Modern Languages

Le mariage burlesque: Carnival cross-dressing in the French Caribbean

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

The mariage burlesque of the Plastic System Band carnival group in Lamentin, Martinique, 2012. Charlotte HammondAuthor provided

Anyone in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique or Guadeloupe during the carnival festivities will witness a unique and wonderfully subversive tradition: le mariage burlesque.

As a legacy of the refusal to assimilate into a French model of marriage and family, le mariage burlesque parodies the idealised fiction of a heterosexual nuclear family unit. Each year on lundi gras (the first Monday of the carnival) men and women perform each other’s conjugal role by cross-dressing as their gendered other. So the man masquerades as the (often pregnant) wife and – to a lesser extent – the woman dresses and performs as the husband. The happy couple is followed by a wedding procession and are “married” by a registrar and a priest along the carnival route.

The late Martinican theorist Édouard Glissant described the tradition as a critique of the family structure imposed by the colonising French republic. He wrote:

There is an occasion in Martinique in which men and women both agree to give a performance of their relationship. This is the tradition of the burlesque marriage during carnival, a critique of family structure.

In recent years there have been debates on the traditional role of family in France. A universalist notion prevails – the model of family promoted by the French Republic is made up of a heterosexual couple who live together, whether married or not, with children born of (or adopted by) the two parents.

Controversy around alternative forms of conjugal union, including legislation to enable same-sex marriage, gay adoption and surrogacy, have prompted fierce debates on the continued relevance of this traditional model. And, given that recent changes in legislation apply to France’s overseas territories, these debates have questioned the continued relevance of the French values of marriage and family in Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Family after slavery

French colonial discourse related marriage to “civilisation”. According to this racist logic, the African – who was considered subordinate – was unsuited to marriage. In the French Caribbean, unions between enslaved men and women of the same plantation were encouraged as they would produce another generation of slaves for the profit of the owner. Marriage between slaves (with the permission of their master) became legal from 1664 – but, in reality, the plantation system constrained the development of strong family units which would often be broken up when slaves were sold on to other plantations. This tended to disrupt the pure parent-child line of descendance or “filiation” promoted by the French state.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1848, French policies of assimilation (into la grande famille nationale) reinforced a desire for official marriage among its “daughters”, or les filles, as Guadeloupe and Martinique were disparagingly known. The extended family, in which grandparents, aunts, nannies and godparents are as likely to raise children as mothers, therefore came to signify not only resistance to a dominant social order of family imposed by slave owners, but also its imposition on French Caribbean territories during the aftermath of slavery.

In 1946, the islands voted to become overseas départements, granting them a distinct political status in relation to mainland France that promised full integration into the French Republic. However, this status has resulted in many social and economic disparitiesincluding severe unemployment, high cost of living and persistent racial discrimination.

As researchers in the social sciences have shown, family in this context – as the product of both African kinship traditions and its restructure during slavery – did not conform neatly to the model of family promoted by the French Republic.

Traditionally, le mariage burlesque was a ritual (with both European and African roots) to promote the birth of new unions during the festival period in the run up to Lent. Men would often adopt women’s roles during carnival through male-to-female cross-dressing. Today some gender studies scholars have argued that cross-dressing in the context of Caribbean carnivals merely reaffirms gender difference and masculine domination.

Yet in this context, where Eurocentric understandings of sexuality and gender are so often cut and pasted without attention to local histories and traditions, le mariage burlesquerepresents the contradiction imposed on French Caribbean citizens who continue to uphold a European (and heterosexual) model of marriage and family as the norm despite the co-existence of alternative family structures.

The “lesser” presence of women during le mariage burlesque has been addressed directly in the work of Martinique-based artists Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut. In 2016 Guérédrat and Tauliaut performed the Marcel Duchamp-inspired La Mariée mise à nu par son célibataire même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelor) during the mariage burlesqueparade of Fort-de-France, Martinique.

‘La Mariée mise à nu par son célibataire même’ (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelor), Martinique, 2016. Photo by Marvin Fabien @artincidence.Author provided (No reuse)

Guérédrat, dressed as a dominatrix bride in white and cradling a black dildo, sheds an oversized wedding veil and leads Tauliaut, in full gimp mask and black gown, along the carnival route. This commanding female performance subverts normative gender relations in a Martinican society which remains largely macho and a carnival space where male-authored representations of women dominate.

The tableaux concludes with the couple departing on a boat against a tropical Caribbean landscape in the background. This parody of tourist brochure clichés that depict the Caribbean as a honeymoon paradise destination evokes the inequities of a global tourism industry that often replicates an uneven master/slave dynamic.

Each year carnival in Guadeloupe and Martinique attracts tourists from France and the rest of the world who come to enjoy this vibrant theatre of the street. For both visitors and locals the mariage burlesque masquerade ensures a collective memory of the cultural and political transvestism of the overseas departments, dressed up to resemble France and its universalist values. It is an embodied reminder of the enduring one-sided marriage between the islands and France.


Charlotte Hammond is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cardiff University and author of Entangled Otherness. See the original post on The Conversation.

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Modern Languages

Colette: writer, feminist, performer and #MeToo trail blazer

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

Colette, photographed by Henri Manuel. Wikimedia Commons

The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.

Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.

The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.

But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.

The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.

When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.

She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.

In the 1907 pantomime which included a kiss with a woman. Wikimedia Commons

Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.

She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.

The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)

Sex and sensuality

Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.

She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:

Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.

In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.

In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.

She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.

One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional –- writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.

Diana Holmes is Professor of French at the University of Leeds and is author of Middlebrow MattersSee the original post on The Conversation.

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