Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Ghastly Parodies: The Misogyny of Living Dolls

Secrets of the Living Dolls is the latest Channel 4 documentary to achieve water-cooler Twitter storm status, trending well into the day after it was shown 10pm Monday night.

I've just watched it on 4OD and want to attempt an analysis of what this niche behaviour represents: where it sits in the discursive fields of gender and sexuality. It's common for documentaries to present a freak show in the faux-moralising guise of guys-they're-just-real-people-like-you-and-me.

But with feelings of disgust and disbelief on Twitter, does 'female masking' need to be defended against what could be argued is transphobia? 

Do the people involved sit within the trans* community?

My answer is NO. 

I think this needs to be called out as a particularly unusual yet extreme brand of misogyny.

Germaine Greer comes to mind, in the context of her own transphobic comments:

Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women's names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn't polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man's delusion that he is female.

(from a 2009 article in the Guardian where she asks 'what makes a woman?' http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/aug/20/germaine-greer-caster-semenya)

Here Greer is talking about the daily lived experience of trans* people in an offensive and dehumanising way. Trans* identity involves moving from the binary categories of sex, gender, sexuality or sexual behaviour and the way they are typically aligned, leading to gender reassignment surgery in some cases.

I believe Greer's comments, however, are applicable to 'female masking'. Let's break it down...

All the female maskers featured on the program were, in their everyday lives:

- White 
- Heterosexual 
- Cis-gendered men 

They have jobs, families, money (thousands in fact) to spend on 'femskin' suits so enjoy, as far as we can see, all the privileges these patriarchal categories afford, with none of disenfranchisement and abuse suffered by the trans* community.

When the transformation occurs, these men put on rubber suits which fully enclose their 'normal' bodies. I'd argue that their masculine bodies remain safely uncompromised as a 'complete' costume of a female body is put on.

Unlike forms of drag and female impersonation where the performance of gender produces dialogue between male and female identities - they intersect, blur, and inform one another - female masking involves taking control of an idealised, objectified body with no compromise for the wearer. 

While drag involves hours of make-up in the mirror, female masking provides a ready-made face: the closest someone can get to stepping effortlessly from one body into another.

The binary realms of masculinity and femininity are maintained intact: there is no 'trespass' into the middle ground, or indeed acknowledgement of a continuum on which gender operates. The documentary specifically refers to the life-like vaginas of the femskins, and whilst drag frequently involves 'tucking', where male genitalia are concealed in a way which is often uncomfortable - the male body suppressed in order to take feminine expression - in female masking there is a convenient 'pouch'. 

How convenient and comfortable, in contrast to the vulnerability of an identity where you can still recognise aspects of yourself, or the body dysmorphia experienced by some trans people, which can lead to brutal self-mutilation. There is no pain, emotional or physical, in the process of transformation which female masking precludes in its attempt to ring-fence cis-gendered categories.

Once more, the performance of gender is limited to the physical, the bodily. The men make no effort to alter their voices and other mannerisms, aside from sexually suggestive movement which declares the misogynistic auto-eroticism at play.

The mask and femskin instigate a quasi-separation of male and female identity which allow a sexual power dynamic to operate. These men enter and control an approximation of a female body but experience nothing of what it means to actually live as a woman, with a body you can't remove as a costume.

As one of the older men stands as a blonde in the mirror, he wonders at how beautiful she is, photographs her repeatedly, declaring he would quit immediately upon recognising himself as a man.

Maskers take on the characters of younger women who are consistently dressed in fetish wear; the pornograpic aesthetic where classic images of feminine objectification such as the blonde bombshell proliferate. Female bodies are objectified in the most literal sense, as puppets which see men assume control of a hollowed-out rubber shell.

An additional clue to this sexualisation is the white male masker who assumes the identity of 'Vanessa'. Her darker skin tone suggests a non-white body. This recalls the age-old sexualisation of women of colour whose bodies are consistently dehumanised - again in an aggressively literal way.

The documentary builds towards a meeting of 'dolls' in which they socialise and photograph each other - even in a Barbie style box alla Toy Story. The evidence of an idealised, objectified femininity here is hard to deny.

In writing this I'm wrestling with complex structures of gender and how drag, female impersonation, masking and transgenderism operate discursively within this system. I want to get this right, and maybe I am too expressing transphobic views. I am fully open to debate and being corrected. My knowledge of the theory in this area is by no means complete, even moderately complete.

Do these individuals identity with femininity in a way they should be allowed to express? 

Drag often takes place within contained carnivalesque performances in a similar way, and if anything, female masking highlights the validity of critiques which point up drag as misogynistic for appropriating aspects of femininity.

At stake here in this documentary is the risk that we perpetuate transphobia. By highlighting the niche fetishism of a few privileged straight white men, while failing to interrogate the behaviour presented, female masking is received and may be falsely grouped with trans* identities.

I'm not saying that we should regulate private fantasy and sub-culture, though the coming out narrative applied to the maskers in this show is insulting and damaging to the ongoing struggle of trans* individuals in their everyday lives. In contrast when to the multiple identities these people wish to appropriate temporarily.

It may be a political necessity to exclude female maskers from the trans* community, and this documentary should have gone further to evaluate important yet often confused distinctions.

Thanks for reading - would definitely value thoughts and debate around this documentary and what it portrays. I'm aware it may well be a limited picture.


Monday, 7 January 2013

The Fabulous Life of Umbrellas

2012 was wet. Literally so wet. So here's hoping 2013 will serve up some more sun.

But it is only January, so let's brace ourselves for now and continue to brandish umbrellas, collapsible or otherwise.

Perhaps you don't use an umbrella though?   *shocked face*

Perhaps you prefer the smug practicality of a rainproof jacket, or perhaps you'd even go as far as to plaster yourself in the piece of equipment known as a "cag in a bag", traditionally referred to as, um, hideous-as-fuck?


General Life Rule:   If it rhymes, it doesn't get to go in or on your body.

When it comes to UMBRELLA vs. ANYTHING ELSE we can consider that pivotal question: FORM versus FUNCTION, or perhaps in this case, fashion versus function, a clearly Very Important Debate which was brought to our attention by this Wired article.

Nate Lanxon argues that the umbrella is long overdue a re-design, and admirably points out the business opportunity at hand, if someone were to invent one that didn't:

- invert at will
- fail to prevent trouser/skirt splash
- jab the eyes of passers-by

All rather inconvenient and annoying.

the worst thing ever: her world is over.

See also: "The young man boarded the crowded tube carriage with all the courtesy of an umbrella."

But Lanxon does acknowledge the entrepreneurial new tech already available, and yet we see the umbrella hold sway...

We think that to neglect the formal simplicity and elegance of the humble umbrella is to ignore an iconic piece of design, which, aside from being practically sufficient in all but the most monsoon-esque of weathers, possesses an illustrious past and enviable social life.

In other words, there is more to an umbrella than not getting wet. OH YES.

fabulous ahoy!
(credit: http://www.ispyfashion.com/umbrella-love/)

See also:        Coming soon: The Secret Life of Umbrellas.

and wanky new proverb we thought of:

Many are the unseen dalliances of the umbrella.

But before beginning in earnest, we feel it important to reiterate the form-function lesson with which we began, this time with what's known as a Nubrella - compare:

We're happy to keep waiting, as will this lady for a companion of any sort.
Recommended hashtags: #FOREVERALONE #UGLYASFUCK

Dita in Burberry, courtesy of T-Lo.
Recommended hastags: #WERQ #BOWDOWNPEASANTS

Now that's out of way, let's look at some of the umbrella's popular engagements. (incidentally, Burberry is actually relevant to later discussion: not everything we do is totally gratuitous).

Firstly, the umbrella in the room: RIHANNA.

This was the track that launch'd a thousand ships, or not quite, but basically catapulted Rihanna from moderate success to international globo-star. 'Umbrella' was the lead single on the still excellent Good Girl Gone Bad.

Side note: Interestingly, Rihanna did just fly a pack of semi-rabid journalists around in a plane for a 7-date 777 Tour to launch her 7th album... Is Rihanna the Helen of our time? Discuss.

The song celebrates the "shelter-giving" function of the umbrella, demonstrating its sociable tendencies (as opposed to the arguably sociopathic tendencies of the pocho or "cag in bag"). We might say cultural landmark FRIENDS also recognises this quality in its opening titles...

For Rihanna, the umbrella also functions as a moderately phallic object to cavort with (of course). However, we would only give her umbrella moves 6/10, especially when compared to Gene Kelly, to which the freewheeling fountain fun in FRIENDS, and Rihanna's video may pay homage. (maybe)

Singin' in the Rain offers the definitive illustration of the umbrella's choreographic potential, although admittedly Gene abandons any intention to stay dry quite early on. We might say he fails to subscribe to proper umbrella etiquette, which quite a few people are happy to outline: here, here, here, and here.

See also: umbrella a trois

Some naysayers might argue that this iconic moment in popular culture offers strong evidence that an umbrella's strengths lie more in the field of figurative twirling: the Billy Eliot of objects perhaps, destined to transcend its traditional pokey semi-phallic status in fabulous musico-theatrical fashion...

But we believe that current prevailing opinion regarding anti-umbrella sentiment can be largely attributed to the present ubiquity of the small black umbrella (SBU), most frequently observed collapsing in high wind, also prevailing, and giving umbrellas in general a bad name.


We are willing to concede that sometimes an umbrella isn't always ideal in the event of a monsoon, hurricane, or tsunami: at this point your hair/outfit is basically fucked. We recommend styling it out as far as is possible alla your official Plan B. (if you don't have one you're honestly beyond help).

this lady almost certainly has a Plan B.

But the shriveled status of the SBU does little to preclude such a scenario. It's far from a design improvement, and the ever-useful Middle Class Handbook highlights the pitfalls of this portable faux pas.

In order to 'telescope' successfully, the SBU's ribs are hinged. This alteration sacrifices, as well as structural resilience, the wonderful tension and poise present in the graceful lines of the umbrella's classical form.

can't you sense the poise and grace?

An SBU also denies its user the proper grandeur of an "opening flourish", the satisfying swish-and-click of the canopy as it springs into position, announcing an uncommon presence and distinction. FUCKING YES.

Honestly, opening an umbrella is the nearest we get to activating an actual lightsaber. We imagine that Andrew Mitchell wishes his umbrella would transform into some sort of fabulous bike-mounted pleb-blaster.

obviously this exists.

JK Rowling understands the magic action of the umbrella: Hagrid's is pink and hides the broken fragments of his magic wand. (which totally makes for an actually quite interesting question of gender/power/phallic things (of course)).

Give it up Vernon.

We are especially keen to know if others appreciate the the whoosh of umbrella opening, so have a hashtag.   #smallpleasures

This action is, of course, possible with a golf umbrella, but these tend to be wielded by dick-measuring corporate dick-heads, on and off the golf course (of course). Again, see Middle Class Handbook.

Both the golf umbrella and SBU pervert the moderate decorum of the medium-sized umbrella, though thankfully this is still championed by some luxury and traditional brands, alla Dita.

Burberry, for A/W 2012/13 (a.k.a. where we are now but presented last year obvs), used the umbrella alongside their iconic trench to serve British luxury realness to the world:

Cara Delevingne working tragically disengaged face. bravo.

It was a bold move, as accessories are rarely afforded such a prominent status on the runway, but makes sense: how else do you keep your quilted cashmere trench dry? Exactly.

Umbrellas continued to #takethestage in 2012, featuring in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony in a major way:

whimsical symbols of supportive, inclusive society (yay).

And of course the umbrella appeared with perhaps its most famous companion in Danny Boyle's amaze-fest:

magical maternal realness.
Case rested: the umbrella is a British icon, mostly useful, carried by fabulous magical people, and potentially quite valuable in the event of a zombie apocalypse too.

So get back on the umbrella train everyone.

en garde.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Miranda, Azealia & K-Pop: Things to Love in 2013

Hello all -

We Heart New Year's Resolutions. 

Consider us your personal culture consultancy as we resolve to plate some fresh popularity for your pleasure in 2k13...

Miranda's excited, and you should be too.

Did pop music have a bad 2012? Some think so. There was no Glastonbury. And no Adele to sing at the Olympics. SADFACE.

Time to mainline something new (fabulous Girls Aloud song respectfully laid aside):


Successfully popularised "cunt" and all manner of edgy 212 coolness - so admittedly on the radar already, but the album drops this year, like a big swear-y scary NY-flavoured A-bomb. ALL HAIL PRETTY AB.

See also: Angel Haze, also cool.

Given that the zenith of dance in pop passed a while ago, it seems that rap, hip hoppy sounds are back with a vengeance. Regarding the resurgent popularity of black female rappers (also including Nicki Minaj), see Glee:

"Mercedes is black, I'm gay, we make culture."

For anyone who was wondering though, Glee itself unfortunately no longer makes culture. sadface. but it does have this now:

aren't you jealous of my nicely styled hair?

which we guess is worth something. Silver linings etc.

But late Glee, as opposed (obviously) to Season-1&2-period Glee, when things like this used to happen, does form a populo-cultural (yes?) terminus of sorts in its inclination to cover things, like a fabulous glittery wrapping paper-esque metaphor for late-capitalism (yay) - basically THIS:

Even Psy himself has expressed a desire to kill/exorcise/cauterise/circumcise Gangnam Style from the remaining entrails of 2012 (eww more gross than we anticipated), so LET'S. Except for pausing to decide we would like more K-Pop, and indeed we forecast K-Pop flavoured weather fronts stirring/frothing/storming the UK mainstream ecosystem in months to come.

K-Pop has been pret-a-porter for fuckin ages basically - the production is ridiculously high value glossy fabulousness and the fashion is Gaga-grade. K-Pop mezzes may or may not include:

Now for some trends:


Although our gracious political leaders, who appear to be largely made of play-dough, talk of recovery, we've recessed enough to have a sense that things should remain so for a bit (slash a lot) longer.

Expect: increased idolisation/fetishisation of the super-rich, pseudo-thrift things like baking and knitting to stick around.


Ironically continuing into 2013, largely in film form, as we wait for Brad Pitt's World War Z, and the humorous, later-in-the-cycle-of-popular-response, This Is The End which interestingly features Emma Watson and actually looks quite hilar:


Also incubating in 2013 is the baby, which should be called Salted-Caramel to be really on-trend, but will probably be called James.

This is the least exciting of all the chics, because whilst pregnant, Kate won't be able to do anything edgy or trial a new K-Pop-with-rubber-fetish-influences wardrobe for her public appearances.

credit: http://katemiddletonforthewin.tumblr.com/

Lastly, there is SPLASH, the Tom Daley flavoured reality TV show where celebs learn to dive (lol), which to be really honest sounds FUCKING BRILLIANT and we're sure will break new ground in the field of gratuitous nudity and post-empire celebrity (which you should definitely read about because it's actually quite interesting and relevant).

this is an actual promotional image for Splash. read into it what you wish.