Living Dolls: a distortion of womanhood?

“It’s like a beautiful woman walking down the street,” explains one of the men featured on Channel 4’s Secrets of the Living Dolls, a recent documentary publicised as “A remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the secretive world of female masking, where men transform themselves into dolls by squeezing into elaborate rubber second skins.”

As I watch men squash and wedge their bodies into silicone bodysuits called FemSkin, cover themselves in caricatured female masks and remark on their appearance as “beautiful women”, I feel offended and a little bit angry.

Firstly, this documentary overtly sidesteps any sociological questions about how society views women. Secondly, the involvement of sex is all but avoided (excluding just one statement from the FemSkin supplier, regarding the silicone bodysuits, that “I don’t know what you guys shove up those vaginas, but they can’t take it, I’m telling ya”). Thirdly, the documentary makes little effort to help the viewer empathise with the subculture, but rather seems to take the more salacious approach of peering into the unknown.

The biggest problem, in my view, is that the programme does not challenge stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a woman. For example, Jon, one of the featured maskers explains:

When I was younger… I didn’t think I had the means… the charm, charisma, body, whatever, the looks… to have a sexy girlfriend. And I loved women. I used to collect pictures of swimsuit models… So I decided to emulate a sexy female. To basically make what I couldn’t have.

Robert, a seventy-year-old masker, has trouble dating women because of his living doll alter ego, Sherry:

You see, you have to realise I am 70 years old and I tried dating. And when I’m dating, the women I meet are generally 55 to well up into their 60s. Some of them are in good shape for 55 to 65 but they don’t look anything like this [Sherry]. And it’s very difficult to date when you have this to come home to…

Perhaps the maskers’ infatuations with their ‘living doll’ appearances is down to a desire to attain some elusive ‘supermodel’ archetype, an exaggerated socially constructed idea of how a woman should be that is reinforced through popular culture. While Jon expresses his ‘love’ for women, his admiration seems superficial and mainly focused on the apparent visual attractiveness of ‘femaleness’. The documentary makes us aware that Jon has a wife and daughters, who he likes to partake in his masking, but his relationship with them as women and girls is not discussed or explored. These relationships suggest his expectations of women may have changed over the years, or it may be that he has been able to attain his desired archetypal ‘supermodel’ through his hobby. The lack of attention in the documentary to questions connected to expectations, attitudes and ideas about women themselves means the viewer is only left with presumptions about what Jon and Robert really think about womanhood in a wider sense.

The men in the documentary may not have considered that the rubber dolls are visible manifestations of racist and sexist attitudes regarding attractiveness

The visible appearance of the living dolls could be perceived as over-the-top caricatures of the airbrushed and photoshopped women we see so heavily featured in our increasingly sexualised popular culture (on television and in films, games, magazines and newspapers). It is hard not to think of Nastasha Walter’s 2010 book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, which critically discusses the hypersexualisation of heterosexual women and how girls grow up being encouraged to become ‘dolls’. It is possibly coincidental that the name of the book and documentary are the same. However, the potentially sexual aspects of FemSkin, such as the presence of pubic hair and installation of a rectum (if the customer wants it), along with some of the maskers dancing in a suggestive manner, arguably makes the issue of the hypersexualisation of women not only relevant here, but significant. As I look at the social media site DollsPride, I see fishnets, sexually suggestive poses, exposed large breasts and tiny waists, so it is hard not to wonder if the dolls’ appearances are a direct result of the hypersexualisation of ‘femininity’ as we know it.

The maskers also seem to misrepresent womanhood itself, which is surely a hard pill to swallow for viewers (trans or cis) who actually identify or live as women. Further on from this, Joel owns a mask that is decorated like a stereotypical Geisha, a representation which seems both offensive and prejudiced. It may be that the men in the documentary have not considered how the rubber dolls are visible manifestations of racist and sexist attitudes regarding attractiveness. It seems the living dolls are intertwined in this culture of inequality and sexism rather than a separate culture facing their own isolated prejudice. As the programme only skims the surface of rubber dolling as a hidden “all-consuming hobby”, it is difficult to know how much the maskers identify and sympathise with the prejudices all women face or whether the hobby is a purely decorative recreation.

A group of maskers are shown attending a nightclub and being met with bigoted aggression from a man outside

One thing the documentary does briefly touch on, in terms of examining prejudice, is the maskers discussing the difficulties they expect to experience themselves if they wear the FemSkin in public. In keeping with this, a group of them are shown attending a nightclub and being met with bigoted aggression from a man outside, indicating the risk of hate-crime and discrimination presented to them as an often misunderstood sub-culture. Unfortunately, however, the programme makes no further effort to offer viewers an insight into the prejudice the maskers face.

One of my problems with this programme is not with the maskers themselves, but the production and direction of the documentary, which fails to critically engage with the subculture itself. Another is that the living dolls seem to represent society’s view of women as one-dimensional dolls, only valued through appearance and attractiveness. As I browse the FemSkin website, I view pornified doll imagery and it quickly becomes clear womanhood has been reduced to a commodity: a synthetic shell in the colours “medium, deep and soft”, with only one option for breast size. FemSkin also sells a silicone ‘vagina’ called the Cherry Popper, described as “baby smooth”, which simulates the breaking of the ‘cherry’. This commodification of ‘virginity’ and women’s bodies is an unsettling reality of the sexist culture we partake in, with its deeply ingrained ideas about gender.

While it may be easy to direct our frustration at the maskers, I would suggest we first need to tackle the misrepresentation of women as a whole in popular culture and wider society. Society must address misleading stereotypes that reduce women to doll-status (in policies, advertising and mass marketing) because, otherwise, these kinds of assaults on actual lived womanhood will continue to be relentless.

Emily is a feminist obsessed with gender and sexualisation in the media and on TV. She often ignites debates during films and programmes, fuelled by her passionate compulsion to point out misrepresentation and encourage people to question gender roles. She has had enough of sexism and doesn’t care how many programmes she has to interrupt to point it out