A few years ago all hell broke loose when a certain Mummers band, all Caucasian men, wore Native American headdresses. At that time I wrote, "Sometimes it's fun to worry about inconsequential minutiae, but the fact is Native headdresses have been part of the Mummers for decades. Since the Mummers are about feathers, it should come as no surprise that some brigades would opt to use a Native headdress as part of its ensemble."
While I don't wish to revisit that "controversy" in this article, I will visit this year's Mummers controversy, the uproar surrounding the parade's parody of Caitlyn Jenner, and the 'high crime' of stereotyping Mexicans with brown face and other people supposed to be Mexicans dressed as dancing tacos.
Like a Sarah Silverman comedy act in which she claims that if Jesus came back from the dead, she would gladly crucify him all over again, there are good jokes and there are bad jokes. There are also lethal jokes that shake up nerves and sensitivities. Silverman is a political comedian. She takes to the extreme Jonathan Swift's maxim that "nothing is above satire," be it abortion, religion or sex. Silverman is wise enough, however, not to say anything untoward about Mohammad because there may be unsettling consequences to that. Sometimes self interest transcends the desire to get standing ovations. I do not like Silverman, but I would never impose on somebody else's cup of tea (gagging Silverman) if they happened to be a fan.
Why do I bring up Silverman? I suppose it's because the Mummers comics see themselves as a living part of the great American tradition of (scandalous) satire. Here's what the very Catholic (and conservative) author G. K. Chesterton said about satire: "A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true." But the satire we see in the Mummers parade is not really satire per se; it is not the smart, refined satire of a Gulliver's Travels but satire of the most rustic sort: bargain basement parodies.
This year's uproar over the Mummers parade came from a relatively small group of individuals. The protests did not come from the diehard Mummers fans lining Broad Street; they came from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties who makes their living behind desks, and the new Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. I will refrain from calling these folks our venerable Nanny guardians, but the future doesn't look good.
Here's what Mayor Kenney said about this year's parade: "It's all about education and it's all about explaining to people who might not understand that sometimes you do things that are offensive to people, whether you meant to or whether you didn't, you still offended them..."
Well, every single one of us is guilty of offending our neighbor, whether we mean to or not. When a man walking ahead of me on the sidewalk suddenly clears his throat and spits a huge glob of mucus two inches from my shoe, I'm offended. When a well dressed elderly woman on a Septa bus overhears a risqué joke, she may be offended. People waiting on a subway platform might be offended if they're forced to observe a couple engaging in lusty, inappropriate public affection. A good number of people might be offended if we have to witness the antics of a two year old rolling under banquet tables at an adult holiday party because the kid's father refused to hire a babysitter. We are offended everyday by offenses great and small.
The 2016 "offensive" Mummers skits, for the most part, was typical Mummery gone wild. Mummer comics, generally, are not Union League members or Harvard grads but raw Philly types who guzzle beer, have strong opinions, and often cuss. The comics have always been especially outrageous, so much so that a Mummers observer from 1978 wouldn't have noticed anything peculiar about the 2016 comic skits. If anything, the parade is a shadow of what it used to be. The new, sanitized, "Disney" Mummers is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s, it has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past.
As for the Sammar Strutters who adopted a Mexican theme and went in brown face, my thought is that they didn't think there was anything wrong with brown face because it wasn't black face. For decades, Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, Lithuanian dancers, and former presidents and cops. It's all about dressing up and getting attention in the most blatant manner possible; it has nothing to do not with nuanced comedy. A Mummers comic routine will not evoke the subtle humor of a 19th Century drawing room. What it will evoke is the raw belly laughter of a working class city.
Now Philadelphia has a mayor who wants to give sensitivity lessons to Mummer comics. He wants to organize them into classrooms and elevate their minds so that they won't make fun of Caitlyn Jenner in future skits. Mayor Kenney wants the comics to realize that in the future there will be themes and topics that will be off-limits.
When the Finnegan New Year's Brigade preformed the Bruce-to- Caitlyn Jenner skit with the Wheaties and the Fruit Loops box they were indulging in typical working class Mummers humor. The one error with the skit was this: the Fruit Loops cereal box was out of sync because Jenner has never been gay. (The word 'fruit' is a gay putdown, so the Mummers got it wrong). Bisexuality was not part of Jenner's life as Bruce; as Bruce, Catilyn was not even one of those heterosexual men who have occasional sex with men. When an interviewer asked Catilyn, after her transition, if she was now officially a lesbian because she still has a sexual interest in women, she refused to answer the question. Was she afraid of the 'homosexual' label? But if you were once a man who liked women and are now a woman with those same desires, then you are what you are, a lesbian, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. Just embrace it and be done with it.
While some calm discussion needs to ensue regarding the Mummers use of brown face, Mayor Kenney should not be so much of a poo bear tool for the agenda of a few City Hall ideologues.
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