This is Sherry. Just as you might have seen her, if you were strolling on the pier at Newport Beach in California one sunny afternoon in 2013. If you were a man, she would have caught your eye as an attractive forty-something woman in sunglasses, all on her own. It would have seemed almost unnatural, that such an attractive woman should be walking by herself. Where was her guy?
All things considered, she looked astonishingly confident. Sherry was experiencing for the first time what it is to walk around in a public place, and meet other people. My goodness, that takes courage. And I say that with feeling, based on my own past experience. And if you are like me, you'll agree too. This lady had guts. But it went all right. For instance, she met a man who really liked her, and said so:
So who was she? By now you may have guessed. Back in January, Channel 4 screened a TV documentary called Secrets of the Living Dolls. I missed it at the time, but it was screened again four nights ago on More 4, and I made a point of watching it. I had an idea that it would have something to say to me, some parallels, some resonances. I wanted to know who Sherry and the others shown in the programme were. Apparently 3.7 million viewers were similarly intrigued back in January. Presumably not all for the same reasons, but 3.7 million is still an impressive figure for such a documentary. If you still haven't seen the programme, there are reviews and comments and YouTube clips that you can dip into on the Internet. I've picked out what I consider the best of these. And in this post, I'm giving you my own take.
Let's begin with Sherry. She was clearly the most engaging of the 'living dolls' featured on the programme. Two of them were shown 'coming out'. Sherry was one. What you see of her is a silicone skin that a male person puts on, to make himself look like a woman. It's a bit like donning a breathable wetsuit, except that it comes in sections. A main one (the torso and legs), then separately the arms, the face, and whatever hairpiece is desired. The face is effectively a mask. The men who put on a costume like this are called 'female maskers'. On the face of it, it looks like a form of cross-dressing, to achieve a look and shape that cosmetics and conventional padding alone cannot match.
There is a tendency among post-op transsexuals to regard cross-dressing as a lower-level manifestation of gender discomfort, or merely a fetish. I'm inclined to take a more sophisticated view of it, but hadn't come across a coherent explanation of what made cross-dressers tick until I read the latest post featured on T-Central this morning (Alice Jane in Newcastle's post on 16 February titled An Essay on Sex and Gender). I feel better-informed now. And I think that what Alice Jane was saying must have some bearing on women like Sherry. By the way, I'm perfectly happy to call Sherry a woman, because she is shaped like one, and besides it's the mental self-image under the skin that matters, not the details of the presentation. Even though Sherry's appearance (as with all the dolls) depends on a manufactured skin, and is not natural flesh.
This is Sherry unmasked:
He's a retired, divorced property developer who (for the purposes of the programme) calls himself Robert. There is nothing wrong with his looks, as a man of 70. But though vigorous, he is conscious of his age, and of having a skin so tanned that he has almost acquired that leathery 'Rolling Stones' appearance. Think Mick Jagger. It's too masculine. It can't be softened and transformed with make-up. He's tried to do it (there's a woman inside him that needs to come out). Then six years ago, he discovered FemSkin, a Florida-based company who make silicone body skins to wear. And that's how Sherry has come to be.
Robert has an explanation for needing Sherry. Since his divorce, he has wanted to date women in their fifties and sixties. But although he admits that some of these potential girlfriends are remarkably well-preserved, none of them look as good as Sherry does. He puts her on, and becomes his own beautiful woman. I think this means that he adopts a different personality as soon as he steps into this other skin, and has attired her suitably. His new persona is much, much prettier than his male self. The various masks he uses with the body skin all have a mouth that is slightly open, like a woman ready for a kiss. For him, she projects sexiness and allure. I can see that, although to my own mind there is also something rather innocent about Sherry's face and blonde hair. She looks like a nice lady with straightforward, uncomplicated appeal. I have no idea what Robert's real character is like (he was a successful businessman after all, and owns a large house), but if his notion of a pleasant but sexy girlfriend is this, and not something garish and hard-faced, then I commend his judgement.
The silicone skin is apparently breathable, and doesn't mind getting wet. Robert can do some everyday things wearing it. Such as enjoy the sun on a lounger by his own poolside:
I think those are Robert's arms, but the rest is genuine Sherry. Blimey, I wish I had a lower body and thighs as shapely as that! FemSkin evidently make very good products. Here is Sherry in the water, after a plunge off the diving board that seems to have whisked off her bikini top. Fortunately only the film crew were witnesses:
As it's California, Sherry has many opportunities to wear summery things. Here she is, putting a yellow outfit on:
Right. Let's take stock. A retired man needing female expression has tried ordinary cross-dressing, hasn't been satisfied with the result, and has turned instead to a putting on an outer skin that transforms his appearance into what he wants. He can dress or not, as the need arises. He stays sane, and has a glamorous solution to late-life loneliness. The inner urge to be Sherry in some form has been a personal secret for some years, but now he is ready to be open and public. Sherry, his alter-ego, doesn't look freaky; she looks pleasant, someone you'd want to know. Close-up, it's obvious that her face is a mask, so nobody can be fooled. She seems harmless. Perhaps you can pick holes in this scenario, but I for one am not inclined to.
Let's shift to another doll. This one is Jessie (although The Mirror Online seems to think that her name might be Viktoria):
Jessie lives in Southend, that big seaside town in Essex. It's the UK. Jessie is still housebound, and not even the neighbours know about her. She is well aware that it's best to keep it that way for now. But her girlfriend, a care worker, who shares the house, knows and accepts.
And Jessie has a doll friend, Tiff, who is 'out' and comes around to help her dress.
The situation is not like Robert's. It's much more social here. A small number of people do know. That small circle is bound to grow. Jessie is otherwise a 28 year old pub worker called Joel:
Joel has been experimenting with masks since his teens. He originally began with a fascination for exotic masks of the Hallowe'en variety - a fascination shared by his girlfriend - and it progressed to female masks. Plus of course the rest of the attire. He says it's an escape, an outlet. Yes, it clearly meets a need. I also think that here is another person with a feminine side, and finding expression for it. And here is the same drive from within to let Jessie, the alter ego, be shared with more people. The programme makes the point well that this urge to be open has consequences. At one point Joel introduces Jessie to two close friends who have never met her before. I didn't catch the male friend's name, but his girlfriend is called Clare. She's the one to watch. In comes Jessie. They hug.
But commenting afterwards, you can see that Clare is wobbly, upset, fighting back tears.
Perhaps Jessie was too much to take in all at once. Perhaps she liked Joel as he seemed to be, and now he isn't the person she thought he was, and can never again be that person. A much-valued friendship may be on the point of collapse. You've got to empathise. Clare does in fact find a way to deal with Jessie. In another scene, she is in Jessie's garden - so far as 'going public' is concerned, this is the equivalent of the pier at Newport Beach - with Jessie and two other dolls. It ends in another hug.
I really do admire Clare's behaviour here. She is the odd one out, in more than one sense, but she copes.
The programme also had much footage of the Rubberdoll Rendezvous convention for female maskers in Minneapolis. Sherry attended:
There was a sort of requirement to dress over the top. And some of the American maskers had attitude. Perhaps, as they were most definitely 'out and proud', they needed to look pretty assertive. Here are some shots:
During the Rendezvous, FemSkin gave a talk about their products, and how they could help people who wanted to cross-dress using a silicone female skin. If you want to see what FemSkin are offering, their website is at http://www.femskin.com/home.htm. And a detailed look at their products is at http://www.cinderelladream.net/femskin2.html.
As I said, there have been plenty of reviews and comments on Secrets of the Living Dolls. I would draw your attention to The Guardian article by Angelina Bouc at http://guardianlv.com/2014/01/men-who-dressup-as-rubber-dolls-star-on-secrets-of-the-living-dolls-video/, and the Daily Beast article by Nina Strochlic at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/07/the-secret-world-of-men-who-dress-like-dolls.html.
And what of the trans point of view?
Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch, who gave evidence at last year's Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards, wrote this Pink News article, at http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2014/01/09/comment-channel-4-did-not-help-trans-people-by-broadcasting-secrets-of-the-living-dolls/. The thrust of this is that Channel 4 has regressed, and produced a 'freak show' documentary that does not help the trans cause. But I don't think that many viewers would have made a connection between female masking and MTF transsexuals. I'm not even certain whether many would place the maskers with mainstream cross-dressing. Inevitably some viewers would obsess about the 'rubber suits' and the 'realistic anatomical details' and the apparent artifice of it all, connecting it perhaps with fetishistic bondage wear. Tsk. Trans people have been there before: the same misunderstandings, the same fixations on irrelevant prurient detail. Hmmm...maybe Helen Belcher is making a good point after all.
A while back someone asked a question on Roses - or it might have been The Angels - anyway, one of the serious trans and cross-dressing online forums that cater for The Community. This person wanted advice on whether it would be a good idea to wear a female face mask - a close-fitting one that would allow proper facial expressions - as a way of presenting a pretty face while undergoing the tricky initial stages of transition. The question was met with puzzlement and disbelief. Why would you wear a mask? Yes, your face would take time to soften and feminise, but surely it was better to endure a few months of that, while still presenting a natural face to the world - your own face. Certainly if you wanted to make new friends, and keep them, a mask wouldn't help at all. At the time I thought so too. And yet there must have been a female masking community online somewhere. Nobody seemed to know that. Well, they do now.