Monday, March 30, 2009

Vehicles of Expression

Walking is the predominant method of getting around during the New Orleans festival of “Super Sunday.” The Mardi Gras Indian tribes and a host of Mardi Gras icons such as the Skeletons, the Baby Dolls, the Second Liners, and the Jazz bands, parade through their neighborhood streets until they arrive at Taylor Park where the Indians will be admired by the waiting crowds who have been dancing, drinking, eating, and preening in front of each other for hours.

Psychoanalysts are trained to explore the motivations behind why standard practices are in fact standard, or the norm. Their training also prepares them to inquire about the practices that deviate from the norm.

On Super Sunday, I was enthralled by the opulence of the Indian costumes. But also present for admiration were the men who had turned their cars into automotive theatre. My attention was drawn, first to the flamboyantly decorated automobiles, and then to the general issue of those who were getting around by means other than walking and those at the festival who were signaling their use of vehicles either by riding on them or pulling them. These included bikes, strollers, scooters, horses, motorcycles, trucks, ‘floats,’ and even shopping carts.

By sheer force of numbers, men were far more likely to be associated with the use of alternative methods of moving about the parade route and the Park. There were men displaying their artfully designed cars; men selling Bar-B-Que from the back of their trucks; men unloading Indian headdresses from flatbeds; and men motoring down the parade route in assisted devices.

Everywhere I looked, if there were people engaged in other forms of transportation than walking, it would be men: on horses, on motorcycles, and on bicycles. It is not that women don’t do all these things; it’s that they don’t do them there, at Super Sunday festival.
Each year, The Mardi Gras Indian Council and R.E.A.L. (Recreating The Environmental Ability to Live) sponsor “Super Sunday.” It is ordinarily in March on a Sunday near St. Joseph’s feast day. The festival begins at 11:00 a.m. Taylor Park @ Washington Ave. and S. Derbigny where crowds can be entertained by the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes and artists such as Big Al Carson. The Indians begin their procession @ Washington Ave. and LaSalle St. and walk to Taylor Park.

While women, men, transvestites, queer people, masked people, politicians, social activists, tourists, and locals all mingle with the performers, Super Sunday is an event of masculine prowess, creativity, sexuality, transcendence and dominance. No where is this better illustrated than in the comparison between “men’s wheels” and “women’s wheels.”

In his article "Emotional Aspects of Motoring," psychoanalyst Gerald Grumet (1989) suggests that when we are driving, "obsolete childhood struggles are revived and displaced onto our cars, streets, and highways and can involve the “full range of human interactions and emotions." People transfer their emotions about others unto vehicles because of "symbolic resemblances" and can direct aggression of fear to dominating 'parental' rivals such as trucks and buses. Vehicles he conjectures, enable us to use motoring as a way to address our needs for power, control, dominance, in addition, to defense of our territory, opposition to those who oppose us, and even feelings of escape, freedom and release.

It might be said that the desire to standout through a creative product have propelled mostly men to flamboyantly alter their cars. As they stand by their cars and meet the steady stream of admirers, it is not hard to speculate that some feelings may be derived of having gained "love and admiration," satisfaction of having successfully competed, or relief or momentary release from feelings of inferiority. Pleasure can be derived when we are able to signal that we can "confront high speeds, and danger and in doing so," we feel a sense of being released, or of having escaped and that we are freed; are able to achieve. We can also express our sexual or aggressive urges" (Grumet, 1989).

Recent writings on the psychoanalytic theory of masculine identity development include the role of the mother, in addition to the father as a catalyst for the construction a boy's gender role identity. In the past, it was the boy’s identification with his father and his dis-identification with his mother that analysts believed would put the boy on the path to the development of an acceptable masculinity.

As analysts have turned to feminist theory to widen the scope of their understanding of gender formation, gender expression, gender fluidity and disavowal, they have begun to see that the boy’s relationship to his mother creates a life-long yearning to either be with her or be with what she provides (Grumet, 1989): nurturance, affirmation, and adoration.

On Super Sunday, men are able to express a range of subjectivities and are given carte blanche on what affect, desire, or boundary crossing they display.

Women on the other hand are "walkers" or "strollers." Baby carriages and women’s bodies are literally collapsed into the maternal. Hypersexualized women, following an aesthetic that is strongly regional, push strollers as their voluptuous bodies reek of archetypal fertility and availability.

The women with their strollers are ambulatory memorials to bygone days when the men were babies and moved by what Grumet (1989) has described as "mother-powered transportation." Moving without propelling one's induces a sense of euphoria. The contradiction of the "forward movement without effortless motion releases thrill and excitement."

Boys are coerced throughout their childhoods to separate from their mothers least they be known as "momma’s boys," or as a "pussy, sissy or faggot." Psychoanalyst, Michael Diamond (2006) writes that in acquiescing to social pressure to disindentify with the mother, boys lose "a large part of their dyadic connection and pressured to repudiate what he has loss. So, not only is he forced to cut his ties with his mother and lose access to those emotional and physical ministrations and nurturing she provided, but he must devalue what she offered him" and what he has now lost access to in his quest to become a man who is socially approved of.

Throughout their lives, men mourn the “trauma” of being separated from their mother and the security, protection, and adulation she provided. Diamond writes that “he may feel emotionally abandoned without being aware of it . . ., while experiencing his identification with his mother as shameful. This is often manifested in defensive efforts against neediness . . . . and men come to behave like “impenetrable citadels.”
As men allow themselves to slip back in time and slip across bounded identities to become Indians, Skeletons, drivers of hot rods, masters of horses, conductors of motorized vehicles-- they become creators. They create the world of the mother and infant through an abundance of food, the extravagance of costuming/layering, the communal rituals of having a trusted other help dress them; by producing the soothing rhythms of the music, by facilitating a profusion of entertainment choices, and through a glut of readily available intimacy and sex.

From a consideration of vehicles on display on Super Sunday, I would suggest that it is a male dominated space in which men’s unconscious desires for dominance, freedom, and an expanded sense of self (i.e., to be more than an ordinary man) are given full sway.

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Diamond, M. J. (2006). Masculinity Unraveled: The Roots of Male Gender Identity and Shifting Male Ego Ideals Throughout Life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54,1099-1130.

Grumet, G.W. (1989). Emotional Aspects of Motoring. Psychoanalytic Review, 76,19-36.

MacCash, Doug, Art Critique of the Times-Picayune "Art in the Fast Lane".
The copyright of the article Vechicles of Expression in City of Spirits: Psychoanalysis and South Culture on the T-BIPS blog is owned by Kim Vaz. Permission to republish Vechicles of Expression in print or online must be granted by the author in writing. Contact Kim Vaz at

1 comment:

Georgina said...

Great slideshow! Those cars were crazy! I just can't get excited about a car. (Well, maybe that HoneySmacks car ;)) But your explanation about the cars representing something more to those men (and men in general, really) than just an object to get from one place to another makes sense.

I can't help but wish some of those women had their own tricked out cars. Why should the men have all the fun?