Carnival Monday, 2019, in Port of Spain. Two young women in full costume are sitting on the pavement, glancing down the street. They seem exhausted, but their tired looks turn into smiles bursting into laughter, as they see two striking characters approaching, masqueraders from the Belmont Baby Dolls band.
The Baby Dolls wear short, lacy Edwardian-style dresses, white with black and pink details. The hems barely cover their white bloomers. Accessorised with bonnets, bows, flowers, and parasols trimmed with lace and ribbons, they chip to the music in stockings and boots. Their faces covered with black gauze, one of them visibly bearded, they playfully move towards the pavement where the young women sit.
The first Baby Doll carefully opens a red handbag speckled with white polka dots and the other takes out two small cards, decorated with red hearts and white lace. Gazing at their gifts, the women slowly turn them over. Handwritten in red letters on the back of each card are the words You are worthy.
The theatre expert Errol Hill, in his seminal book The Trinidad Carnival, describes the Baby Doll as “a gaily dressed doll: bonnet tied under the chin, a frilled dress reaching to her knees, coloured cotton stockings, and strap shoes. Her face was hidden under a wire mask, her hands gloved, and the back of her head and neck covered by a hood, so that it was impossible to identify the masker.” These Baby Dolls did not so much portray babies themselves — rather, they addressed the theme of single motherhood by carrying a small toy doll, stopping male passers-by, and accusing them of being the child’s father. They would allow their victim to leave only if he would pay a small donation “for the baby.” According to Hill, Baby Dolls in Trinidad “were loose and loud, aimed at attracting a great deal of attention, which would naturally embarrass the person accosted and prompt him to pay quickly.” Ironically and absurdly, Baby Dolls were often portrayed by men, who addressed passers-by in a falsetto voice — an early Trinidadian example of a complex play between female and male performances that both criticised and participated in the transgression of social norms.
The Baby Doll masquerade is not unique to Trinidad. As early as 1888, it was documented by the journalist and writer Lafcadio Hearn at the Carnival of Saint-Pierre in Martinique. And possibly the Baby Doll masquerade travelled from one of the islands to New Orleans. The city near the mouth of the Mississippi delta in the southern United States is often described as part of the Caribbean in terms of its migrations, cultures and, of course, Carnival. The historian and Carnival expert Samuel Kinser argued that, apart from the queens on floats, Baby Dolls were the first women to march in New Orleans Mardi Gras. These performers often came from the city’s racially mixed and black creole French Quarter. Throughout the year, many Baby Doll performers earned a livelihood with sex work, but for Mardi Gras they dressed in “tight, scanty trunks, silk blouses, and poke bonnets with ribbons.” Around the year 1910, these performers took to the streets, for instance, as Million-Dollar Baby Dolls, lighting their cigars with dollar bills.
Baby Dolls were first recorded in Port of Spain as part of working-class jammette culture in the late nineteenth century. By 1972, Hill reported that the Baby Doll “is now extinct” in Trinidad and Tobago, but since then the character has once more become a regular sight in traditional mas presentations. And in recent years, the Baby Doll character has also become an important figure for the Caribbean feminist justice movement — deployed by the Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, the Single Mothers Association, the Family Planning Association, and independent activists, for feminist interventions that negotiate performances of sex, gender, and sexuality.
The Baby Doll can be interpreted as either a parody of a toy doll, a young girl, or a woman who is dressed in a young girl’s fashion, with all three performing feminine behavioural codes. The doll, the girl, and the woman become a triad in a discourse of Caribbean femininities which is influenced by and builds on patterns of movement, speech, dress, and viewer expectations. And for the women — and, occasionally, men — who portray contemporary Baby Dolls, the performance addresses the historically gendered disenfranchisement of women and girls in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights.
On the street during Carnival 2019, the Belmont Baby Dolls met diverse reactions. Some small children ran away, while others were curious and engaging. Women generally responded positively, with mixed reactions from men. Confusions were outnumbered by signs of surprise, laughter, and exhilaration.
Our performance had as its sonic backdrop the wildly popular soca hit “Famalay” by Skinny Fabulous, Machel Montano, and Bunji Garlin, winner of the 2019 Road March title. The toy doll we shared “parenting” duties for was called Rambo. On Carnival Monday, a vendor on Charlotte Street asked the doll’s name and burst out laughing. On Carnival Tuesday, this same vendor greeted our Baby Doll family again “Look, Rambo! Look! Is yuh auntie!”
Our performance transgressed gender stereotypes and advocated inclusion. We returned a traditional Carnival character to widespread attention, yes, but our You are worthy intervention also sought to include and acknowledge people and communities on the margins of Carnival — to draw them into the family.
About the Belmont Baby Dolls mas band
The Belmont Baby Dolls mas band, which made its debut during Carnival 2019, is a project of New Waves! MAS, which is a programme of the Dance & Performance Institute, founded by Makeda Thomas. New Waves! MAS made its inaugural Carnival presentation at Brooklyn’s West Indian American Day Carnival in 2017 with Whitewash, and presented Blue Blue in 2018. Belmont Baby Dolls was its first presentation for Trinidad Carnival.
With fewer than a dozen masqueraders, the band was based in the east Port of Spain neighbourhood of Belmont, a stronghold of traditional mas performance. For their 2019 presentation, Carnival Baby, the Belmont Baby Dolls collaborated with Berlin-based Trinidadian-Canadian artist Shannon Lewis.
The Belmont Baby Dolls’ 2020 presentation, Spirit Dolls, is a collaboration with Trinidadian artist Brianna McCarthy. As the band explains, “Materials are a mix of authentic African textiles, European lace, and fabrics commonly found in Caribbean homes — florals and cotton prints. In this way, we are interested in a ‘Caribbean’ Doll, with all those respective cultural influences, and moving towards something that is truly unique; self-defined. And while the aesthetic is strong, this mas is less about what a Baby Doll looks like, and more about what Baby Doll mas can do.
“Spirit Dolls act as vessels for beings of powerful spirits — spirits of the dead, familiar-spirits, Divine-beings, a spirit-of-divination, and even spiritual entities which have never had an earthly incarnation. Spirit dolls hold intention — for reasons that can include healing, honouring ancestors, divine connection, and expressing love . . . The making of the Spirit Doll is a deeply personal ritual to bring to form a part of oneself that is emerging from the unconscious. Carnival is the performance ritual to invoke the spirit of the Doll; to open a path to the impossible.”
For more information, contact New Waves! MAS at www.facebook.com/newwavesmas.