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.



  1. Interesting read, thanks for writing this. I'll apologise now for the length of my rather long thoughts and comments that may or may not add something to his discussion, but I think it might provide some understanding and background to this curioso...

    Whilst your response to this obscure practice by way of an isolated TV documentary showing a limited viewpoint certainly highlights some of the deeply troubling issues surrounding how actual women or those in the transgender community might be viewed vis-à-vis this fetish and its practitioners, I think you are also misguided in a number of respects. I'm not an active participant in female masking as such - I don't regularly get my kicks out of dressing up head to toe as a living doll like those featured in the programme do (although I've certainly experimented) - but I've been closely following the fetish as a lurker and consumer on its various forums and websites* for over a decade, so I feel I can speak about it with some confidence...

    First of all, yes, you're right - female masking is completely separate to the transgender community. I don't know of any female maskers who have deep personal issues with their own assigned [male] gender and do this to fully transform into the opposite gender with all the accompanying politics and issues that come with being a female. Female masking as a practice is completely superficial in that changing the appearance is what's fundamentally important - in that respect it's more in line with cross-dressing, cross-play or even cosplay**. The main difference of course with this and cross-dressing is that instead of applying make up to appear as a female, practitioners prefer to wear a mask with the appearance of a woman. So why do they do this? Here are some of the reasons:

    - They are second-skin fetishists. That means they like parts of or the full body to be fully encased and enveloped in a material that comes comes closest to the approximation of skin itself in appearance and flexibility, i.e. latex, rubber, silicone*** etc. As a result, they fetishize the properties of said materials - smell, elasticity, shine, detail etc.
    - Female maskers are predominantly mask fetishists. Wearing a mask on the head is particularly sensuous with these given materials as the wearer's five senses are immediately stimulated and the most distinctive part of the body is instantly transformed and changed.
    - They want to become someone else, at least temporarily. You can read into that however deeply you want, but really, who doesn't favor a little escapism at times? By becoming someone else - a new persona, an avatar, a completely new person - they can live out a fantasy that beats daily worries, personal unhappiness, the 9-5 grind etc. and thrills them in the process. And through transformation by completely artificial means that hide their real self completely, this fantasy becomes just that little stronger.
    - They want to sexualise the material they wear so they assign it a "gender" that fits in with their own sexual preference. Why fantasize about being another male when you can fantasize about being a woman? And if you're channeling your energy towards the image of a woman, it somehow seems slightly less gay - and for a community that seems largely made up of straight males looking at themselves, there in lies the rub (no pun intended).

  2. Being seen as straight even though you cross-dress is a complex taboo so it seems as a result the appearances female maskers take on are over-exaggerated to the point of being alpha-female. This sexual objectification can, yes, easily be seen as misogynistic. There's definitely an idealised sense with female maskers where they wear clothes, hairstyles or makeup what they may want to see an actual woman wearing or looking like; on the other hand, because female masking is a predominantly male preoccupation and one that's kept a close secret to themselves, these viewpoints don't actually spill over into how they actually view the female gender. Everyone in female masking knows that the person behind the mask is another male ****, so with that in mind they're looking more at how convincing they are to achieving the fantasies they hold of what their character is. It's men, looking at men, who are pretending to be the fantasy of a woman, who are pretending to be male fantasies. There's numerous levels of fantasy going on and the idea of seeing an actual woman in the picture is so far removed it's almost unbelievable. Almost.

    I would also say that there are two types of female masker out there; those who strive to look like a doll (i.e. an oversized Barbie doll), and those who strive to look like an actual female (i.e. realistic). Believe it or not, the second is the most strived for (or at least fantasized). Unfortunately, the latter is near-impossible at this moment in time to achieve on a physical level, so the former choice is opted by the manufacturers of these products (who are mainly female maskers themselves). As a result, they do overwhelmingly tend to look outright scary which sadly accounts for the main level of disgust that comes towards the fetish scene. But the wearers don't seem to mind, and their imagination can take on flights of fancy once they get into the fantasy of wearing them. For everyone else though sadly, it does appear extremely odd - unless you fetishize the act of others wearing masks in any form (which I do). Admittedly, realistic looking masks do exist out there that are made in silicone - and come with a high price to match the quality - but that itself is only a recent phenomenon in the last 7 years or so and it's rare to find female models of these masks, mainly because these products are sold to collectors of Halloween masks and not fetishists. These companies would make an absolute fortune if they did this, but they don't want to alienate their established audience (some of them have slowly woken up to this fact though - you can start to see better examples than those featured on the programme at places like CFX and RealFlesh). Anyway…

    tl;dr - yes, female masking is messed up but it is mostly harmless; the documentary itself however wasn't*****, as your blogpost rightly proves.

    Thanks for reading,

  3. *The female masking scene is primarily online-based for the record; actual large meet ups or outgoings into the general public as featured on this programme are EXTREMELY rare due to the nature of the fetish and its reaction from others not familiar with it.

    **See also the Japanese practice of kigurumi, which often involves men transforming into literal cartoon versions of women.

    ***To justify your quote on the high cost of this fetish, you only need to visit a fetish clothing website to see that such expenditure on such clothing is easily feasible for enthusiasts - cost-wise, it's another form of haute couture. High quality masks and the featured FemSkin are highly specialised niche items within another niche of fetish wear, hence their high cost - in truth, most hobbyist female maskers would rather spend money on several masks or clothes than a bodysuit.

    **** There actually are some female gendered women who engage in female masking - the term they are given in the community is a GG (genuine girl). They appear to account for less than 1% of the scene and are held in high esteem. Fetishism is a lifelong prison for many, and with that metaphor any sight of a women in a predominantly male environment will gain all the attention, welcome or not. I'm not going to attempt to explain for them what their thoughts are on misogyny in female masking (hopefully some will see this blog post themselves and share their own thoughts on the matter) but the very few that do it appear to have fun with it and either do it to please their partners or to explore their own fetishes in masking/transformation/latex etc. Oddly enough, and I know it's been pondered by some on Twitter - GG's almost never "male mask" themselves.

    ***** This TV show was something of a breakthrough (or rather a Pandora's Box) in giving it widespread exposure, and the female masking scene is still trying to comprehend its inevitable reaction with trepidation. A lot of the people involved know all too well that it's hard for outsiders/the general public to understand this and even when the director of the documentary gave a call out through the Dollspride website there was overwhelming caution issued by prominent members of the site to others not to respond to it. But some evidently took the bait and now it's out there, for better or worse...

    1. Thank you so much for replying with such insightful detail and context - genuinely appreciate this.

      I wrote the post primarily as I wanted to call out the irresponsible programming knowing it most likely wasn't the full picture - failing multiple groups in its sensationalism, which extends, as you say, to the misrepresentation of female masking as a niche fetish.

      The insight you've given into motivations is really fascinating, and I think the key point here is the distinction between public identity and private fantasy.

      From what you've said about the masker community being online and meet-ups extremely rare it seems as if the documentary falsely applied a 'coming out' narrative to imply a desire for wider public acceptance - again in order to scandalise.

      If complex discussions around the veil tell us anything it is that the question of anonymity in contemporary public society is extremely fraught and would also apply to maskers wanting to go public. This is a factor worth consideration.

      I don't think we should regulate the fantasy of consenting adults in private, and perhaps the documentary could have taken a more interesting stance by interrogating attitudes to sexual fetishes more generally.

      This isn't to say though that such fetishes are unproblematic.

      I strongly disagree with your position that "these viewpoints don't actually spill over into how they actually view the female gender".

      Sexual desire and fetishes don't operate in a cultural vacuum, and the practice of female masking, even in private, reflects the misogyny and sexism present in culture at large. One produces the other, and indeed the performance of gender in female masking mutually reinforces publicly held attitudes, even if participants do not explicitly acknowledge this.

      Discursive constructions of gender and desire flow freely across the public-private divide, so that temporary assumption of female appearance for sexual gratification informs cultural expectations of women in the real world.

      Thanks again for contributing so productively to debate which hopefully furthers everyone's awareness in a beneficial way.