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Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Several years ago, while doing research for a photography project on hyperrealistic sex dolls, artist Daniel Handal learned about female maskers: a fetish community of men who dress up as living dolls, wearing latex bodysuits and masks. Some masks are modeled after human female faces, adorned with flowing hair or frilly bonnets; some are more otherworldly, resembling big red balloons or anime characters. “I entered search engine keywords like ‘real dolls, sex dolls, fake, fetish,’ etc., and of course, the internet leads me to men who dress up like sex dolls,” Handal told Hyperallergic. “When I saw the first picture of a female masker, I remember electricity going through me.” Soon, Handal shifted his photographic focus from inanimate sex dolls to living ones. He began taking photographs of masked men in 2006, in New York, Minneapolis, and outside of Baltimore. He went on to take the bulk of his photographs for the Female Masking series in 2008 and 2009, at the Rubber Doll World Rendezvous, a kind of twist on a masquerade ball.

To draw less attention to himself, Handal became a participant of sorts: he wore a latex mask while shooting, peering through eyeholes into the viewfinder. The resulting photographs turn hotel rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and swimming pools into an uncanny valley. Of course, there’s a voyeurism inherent in the photographs, but Handal says that’s part of the point: in this community, “taking pictures is encouraged and part of dressing up and showing off.” Female maskers share their photos and stories on blogs. “As a result, documentation becomes an integral part of role-playing. It fulfills both voyeuristic and exhibitionistic fantasies.”

Daniel Handal, “Doll with Top Hat” (2009)

How does Handal understand the psychology behind this particular fetish? “I think it’s about the desire to be objectified to such an extent that one is playing the part of a literal sex object,” Handal says. “A doll is there for someone else’s enjoyment and pleasure.” In the female masking community, “dollies,” as they’re called, completely cover themselves in rubber latex, wearing a bodysuit as a base, a latex mask, and sometimes, a latex dress. “Wearing a full latex outfit and mask, your senses are constrained — it’s difficult to speak, listen, walk, or do much, actually … it’s disorienting,” Handal explains. “This is part of the appeal, as being constrained is a turn-on.”

While it’s not exactly mainstream, the female masking community is not tiny — the most popular masking website, Dolls Pride, has more than 10,000 active members — and has attracted its share of media attention. A 2014 documentary called Secrets of the Living Dolls sparked waves of internet pointing-and-staring. Unlike reality television producers, though, Handal is “presenting the work as art.” As influences, he cites artists like Morton Bartlett, Hans Bellmer, Ralph Meatyard, Pierre Molinier, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have explored how costume and performance relate to identity. “I wanted my pictures to be part of a dialogue with these artists and my work to be in response to theirs,” he says. His photographs blur the line between role-playing and theater; in fact, he compares female maskers to Kabuki actors, both of whom “create multilayered alter egos and assume fictional characters.”

Daniel Handal, “It Would Be If One Could” (2009) (click to enlarge)

Female maskers have been met with plenty of fear and mocking online. They’ve been compared to countless masked horror villains, from Leatherface to Jason from Halloween. But Handal encourages empathy for his anonymous subjects: “I hope that when people look at the photos, they see a complex and curious sensibility,” he says. “I also hope people don’t take it too seriously. It’s role-playing. It’s meant to be fun.”

Who are the men behind the masks? The mystery is part of what gives these images their power: the wearer could be your next-door neighbor, your high-school math teacher, your accountant, or your congressman. “I met all the men I photographed without masks. The one thing that defied my expectations was that most of the men I met identified as straight,” Handal says. “I would describe most people I met as quirky, smart individuals with a quirky, naughty fetish — my favorite kind of people.”

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Red Inflatable” (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Playing House” (2008)

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Lost in Dreams” (2008)

Daniel Handal, “An Analogy” (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Morgana with Jovina’s Mask Collection” (2010)

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (@2008)

Daniel Handal, “Gothic Jovina, Minneapolis” (2008)

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Mother and Babby, Minneapolis” (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Nature has had Her Day” (2009)

Daniel Handal, “Masks by Kerry, Minneapolis” (2008)

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Daniel Handal, from the series ‘Female Masking’ (2008)

Daniel Handal, “Pink Ribbon” (2008)

h/t Slate

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

3 replies on “The Men Who Dress Like Sex Dolls”

  1. Is this really about art? Or is it simply a desperate ploy to rope in a few more readers? This site has a faint whiff of the “National Enquirer” about it….let’s see which cheesy headline will pull in the masses.

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