My little neighborhood has made national news recently with it’s July 4th horribles parade, basically a Mummers-style parade in which the locals mock and parody usually very local events and personalities. I’ve only lived here 4 years and it’s been pretty out-of-hand every year: with instances of open profanity, personal attacks (personal as in naming names) and flagrant racism (e.g., mocking Latino illegal immigrants) present in just about every parade. And if you ask my neighbors, I haven’t even seen the worst of it (the Viagra float is legendary as are the kids who decided to reenact the JFK assassination, complete with a screaming Jackie, etc., etc.) This year, however, they’ve apparently gone too far, with three floats mocking the dozen-and-a-half teen-age pregnancies in nearby Gloucester high. You can watch it in all it’s glory on Youtube here. Keep an eye out for me!
The mayor of Gloucester is outraged, claiming that the parade could spark a class war. Most of the MSM and bloggers who have picked up the story are equally shocked, taking a controversial “teen-aged pregnancy isn’t funny” line. Like here. Or here from Gloucester's local. No kidding, Neither is the JFK assassination or illegal immigration or the local guy who was mocked for his DWI and other humiliations in two floats a year ago. I just watched a “Greater Boston” segment, a local PBS affiliate show hosted by Emily Rooney, in which a reporter from the Beverly Citizen claimed this parade went too far because it made fun of people without power compared to a memorable float parodying Kerry Healey’s run for governor two years ago.
The distinction is meaningful if you compare the pregnant teens to the very rich and privileged Healey, but the argument doesn't hold up when you look at the range of subjects usually in the parade. Most of the floats I've seen are far from clever political satire. Most of them are pretty trashy and personal and often sexually provocative with attacks on local embarrassments from guys who get DWI's to crappy city planning and quite a few involve guys in drag and profane language. No one I’ve read has yet mentioned the eye-popping “Trolls Gone Wild” float from I think '05 in which some local young women either donned wigs or dyed their hair fluorescent hues and then created cone-shaped doo's (to emulate the beloved troll figures of our childhoods) and danced provocatively down my little new England street, right before of the innocent eyes of the local children.
To declare the parade offensive is hardly an attack, it’s a description. It’s offensive by definition. You could argue that we don’t want any offensive parades in quaint sea-side towns like the one I live in, but it’s a very weak argument indeed to differentiate this parade from past years (and let’s not forget this has been going on for a full century.) I suspect there is some deeper Cape Ann rivalry at work here but I'm too much of an newcomer and outsider to penetrate its depths. And personally, as an outsider, I find it kind of pleasant to see one unregulated, unsanitized public event, without a single appearance of a Disney character!
If I was to get all academic in my defense, I’d say the parade is a great modern example of what Bahktin defined as the carnivalesque, that is, a period of anarchic and transgressive behavior licensed by the powers that be. Bahktin was talking about how the carnivals in medieval Europe created a period of temporary liberation from the controlling strictures church and state but you could say that the same principle applies here. In any other context, the behavior would be totally unacceptable. The only thing that makes it okay here is that we’ve decided it’s okay.
You can read more about it here. Or if you really want to get into Bahktin, and he’s worth it, check out his famous and influential book on Rabelais in which he develops his theory of the carnivalesque. Though the very fact that I'm deploying a Russian literary theorist to defend this outrageous parade probably only positions me more firmly on the snobby side of the alleged class war.
And since "the children" have played a role in just about every story on the parade, I should probably disclose that I also have them--children that is (2, 4 and 7). And they watched the parade in front of my house with the usual combination of screaming excitement and perplexity, and yes--just like the kids in the press--my oldest did in fact pick up a condom that had been tossed from one of the floats and asked what it was. And before I could even think of a good answer that wouldn’t take the rest of the holiday to explain, he had forgotten about the weird foil wrapper and moved onto a package of Sweet Tarts and a manic discussion of the night’s fireworks. Hopefully, he will remain unscarred by the experience.