Saturday, January 4, 2014

Leslie the Lesbian Doll

Contributing blogger: To the Caribbean, With Love

What happens when you play traditional mas’ in a non-traditional way … Ole mas’ of course 
But this is provided you know your characters. Some of the more popular ones are the Midnight Robber, Jab Jab, Blue Devil and Pierrot Grenade. Less popular, but making a steady come back is the Baby Doll. 

"You is de one"
Parade of Traditional Characters on Carnival Sunday, Port of Spain 
 Photo credit: Austin Agho

This childlike character that carries a baby is desperate to find her child’s father. She is dressed in similar fashion to the dolls you played with as a child, complete with frilly dress, socks and bonnet, made up with white face and large rosy cheeks. Her performance like many of the other traditional characters is highly interactive, as she scans the crowd accusing various men of possessing similar features to her child, demanding that they claim paternity and hand over the money due to her with signature refrain, “Where the money fah de child milk?

Within recent years the baby doll has been used as an advocacy tool by cultural activist Entou Springer and performance artist Michelle Isava, among others outside of the Carnival arena to carry specific messages already associated with the characterThe Baby doll conventionally provides commentary on teen-pregnancy and responsible fathering and can easily be extended to other related issues such as breast feeding and child rights. At the competition level, baby dolls tend to use current social and political events, making their speeches relevant, witty and sometimes controversial.  This however did not prevent the looks of slight shock and discomfort I received back stage after telling two of the other dolls that I would be looking for my child mother and not father this time around. I guess some things remain taboo despite our Carnival’s history. 

Carnival was never meant to be a literal display (heterosexuality can be read as literal) but a mockery of what we were not. This is why the Dame Lorraine *dame being the French word for woman, which was originally played by men remains our first historic memory of cross dressing. In this year’s competition a man played both the Dame Lorraine and Jammet and not only did he 'out wine' the other female participants but gyrated his inflated buttocks over the head of a man in the audience. This display was only acceptable within the specific context of the masquerade.

Dame Lorraine performing in a street competition.
We can also see how various characters interact and mimic the social reality of a particular time. Even today baby dolls seek out white fathers for their babies, a tradition carried on from the legacy of bastard children that many of the American sailors left behind post US occupation of the 1940s. This relationship between sailors, women, prostitution, abandoned children and the like was well documented by many Calypsonians of the time, including the famous Jean and Dinah by the Mighty Sparrow but was most poignantly captured in "Brown Skin Girl" by the Mighty Terror which was later popularized internationally by Harry Belafonte.  

“Brown Skin Girl” Mighty Terror – Vintage footage of 1930s Trinidad
(Original Compilation)

The nucleur family as taught and celebrated is a myth  that has been perpetuated in the Caribbean, working against the reality of a very diverse set of familial networks, including single parenthood as the baby doll highlights and same sex partnerships. It was important for me to show the intersection of these issues outside of the intellectual and private sphere in a way that was non-confrontational and palatable to an audience in the form of entertainment. The way that LGBT Issues have been framed in public discourse allows the same actors to give voice to repititive and antiquated rhetoric, while dissenting voices are silenced. We have seen this first hand with the continued stalling to implement a National Gender Policy and the firing of former Minister of Gender Verna St. Rose-Greaves, as a result of her advocacy around the controversial issues of 'gay rights' and abortion. The character of Leslie was political but also an attempt to humanize the problems that arise from discrimantion and how harmful it can be to relationships where there is a commitment to love and family.


Ah lookin' for Nick
Ent you know who's nick?
Noo not Nicholas... Nikki
Ya aint see she?

Why yuh lookin so surprise?

AA Iz de 21st century
And allya still feel woman need man to make baby...

Doh mind de govament does make it hard fah we

And LGBT still doh have rights or a gender policy
While Kamla writing letters privately talking bout' an end to discriminations & equality
But shhhhhhhhh doh say I say
Cuz as soon as she reach back in Trini iz fus' she does shame we!
So we does find we own way ta make baby

Anyway, anybody see Nikki?
The baby look jus' like she
But why allya laughing?
Why the baby cyah look like she?
You feel iz only DNA dat does make famlee
How much woman out dere trying to tief man head and telling dem de baby does look like he

Look at those eyes

And tell me you cyah see Nicky
(sways baby)

I thought we woulda be happy 

Me and ya Mummy
She full up meh head with all kinna sweet talk 
Bout how she go convert spare room to nursery 
And  only saying "awww" at every baby she see 
So foolish me tek meh farseness and carry chile fuh she...

Now I under real stress

I cya go to no court house and file for child support cheque
No kinna redress

But why she leave me

Me and we brand new baby?
I wonder if she step father did get to she
He did always hate me
Calling up my phone and threatening me
Say how I bring disgrace to he family
Talking bout he go send police for me

 I feel is that scyamp Lerry

He did always promise to marrid she
But she was not the one with the swell belly
So why she had to worry
I waz the one barefoot and pregnant
How could she be suffering from cold feet

I not saying I ent want meh chile

 I is still she mudda 
But I woulda do tings different
 If I did know iz all dis effin drama

But so it does go when ya living this life child or no child

But I want the same things as any other mother
To find meh partner and de money fah de chile milk

So tell meh, where de money fah de chile milk?

Where de money fah de chile milk?

"Ah lookin fah she"
Parade of Characters 
Traditional Mas’ Competition - St James Amphitheatre 2013 

Over the past five years Baby doll has been my character of choice and I enjoy having the opportunity every year to re-invent myself and my message. Despite even my own nerves, the performance was well received by the audience and judges and I was awarded third place for  my performance.

Celebratory GIF!

Carnival is fast approaching in Trinidad & Tobago and I encourage all mas' enthusiasts to contribute to CODE RED's Caribbean Carnival blog, "To the Caribbean, With Love". Click here for more details.

You can also read On Becoming Jean, which documents my experiences playing an historic jammet (prostitute) through the use of sailor & baby doll.