Mobile is NOT New Orleans” – do not fully appreciate the similarities of the two cities in terms of Gulf Coast “water culture” and as Old Southern coastal towns, and particularly their Mardi Gras. (Of course, many New Orleanians do not realize it either.)  By Invitation Only and Unfathomable City illuminate some of these similarities and should be appreciated by Mobilians for the history and culture the cities share.

By Invitation Only is essentially New Orleans’ version of Margaret Brown’s film Order of Myths. In fact, Snedeker’s film (co-produced by native Mobilian Tim Watson) was released in 2006 – two years before Brown’s. Both films illustrate the behind-the-scenes happenings of Mardi Gras in their respective towns. Specifically, both are made by women from families that allow them special access to the older organizations.

Comparisons between the two cities’ celebrations we will leave to another post (which will be fun) – but the films themselves have a few significant differences.

First, Snedeker appears prominently in her own film with her friends and family, where Brown let a large number of unrelated people (with the exception of her grandfather) tell their stories and generally stayed off camera herself.

Second, Snedeker’s film focuses mostly on the debutantes and old organizations.  There is no mention of Zulu, or the truck parades, or the Metairie or West Bank parades, or the French Quarter marching groups, or ‘tit Rex, or tourists, or Mardi Gras Indians. This is not a criticism, however, as those aspects receive much of the attention, whereas Snedeker is in a special position to address this particular element. Brown, on the other hand, included newer organizations like the Conde Cavaliers and the integrated Conde Explorers, as well as the black Carnival events and royalty.

Third, since Snedeker concentrates on old white organizations, the film tends to be more about the role of social class than race.  Race is not entirely neglected – Snedeker addresses the Dorothy Mae Taylor hearings that forced the old krewes to quit parading, points out that the only blacks that you will see at the New Orleans Country Club are the staff, and reveals a fact about her own life that we will not spoil here.

Not that Snedeker directly shows any of the newer parades or their members, but, for example, at one point she opines:

Somewhere along the way I got the idea that we were better than the public school girls.  If our worlds had ever overlapped, I might have known better.

The assertion that Carnival associations are more about social class than race, ethnicity or religion is made by some of the old krewe members. New Orleans’ old krewes have traditionally excluded not just blacks but anyone who is not of Northern European descent – particularly Jews, Italians, and most Mediterranean ethnicities – to a greater degree than Mobile has and so is even more sensitive to the subject.  Says one member (Oliver Delery):

There’s a big perception that you have to be a blue blood to belong to this ball or that ball.  A lot of it is the fathers and their friendships. They basically hang out, the different groups.  There are no real barriers to entrance.

It just so happens that most of their friends are white.  Of course, her father points out that if his organization were forced to accept blacks then some members would resign.  So, why upset the apple cart?

In fact, the film portrays the conundrum facing Carnival in both New Orleans and Mobile.  Obviously, freedom of association should be preserved and a club that admits everyone is not a “club” in the sense of a group of friends or like-minded people – it’s just a room full of people without significance.  Most people would agree that we should be allowed to congregate with friends and family without the local government getting involved.  But, how do we do this without having a segregated Mardi Gras?

Snedeker conveys this problem without being overly judgmental.  She presents her family and friends as amicable people mostly unclear if not unconcerned about how to resolve this.  Some reviewers even called her “sympathetic” to the participants. She portrays the old krewe’s activities matter of factly. She gives away no dark secrets or secret handshakes. Carnival is segregated, but it is no worse than the classism and insularity seen in other cities. Writer Billy Sothern pointed out in his book Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City:

“Rebecca alternated between believing that the Carnival tradition was racist and believing that the insular culture from which she came was no different from insular groups of like-minded friends and families around the country who simply don’t challenge their own identities and narrow surroundings.”

Not surprisingly, the film elicited a vitriol in New Orleans that was several magnitudes greater than that towards Order of Myths in Mobile (which we would contend was fairly muted – at least in public).   The glossy New Orleans Magazine, edited by avowed apologist for the Carnival status quo Errol Laborde, published an editorial which lashed out against the film:

Carnival can count on at least one hatchet job a year. In 2006, it was a documentary that, in preaching against perceived intolerance, was as close-minded, uninformed and unfair to innocent people as the bigotry it portended to erase.

Why the virulence?  The film, which is a thoughtful examination of a complex social event, did not make any overt judgments on the people portrayed.  Describing it as a “close-minded, uninformed and unfair” hatchet job comes off as a flippant and especially defensive response that one would not expect from a “serious” magazine.

The venom elicited is likely due to the fact that it put on display customs and participants of the old krewes at all.   What quickly becomes clear is these are really just average, middle class people.  They shop at Target.  They watch American Idol. They are not aristocrats.  The days of New Orleans being one of the richest cities in the nation – the Wall Street or Silicon Valley of its day – are long gone.  Even imaginary aristocracies succumb to the curse of mediocrity as the real hereditary European ones did.

The myth of old krewes being “elite” are perpetuated only because the events and their participants are exclusive and hence hidden.   Membership is secret and even outside of carnival many of the members tend to socialize only among themselves.  The myth is kept up only through the mystique of the unknown.

When Snedeker reveals this truth then the whole thing falls apart.  Suddenly, they seem silly and pretentious for taking seriously the pompous scepter-waving ceremony.  They are not “elite” – they are just elitist.

In fact – one episode reveals that they might even be considered less classy than your average citizen.  Snedeker displays an invitation to a ball (note that Snedeker keeps the organization’s identity secret although some easy deductions can be made) with the theme “Fools Names’ in Public Places” which contains a poem about renaming public streets for “fools” like Martin Luther King, Jr. and rejoices in the fact that New Orleans already contains a public place named for blacks – Monkey Hill.

What is obvious from this invitation is that some of the participants in old krewes are as tacky and “rednecky” as any Southern reality TV star or Bible Belt Kluxer. And although most of them would say that they are not overtly racist, they conform to group behavior so that they still attend a ball with that sort of invitation.  Says Sothern:

This was not a party that Rebecca would ever want to attend— that any thinking person would want to attend—but the invitation was accepted by a number of people whom Rebecca describes as “good” and “civic-minded,”  who enthusiastically dressed up in costume and suspended their disbelief.

It is their secrecy and insularity that allows them to hide a lack of sophistication from the outside world while maintaining an air of elitism.  Paradoxically, it is the older organizations in New Orleans that often display this lack of tact. It is was this veil that Snedeker dared to lift.

While Mobile’s Mardi Gras is not completely innocent, we are proud to say that we have not seen the attitude displayed in that invitation occur in Mobile.  Likewise, in Mobile the old societies – and most societies – do not discriminate with their invitations.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin was notably a guest at one such party recently, but there are invitees of diverse races and religions at most of the balls.  Only in isolated cases have organizations (which were among the newer ones) been shown to discriminate among their guests.

One last point – it is obvious that Snedeker has an affection for Mardi Gras.  Like many long-standing traditions in the South, it is a complex mix of positive and negative elements, such as racism and social pretension. And like many Southerners that care about their institutions, she brings these to light in order to help eliminate them.

Snedeker is, in fact, doing Carnival a favor for confronting these negative elements as they lead many people in New Orleans to despise what is a otherwise a joyous and exuberant community event.  This disapproval is not isolated to Reed and Bailey but is shared by many New Orleanians, so much so that many people leave town during Mardi Gras.  Serious concerns have been raised that the social milieu has negatively affected the city’s economic growth by driving away outside companies and their executives.

It is unfortunate that efforts such as Snedeker’s have been simplistically vilified as “jealousy” (which is ridiculous, since she had the opportunity to participate if she wished). Ironically, these efforts have been attacked not just by the Errol Labordes but also by some members in the newer organizations which are held in active contempt by some in the old krewes (“bless their hearts”).

Hopefully, the viewer will realize that criticism of the negative elements in a very complex institution is not an attack on Mardi Gras itself.  It takes many people who, like Snedeker, are intimately familiar with and care about Mardi Gras to be honest about and perhaps improve what is and should be the best celebration in the country.



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