The Wonderful World of Debutantes Who Dress Like Martha Washington


Does PBS ever post its documentaries online? Because their latest, Las Marthas, which airs today, is appointment viewing for me. The special is about Mexican-American debutantes from Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican town just across the border who spend thousands of dollars making their debuts as Martha Washington look-alikes.

Here’s more information on the awesomeness:

But the documentary “Las Marthas,” which will be broadcast Monday on PBS as part of the network’s “Independent Lens” series, offers a striking alternative portrait of border-town life. The film, directed by Cristina Ibarra looks at Laredo’s annual Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball, a debutante dance in which young women don ornate, Colonial-style gowns and portray early American historical figures like Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter from her first marriage, to Daniel Parke Custis.

Martha Washington debutante dresses can cost up to $15,000 to $30,000, which has attracted attention to Las Marthas of the “this is cRaZY” variety. The PBS documentary, not surprisingly, is trying to get away from that:

All the more reason, Ibarra said, to give respectful treatment to what others might dismiss as a silly, beauty-pageant-style spectacle. Indeed, “Las Marthas” takes an evenhanded, fly-on-the-wall approach, refusing to editorialize about the proceedings. The few skeptical statements are expressed by academics that Ibarra interviewed, but even they speak of the event thoughtfully, as being part of a complex tradition not easily grasped by outsiders.

After all, there are amateur pastimes that children and teenagers are groomed for that cost an inordinate amount of and enjoy a cult of fans, but aren’t painted as crazy, like football and other sports.

It’s also interesting to use these debutante balls to explore larger questions of race and gender, like other pieces have done with the cheerleaders and prison wives/girlfriends of Instagram. It’s also nice to have a documentary that explores the Mexican-American border through a different lens than its illegal drug economy.

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