Providence and the Baby Dolls

Each time a supporting faculty member visits class, I am given more and more tools that allow me to better analyze both Prince’s work and the assigned class readings. Additionally, the contributions of the supporting faculty members grant me different perspectives and ideas that nearly beg to be connected with the art of Steve Prince or with the works of W.E.B. Dubois and Kim Vaz-Deville, the authors of the class’ required readings.

Dr. Cope’s lecture, in particular, not only provided me with such tools but left my mind buzzing with many thoughts and questions, as well.  Specifically, I found myself considering and condemning the concept of Providence that Dr. Cope discussed throughout his lecture. I began to think about the idea, both with reference to the Puritans and their definition and manipulation of the word and its application to today’s society, as well. Since the lecture, I have been seeking connections between the Puritan, and even contemporary, idea of Providence and the Art of Steve Prince class as a whole.

Particularly, this weekend, in my reading of “Beyond Objectification and Fetishization” found in Kim Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy I ascertained a stable, significant connection between the Providence of both the Puritans and of our present-day society and the Baby Dolls of New Orleans. The Baby Dolls, in their outward appearance, movements, actions, and attitudes, totally upend the inconsistent, even cruel, judgment implicit within the concept of Providence.

The Puritans defined Providence as God’s control over the universe and its happenings as well as the lives of individual beings. Due to the Puritan belief in God’s governance over individuals, it became accepted that if an individual was externally suffering, it was because of God’s will and was a reflection of said individual’s inner corruption. 

According to Dr. Cope, the process of determining an individual’s moral character by inspecting her outward appearance, social status, and material assets is emblematic of the Puritan notion of Providence. Thus, a homeless, poor, or otherwise destitute individual would be seen, in the eyes of Puritan society as an immoral, corrupt individual, deserving of the conditions plaguing her.

Even in today’s society, individuals, and entire groups of people are prematurely and wrongly judged based upon external factors that exist outside of their control. For example, individuals on food stamps or other forms of government welfare are alleged to be “lazy” and to have no desire to help themselves out of their situation. However, these assumptions are almost always untrue and can be proven so through the process of actually attempting to understand the lives and experiences of individuals facing misfortune.

Furthermore, the idea of Providence can be and often is applied to women and functions to judge a woman based upon her clothing, comportment,  and overall outward appearance. These observations and the judgments that follow can be and frequently are used to classify women into one of two categories: virgin or whore. This dichotomy, an arguable product of the harshest application of Providence, is referred to as the “virgin/whore complex” and is mentioned by Sarah Anita Clunis in her writings on the Baby Dolls of New Orleans found in Walking Raddy.

In her chapter of Vaz-Deville’s book, Clunis inadvertently challenges the Puritan notion of Providence through her discussion of the virgin/whore complex and how the Baby Dolls subvert the dichotomy. Clunis writes that the Baby Dolls exploit the virgin/whore complex through their masking as “innocent  babies in skimpy, thigh-baring costumes.” (280) While Baby Dolls don clothing and airs that are at once virginal and “whoreish,”  they cannot be effectively categorized into either side of the dichotomy and would certainly confound a Puritan, as well as many members of modern society.

This puzzlement would result from the conflicting dress and behavior of the Baby Dolls. On the one hand, their sweet, child-like dress and carrying of pacifiers create a youthful image that, under the Puritan idea of Providence, would indicate that the Baby Dolls are virginal, innocent, and pure. On the other hand, Providence maintains that their provocative dance moves, smoking of cigars, and revealing attire suggest vulgarity, immorality, and “looseness.”

Thus, the Baby Dolls challenge the Puritan notion of Providence by demonstrating its failure to categorize the women who mask as Baby Dolls. Baby Dolls, in their lively, youthful bloomers and bonnets, are  powerful and “‘in charge’ of their sexuality.” (280) Moreover, while Baby Dolls may be, at times, perceived as masculine due to their signature walk, dance, and attitudes, they are nevertheless feminine in an unconventional, self-determined, and progressive way.

Neither virgins nor whores, the Baby Dolls demonstrate the complexities that make up every individual. Overall, Baby Dolls illustrate the immense power of the individual through their decision to present themselves in such an incongruous, eye-catching fashion. They, like any human being, cannot and should not be defined, categorized, or judged with a mere glance.

Additionally, the Puritan concept of Providence undoubtedly stripped countless individuals of their agency and underlying power. Indeed, during the reign of the Puritans, many individuals were deemed immoral due to their poverty and were subsequently sentenced to workhouses from which they would never return, thus losing their agency as citizens. Similarly, our present society’s judgment of individuals on welfare could potentially inhibit struggling individuals or families from asking for the help they deserve, thereby causing them to lose their ability to advocate for themselves.

Furthermore, the Baby Dolls demolish the Puritan notion of Providence as it is the remnants of this ideology that still threatens to oppress them today. Where Providence once sought to label a woman as a virgin or a whore, the Baby Dolls, in their masking as a contradictory combination of the two, reclaim the power that Providence heedlessly removes through its unfair tendency to assume and categorize.

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