Listen carefully. This is where it all began. Down through the hill towns, Belmont and Laventille, and through the streets of the capital, Port of Spain. In the republic of Trinidad and Tobago, southernmost islands in the Caribbean. Born out of the desperate attempts of enslaved Africans to protect what little they had left of their culture.
A frenzy of beautiful bodies covered in varying amounts of beads and feathers. A riot of color pulsating to the sounds of our local musical genres: calypso and its modern incarnation, soca. Old and young, locals and foreigners, masqueraders and spectators, all are captivated. This is Carnival Monday and Tuesday. This is what most of the world sees.
But this is all a beautiful lie, a glorious mask that shields the true nature of Carnival. Welcome to the Art of Rebellion.
The Art of Rebellion is a series of articles that reveals the essence of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, one of the most influential street festivals in the world, through an exploration of important traditional Carnival characters.
Beginning just after Christmas, the Carnival season is marked by weekly fetes (parties), competitions, and, in every neighborhood, the unmistakable sound of the steelpan. Carnival practitioners spend months preparing for the culmination of the festivities on the two days immediately preceding the Catholic observance of Ash Wednesday. With its long history, Carnival combines costuming elements of the European colonizers with religious and traditional aspects of African, Indian, and Indigenous cultures. While some characters and rituals originated during the slave trade, the end of slavery in 1838 ushered in the official two-day celebration. In many ways, it served, then and now, as a form of healing, rebirth, and transformation for Trinidadians and Tobagonians.
Carnival in Trinidad inspires offshoots in major cities around the world, but still thousands of visitors flock to the island state to experience events firsthand. This has made Carnival a significant economic driver for local artists. However, traditional knowledge related to historical characters and rituals too often die with practitioners, robbing younger generations of their cultural inheritance. Although traditional characters remain commonplace in Trinidad’s Carnival, their origins and importance have faded from the memories of most locals.
In their place, a mass-produced Carnival has emerged, one that tramples the efforts of our ancestors to be seen, heard, and understood using the social and political commentary that accompanies most traditional characters. As their cries fade, so too does our ability to truly understand our history and ourselves. Today, there are traditional masqueraders who choose to maintain the original portrayals, and others who subvert them in order to give them bold new meanings.
Mas, the shortened form of masquerade, is divided into two main categories: pretty mas and ole (old) mas. Pretty mas costumes, the more glamorous version of Trinidad’s Carnival,feature stylized body suits or bikinis with matching arm and leg pieces along with a wire-frame shoulder or head piece. Ole mas consists of traditional Carnival characters: Baby Doll, Moko Jumbie, Midnight Robber, Fancy Indian, Jab Jab, Burrokeet, and Bat. While pretty mas is more popular today, communities where traditional characters originated and those interested in cultural preservation maintain elements of the old costuming and performance. These characters are both products of and rebellions against the country’s history of colonization, slavery, indentureship, and displacement.
Delicate pink or white lace accentuates the dress. Gossamer veils cascade from oversized hats or bonnets tied beneath the chin by a silky ribbon. Supple white gloves, a veil or mask, sheer stockings, and, on the feet, tightly laced Mary Janes—if you own a pair. A doll with rosebud lips and bright eyes finishes the costume. The Baby Doll character comes to life.
They roam the streets during Carnival, accusing male spectators of being their child’s father and demanding immediate child support. Often, the masquerader refuses to leave, becoming louder and more insistent until the alleged father responds with a few dollars. The chagrin of the accused is heightened by the amusement of the spectators, but the Baby Doll is not yet done, moving boldly to the next man and unashamedly making the same accusations and demands.
The Baby Doll character represents many layers of historical oppression and disenfranchisement. Trinidadian author Jeff Henry explains the origin of the character as a representation of “the sexual exploitation of women from the days of bondage when slave owners saw it as their right to demand sexual favors from their bond women. These women had no rights under the law and submitted to the sexual demands of their owners or estate overseers.”
During the slave trade, illegitimate children were considered merely another product of the plantation and were often sold off, tearing families apart while ensuring a constant supply of low-cost labor. An 1813 registry of enslaved Africans in Trinidad shows that almost half of the enslaved population, at that time, had European ancestry.
Few spectators, even locals, understand the Baby Doll within the political and social context of the late-nineteenth century when women were disenfranchised in many areas of life. Under British colonization, from 1763 to 1967, class and race restrictions denied women of color and their offspring basic rights and privileges.
Local writer Debbie Jacob positions the Baby Doll character as an “extortion” masquerade, stating that masqueraders used the performance “to confront the upper-class society that marginalized them.”
Still, the character can easily be dismissed by spectators as a promiscuous, irresponsible woman.
Dancer and Carnival band leader Makeda Thomas describes the character in an interview for the Trinidad Guardian newspaper: “It’s about a mother who is trying to hold someone accountable for a child, and can be played very pitifully, and I’ve seen our reaction to that type of performance be very disdainful.”
Today, portrayals by local activists position the Baby Doll as a means of addressing prevalent problems in Caribbean society, advocating for feminist social justice, particularly in the areas of gender and sexuality.
“This is a performance by women, to check the men in the community for behaviors that are harming the community,” Thomas believes. In 2019, she and her band formed the Belmont Baby Dolls to change the narrative surrounding the Baby Doll masquerader. They used the character to affirm motherhood, female sexuality, and the lived experiences of Black women.
“We can place the power of this mas in healing, in our love relations… versus the parody, the satire, the drama,” Thomas says. In so doing, her group creates “space for something other than trauma.”
Their portrayals explore relationships to create a healing transformation that embodies the spirit of Carnival. “Which is what mas is about, right?” she asks. “That there is something that happens through the costuming, but also the performance of that thing, and the intention, especially in our colonial context, in which we were bred to hate ourselves. And you know, hate comes quicker than love.”
Jacqueline Burgess is a seventy-three-year-old mas veteran who has been participating in Carnival for over sixty years. “I played pretty mas, I also played traditional mas, I played Bat, Burrokeet, I played the Midnight Robber,” she says. “But I really loved the Baby Doll.”
Burgess dismisses the traditional portrayal of the character, stating that masqueraders have moved beyond a performance that is demeaning to women and have chosen to use it as a form of protest art. When Burgess created a Baby Doll workshop and gave masqueraders design autonomy, they used their performance to highlight the issues of the day.
“Domestic violence was addressed, HIV/AIDs, policing and police brutality, even sexual and reproductive rights,” Burgess says. She believes the character can empower women, that women should craft their own narrative based on their experiences.
These issues are prevalent and worsening: in 2020, half of the women reported murdered in Trinidad and Tobago were as a result of domestic violence. Earlier this year, two boys witnessed the death of their mother, Adeina Alleyne, at the hands of their father. Alleyne had made several reports of domestic abuse and violence to the police prior to the attack, to no avail. Large-scale unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated these problems as domestic abuse reports for the first few months of 2021 nearly doubled during the same period last year.
As the organizer of a children’s band and network coordinator for the Advancement of Women and Working Women for Social Progress, Burgess promotes the Baby Doll as an advocacy tool for year-round exploration of societal issues and to build a community of support for women. In 2011, she created a Baby Doll band to commemorate the hundredth International Women’s Day.
“It is such a powerful character that you can use it for almost anything,” she says. “That whole thing about advocacy and how you build and share awareness of certain issues, the Baby Doll’s voice could be used.”
Creative director Arnaldo James, thirty-three, participated in the Belmont Baby Dolls band for Carnival 2019 and 2020. As a feminist, he rejects the double standard of women bearing the repercussions associated with sex. He calls the phenomenon of women of color and queer and trans women bearing the brunt of social oppression and disgrace “the mantle of Eve.” Referencing the biblical story of Adam and Eve, he believes that the ways in which Eve is often regarded as the poster child for the “fall of man” influences the ways in which women are viewed: as seducers, deceivers, and betrayers. Contrastingly, Adam’s “lack of agency and personal responsibility” allows men to avoid accountability for their actions and their role in the degradation and subjugation of women.
James’ portrayal of a female character during Carnival might seem revolutionary, but it was common practice during the early 1800s. Carnival characters like the Baby Doll, the pis-en-lit, and the Dame Lorraine were all portrayed by male masqueraders who exaggerated their feminine attributes. This practice may have been inspired by the Gẹlẹdẹ masquerade in West African Yoruba societies, which venerate the role and power of women in society. However, in Trinidad and Tobago, this led to the classification of these groups as “transvestite bands.” Ultimately, they were outlawed by colonial authorities. Now, homophobia and transphobia are a concern, with members of the LGBTQIA+ community, unrecognized by the country’s Equal Opportunities Act, experiencing unwarranted violence and prejudice.
Referring to the tradition of men portraying typically feminine Carnival characters, James points out that Carnival has always been “an expression of sexuality.” His decision to portray the Baby Doll character was a deliberate challenge to his own implicit biases, and those of society at large. He wanted to challenge prevailing social norms which vilify and simultaneously exploit female sexuality, particularly in the Caribbean and during the Carnival season.
“There is so much policing of womanhood, policing of sexuality, and policing of the choices women have no choice to make even if they wanted to,”says Amanda T. McIntyre, a thirty-nine-year-old writer and cultural activist. She believes that the original portrayals of the Baby Doll were a parody of the plight of single mothers and, generally, women, a stark demonstration of how they frequently bear the blame and responsibility “for something that is normal and natural: sex and sexuality.”
In 2016, a young Japanese woman named Asami Nagakiya, who traveled to Trinidad and Tobago every year to play steelpan during Carnival, was murdered in the midst of the celebrations. In response, the mayor of Port of Spain claimed that women, with their lewd and vulgar behavior and provocative pretty mas Carnival costumes, were inviting attacks. The subsequent public outcry denouncing his statements, led by feminist and female empowerment groups, resulted in his eventual resignation from office.
McIntyre situated her portrayal of the Baby Doll character in her ongoing advocacy work relating to gender-based, intimate partner, and domestic violence. Her masquerade is a fitting reflection of her worldview and her year-round commitment to activism, as she believes that “resistance is related to advocacy.”
On Carnival Monday morning in 2021, wearing a black Baby Doll costume complete with a funeral-like shroud, McIntyre walked a path usually crowded with masqueraders, splashed with paint, littered with the bits and pieces of costumes that didn’t survive the frenzy. She described the solemn atmosphere that permeated the Queen’s Park Savannah—the traditional site for major Carnival activities—as a group marched in protest over the recent murders of two women, Ashanti Riley and Andrea Bharatt, that shocked a country accustomed to stories of femicide. The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the government to cancel Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest festival, but the Queen’s Park Savannah could be used to honor women and mourn their loss.
Tracey Sankar-Charleau, a Carnival researcher, costume designer, and teacher discussed the dangers young girls and women face even now: financial dependence, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and pedophilia. She has been involved in the Carnival industry for over twenty years and credits her mother’s interest in Carnival for getting her involved. In 2020, she designed and launched a Baby Doll band called Crick Crack Monkey that featured large, handmade dolls she called Born Divine. Nearly three feet tall and sporting a range of skin tones and hair types, each doll carries prominent messages, like “Words Hurt,” “Not All Violence Is Physical,” and “Enough Is Enough,” embroidered in bright red thread on their limbs.
It was only in 2017 that child marriages, a common practice in certain religions in Trinidad and Tobago, were outlawed. Before then several thousand young girls from age twelve were reported as being forced into marriage with men three times as old. A public petition initiated this change, classifying the practice as child abuse and a violation of human rights.
Recalling the effort to create the dolls as “very heavy, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually,” Sankar-Charleau is emphatic about the need for mas that disrupts the status quo and challenges harmful cultural practices. She disparages the original Baby Doll portrayal, which can be seen as diminishing the traumatic experiences of enslaved women, describing it as “all this colonialism wrapped up in a pretty package.”
“Mas-making is something very personal to everybody,” Sankar-Charleau says. “We imprint our own selves, our own being into it.” She imbues her experience as a domestic violence survivor into her Carnival designs, using the dolls to illustrate traumatic experiences that are shared by so many women in Trinidad and Tobago. Using the highly publicized platform that Carnival offers, Sankar-Charleau uses the Born Divines to amplify the voices of the activists addressing these issues.
Over one hundred years have passed since the Baby Doll character emerged in Carnival celebrations. Original portrayals of the character persist, but new meanings have infused contemporary portrayals. All speak of loss and lack, a continuity of inequalities and injustice that has remained largely unchallenged over the years. In a patriarchal society haunted by toxic masculinity and violent traits acquired through centuries of human rights abuse, women’s bodies are objectified and exploited for profit.
Now, an unexpected champion shines a blinding light on these darker areas of society. The contemporary Baby Doll masquerade unmasks harmful, antiquated social norms and demands accountability from its supporters. In portraying the Baby Doll, activists have revolutionized the character’s representation of womanhood and begun exploring the ways in which it can challenge social beliefs and stigma. The theatrics of the performance has now become a platform for voiced protestations about vulnerable populations in Caribbean society.
Those who underestimate the Baby Doll mas do so at their own peril. This character has a voice, and it will not be silenced.
Avah Atherton is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an Afro-Trinidadian who has been participating in Carnival for over ten years. With a background in journalism, linguistics, and cultural enterprise management, she is focused on documenting traditional culture that offers a deeper perspective on Caribbean history and society.