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Some men gender-swap by female masking. Women don’t seem to feel the same urge in reverse. Interesting…

February 14, 2015
Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

There’s a subculture of men who mask themselves, envelop themselves, in latex from top to toe, wigs and all, as women. Many know them as ‘living dolls’; much of their networking is online (for some of their networks, see http://www.maskon.com/kerry/links.htm). Last year the UK’s station Channel 4 put out a TV programme about them (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/secrets-of-the-living-dolls/on-demand/57297-001), and there’s been further coverage at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2565884/The-men-masks-The-peculiar-world-female-masking.html and http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/what-men-find-behind-female-masks/283972/. The aim for most of these men is not to feel beautiful in a new skin (after all, some go for a hag-like look, or, if not that, definitely don’t attempt some beautiful ideal). More, they seem to be intent on occupying another, opposite, persona: female therefore opposite, but frequently very different in character as well.

‘Persona’, along with the words ‘person’ and ‘personality’, actually comes from the Latin word for mask. We all adopt a variety of personae for different people and situations, of course. At its simplest and most superficial, a persona is an attempt to make a good impression in social situations; at its more complex and far-reaching, it can be ‘mistaken, even by ourselves, for our true nature’ (http://mythsdreamssymbols.com/majorarchetypes.html).

‘Masks are an impeccable metaphor for the personae that encircle our souls.’ So declares a blog piece on female masked performances, ‘The Masks of the Goddess’, at http://www.rainewalker.com/book-page.htm by Lauren Raine. Our chosen personae, this ignorant non-student of Carl Jung gathers, according to Jung mimic, echo, a set of eternal archetypes: common character types that have imbued our cultural and spiritual evolution since we emerged from the primordial slime.

Psychologist Stephen Larsen tells us:

‘The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, “an archetypal power”.’

If you’re the academic type, there’s a fascinating study of the mask as archetype in classical Greek drama, Italy’s traditional Commedia dell’Arte and Japan’s oldstyle Noh theatre – among other things (http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1115&context=etd_hon_theses). Other cultures show similar archetypal mask usage, e.g. the ondel-ondel performance pictured above.

Sod all this theory and trying to sound intellectual. Have you ever worn a mask? Think back. The experience is unforgettable: you feel safe, invincible, invisible, even; and – maybe most strikingly – able, if you want to, to interact with the world and with people in a way uncharacteristic of your ‘typical’ self.

Yet male and female masks, whether representing archetypes or otherwise, contrast drastically, give clearly distinct gender messages. However ‘archetypal’ and generic they may seem, we instantly recognise a visual sexual difference. (Maybe we even seek it out?)

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

... or this mask for male?

… or this mask for male?

And yet, a blog that studies and advises on beauty and the face makes some interesting claims:

‘The “Mask” by all accounts is a distinctively female configuration [my italics]. The male face seems to be a particular variation of this female “Mask”….

The “complete” male variation from the “Mask” would be a combination of:

1]. The specific age variation with regard to the Mask.

2]. The typical male variation from the (female) Mask.

and 3]. The particular ethnic variation from the archetypal Mask….

The essential Phi Mask (i.e. the geometric ideal “beautiful” image of humanness) is actually that of a woman. The male image is a variation on that mathematical female image.

Developmentally all human faces begin as essentially feminine – even if genetically male. Through multiple exposures to testosterone the genetic male face gradually transforms into the male configuration. But again, male faces essentially start out physically as female.’ (http://www.beautyanalysis.com/beauty-and-you/face-variations/face-variations-sex/)

Back to female masking. As far as I can establish, women don’t do male masking. Is the above one reason for that difference? Are living doll men instinctively trying to reclaim something of the feminine look they subconsciously sense they had in some hidden ideal past? Yet according to Lauren Raine in her writings on goddess masks, arts, spirituality and healing in the arts and myth: ‘Women and [my italics] men exploring mythology may choose to work with an archetype.’

So how come women so rarely, if ever, choose to wear male masks? More to the point, why? After all, Raine reports that both have in common that, in performance situations, they ‘work with an archetype… sometimes to call back something they feel has been lost’.

Maybe it’s what they feel that they’ve lost that distinguishes the sexes. For men, maybe it’s a closeness to the feminine. The earliest initiators of the living doll movement tell of finding inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s TV series Mission Impossible, in which several of the female actors masked and unmasked themselves with a magical sweep of one arm over their heads.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter's murder in 'Mission Impossible': 'Butterfly'. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter’s murder in ‘Mission Impossible’: ‘Butterfly’. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Something of this is about a seemingly miraculous transformation – could it be, almost healing? The Channel 4 film shows the masked men staring at their female selves in mirrors, revolving and mesmerised, almost in awe. Even though many men who dress as living dolls keep that part of their lives secret, some have a background of loneliness, and/or of difficulty in getting or keeping girlfriends. During the Channel 4 programme on living dolls, one interviewee, Robert, enthuses of her female alter ego, ‘She’s amazing. And she’s all mine!’ So maybe this is partly about the possession of a relationship that’s not possible otherwise; or maybe it’s an extreme step out of a lonely, shy self into another self entirely (what could be more extreme than adopting the other gender?).

For women, according to Raine, at least in the context of more staged ‘performance’, it’s very different. In donning a mask to play a part, women are still finding themselves ‘drawn to [that] figure because it affords them an opportunity to explore something they believe they do not know’. But in our case, the female case, it seems more a matter of exploring female archetypes where we sense a missing connection. Raine cites examples: ‘Turquoise’, who discovered a ‘joyful opportunity to reconnect with the “instinctual woman”‘ by dancing the part of Artemis; and another, who in enacting the myth of Inanna’s descent to meet her dark twin Ereshkigal, found she could explore the ‘underground’ of her own psyche.

The moral of this piece may sound as if it should be that men really are from Mars and women from Venus. But you know they say that we’re entering the millennium of the Goddess, an era where the female’s in the ascendant? I can’t help wondering if this brief gendered squint at masking only reveals that (sorry, men!) women really are ‘further along’, just a smidgeon more evolved. (Alternatively – sorry, sisters! – are living doll men more evolved in their willingness to transition from their gender to the other?)

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