On New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, the Mummers will march for the 116th time.
This year, the oldest folk parade in the country — known for its extravagant costumes, string bands, and raucous clowns — is attempting to keep its antics respectful by going through sensitivity training.
A series of workshops were held in clubhouses, bars, rec centers, and theaters over the summer to teach Mummers the nuances of good satire vs. bad satire, some basic facts about the LGBT community, and the complexities of cultural appropriation. The Mummers also produced instructional videos for online viewing.
The workshops were entirely voluntary, attended mostly by Mummers leadership, with the aim of disseminating information down the ranks.
“This was meant for the entire community to be aware, and to make sure leadership is aware of things and be sensitive,” said the Fralinger String Band’s Steve Coper who attended the sessions. “We need to be aware and not make people angry. There was a lot of anger last year.”
Last year, some Mummers performed a Latino routine while wearing brownface and dressing children as tacos. Some performed a routine mocking the transgendered Caitlin Jenner. People complained.
“Every year the Commission on Human Relations gets informal complains about Mummers’ skits,” said Rue Landau, commission executive director. Mummer misbehavior had always been on the margins, away from TV cameras, she said, but lately it has taken center stage.
“People in the crowd film them, put it on social media, and they can’t hide anymore,” said Landau.
In order to reel in the offensive antics, Landau tapped Nellie Fitzpatrick, the city’s director of LGBT affairs. She leaned heavily on statistics to convey her message.
“I think it’s an eye-opener for people to hear what LGBTQ people go through. Especially our youth,” said Fitzpatrick. “Nationally, LGBT youth make up 5 percent, 8 percent of the population, but 40 percent of homeless youth across this country are LGBT identified, 54 percent in this city are LGBT.
“When you’re trying to survive in that world, and to see yourself literally on parade for people to laugh at, that’s horrible.”
The sensitivity program taught that Mummer satire and humor should “punch up” instead of “punch down,” meaning go after people of power and authority, not the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Mocking Caitlin Jenner caused some controversy, because, as a celebrity, she would be a candidate for satire.
“That’s not necessarily the case,” said Fitzpatrick. “In that moment in time, Caitlin Jenner — for most people — was the only person they knew who was trans-identified. The message being sent was it’s OK to make fun of her because she is trans-identified.”
Another guideline the city tried to impart was not using facepaint to change your ethnicity. The Mummers themselves banned blackface in the 1960s, but it is still seen on occasion.
There are about 10,000 participants in the Mummers parade, most of whom prepare, practice, and fundraise all year. A single, large string band with an elaborate presentation can expect to spend about $100,000. They are heavily invested — both financially and socially — in putting on a good show.
Some, however, are day-of Mummers who show up on New Years Day, buy a costume from a wench or comic brigade, and join the party. Sometimes the club with whom they are marching doesn’t know who the newcomers are.
For the first time, the city has asked wench and comic divisions to submit a list of club themes beforehand, to be vetted for possible offensive material.
Satire and crass humor are staples of the Mummers parade. For many, it’s an opportunity to don makeup and colorful costumes to thumb their noses at politicians and celebrities — a mannered Mummers parade would not really be a Mummers parade.
“I fully expect to see spoofing of Donald Trump in this parade, spoofing of Mayor Kenney, and Obama. That’s what comics do,” said George Badey, chairman of Love The Mummers, a fundraising group. “You’re not supposed to make fun of people who are traditionally discriminated against. That’s not funny.”
Like everyone in America, Mummers have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want. In spite of all the planning and precautions, nobody — not City Hall, not Mummers leadership — knows what is going to happen on New Year’s Day until it happens.
“We just had an election with somebody that sends out a message to all of America, ‘Say and do whatever you want to do.’ And you have the Mummers leadership saying, ‘Pull it together. Reel it in,'” said Landau. “If there’s every been a challenge for the Mummers, this is the year.”