Sci-Fi Critters, Makeup, Muppets, and BJD’s

2013-11-11: This article was first posted on my first blog, then republished on my web site.

So I’ll admit it. When I first saw BJD’s, ball jointed dolls, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. And…me? What would an adult guy want with one of those? Wasn’t that for girls or kids?

Never mind that other guys have similar hobbies, or that I’m a science fiction fan and wannabe writer and so forth, and so I have a few science fiction collectibles, or other things I like, hobby-wise or keepsakes. Never mind that lots of boys grow up playing with “action figures,” because girls play with “dolls,” right? Now how does that little semantic rationalization make sense? And what does it have to do with being manly, masculine? It’s mental, a gender or sexual role we are trained into from early on, and folly, when you think about it.

Somehow, I was resistant to the idea. But friends were having a great deal of fun with their BJD dolls, posing them, doing photos and stories, costuming, and it was getting more interesting to me. I could see possibilities there. It was firing up my imagination.

I succumbed and in a fit of something or other, I ordered a BJD. (Notice I didn’t say doll? Hmm….) It arrived. Or he arrived. It’s a bit disconcerting, when you get a package with an action figure / BJD doll, not wearing anything, a sculpted figure that may or may not be “anatomically correct,” because we’re also trained that male parts are too…something…to be shown except as an indefinite “bulge” or a fig leaf. (Real fig leaves itch when your hands brush them. Wearing them there would not be a good idea!) The BJD also arrives with its head separate. Disconcerting. Not how a boy buys an action figure of some hero. But that’s soon remedied.

You put on the head, the wig (yes, a separate item) and eyes. And if the head isn’t already painted, you paint a “faceup,” like “putting on a face” or “putting on makeup,” but more permanent. This is a challenge, for most guys, who aren’t used to makeup. (Unless they’ve had on stage experience or maybe the goth or club scene, or that science fiction thing again.) Painting on a three dimensional object, doing a realistic head’s looks, is a challenge.

Well, that somehow grew, for me, into the idea to use these to tell stories in a photo story or a format like that. These? Yes, because then I ordered another. And it had sparked my creativity. Getting to play, to pretend, with a silly little action figure was something new, not really done since my teens. (I did keep a few things from childhood, stored away, though.)

And…how was this different than being a writer, who dreams up stories in his head, pretends, with imaginary friends, characters? How was this different from a bunch of people dressing up and pretending a story with other people watching, which is acting, theater, movies, TV? Stars get paid to do this. Authors get paid to do this.

How was it different from having fun at a con (science fiction convention) with costumes and gaming, even if you’re just watching? How was it different from laser tag or a LARP (live action role playing) or paint ball enthusiasts?

Uh…it isn’t really, is it? So why was I resistant? — I like reading and writing. My “professional life” (translation: paid jobs) have used words and images, writing and editing. I went to college, wanting to be a writer. I like science fiction. So why did I resist getting a BJD and letting my imagination go and pretending, playing with…dolls…action figures? Was it a “guy thing?” Was it because I’m gay but have had trouble throughout my life accepting that? Aha, could be. Or it could be because, as a boy, a kid and teen, I wanted to be accepted as a grownup, an adult, mature, instead of just a geeky smart kid, the kid with the weird glasses? Might be all those things.

But it had started my creativity going and had started getting me out of a long slump, active again. Much needed. It started getting me excited, enthusiastic again, about writing, drawing, arts and crafts, even to try things I hadn’t done in years, or never had. That was needed and very good and welcome and it’s been fun. I went over-budget. My wallet isn’t speaking to me still. (I’d be worried if my wallet ever actually spoke to me. Much more than this thing about playing with dolls or action figures or BJD’s.)

Then something else happened. I’m a Farscape fan. It’s a science fiction show from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, four seasons plus a miniseries movie. I was asked to host a fanfic challenge, mostly because I hadn’t before, and I’m active on the forum, and people knew I’ve written and edited, but not much within the fandom. (Other fan writers have gone on to be professionally published with original stories, something to be proud of.)

I agreed, thought up a challenge story prompt, and in doing so, realized I needed to rewatch to get my facts straight. Story research. Hey, that’s good stuff! I hadn’t rewatched in a while.

Also for those who may not know, Farscape was produced by the Jim Henson Company and the Henson Creature Shop did the creatures, aliens, robots, and others in the series, other than the live actors. The Henson Creature Shop, Jim Henson Productions? But weren’t those…muppets? Uh-huh, that’s right. And Yoda from Star Wars. And Labyrinth and Dark Crystal movies, and the Storyteller TV show. Among others. In other words, they do more than the muppets, which were themselves a big advance in puppetry presentation and design. So I was rewatching Farscape episodes with Rygel and Pilot and other creatures, and these were animatronics and muppets, very realistic, in some of my favorite science fiction. There’s also the long history of the Muppet Show and movies and the Sesame Street I grew up with. Who wouldn’t like Kermit and Miss Piggy and the gang? Or Snuffleupagus? Or Grover?

There they were, Rygel and Pilot and other Creature Shop creations, alongside live actors in real time, live on set. There they were, these characters, operated by super-skilled craftsmen and puppeteers and robotics engineers. Adults playing with puppets and dolls in a big way, along with other adults pretending a story. These people get paid and have a lot of fun and hard work doing this, and they do it so other adults can relax and enjoy a story, get lost in a pretend world, for a little while each week, and they pay in some way for the privilege of watching and listening.

Kinda blows that reluctance out of the water, doesn’t it? — I grew up as a teen, an avid science fiction fan, keeping up with movie and TV science fiction and fantasy, including effects, actors, music, muppets, creatures, makeup and prosthetics, through Starlog, for instance. Because, for one thing, I wanted to write stuff like that. Because, for another, those shows and books were wonderful, a chance to live in another world for a little while, a world where I might be who I wanted to be, a hero, not that geeky boy with the weird glasses and all.

These people I’ve admited all my life, they write shows and books. They do voice acting and live acting in front of the camera for TV and movies. They use makeup and masks and prosthetics. They come up with creatures, combinations of puppetry and robotics, radio control, muppets, animatronics, grownups playing with puppets and dolls. All to produce art forms that thrill people’s imaginations. They do this for the joy of making art, and they get paid, sometimes a lot, to do so, by a worldwide audience who follow these things as fans.

And I’m someone who went to college for one of those impractical daydreamer degrees in the liberal arts. I’m someone who’s spent his working, paid, professional life, such as it is, dealing with words and images, not usually in the fiction and poetry areas, but more mundane ones. But on the side, for enjoyment (and occasional non-profits) I’ve done projects, volunteered, and done things on my own, for fiction and poetry and those other very impractical things. My mother was an artist, a painter. My father was an engineer. I grew up with the idea that arts and letters and music were a fine way to make a living, but hardly ever a way to be rich; you needed a day job until you could make enough from art to do that full time.

So it seems my reluctance about the BJD’s was again just some nonsense in my head, when once examined, not something to let limit me.

Oh yeah, and the people who design and make and sell those BJD’s? They are artists and artisans, and they sell their art to an audience of eager collectors who go out and do incredibly creative things with the dolls.

Those people who make dolls, or model kits, or things like that? They are adults who haven’t lost that love for playing, for using their imaginations, who want to bring a little art and happiness to others, both adults and kids. Adults are usually the ones who make kids’ toys, after all, to bring a little enjoyment and stretch a little imagination and creativity and learning for them…and just for the fun and art of it.

(If that sounds like the Santa Claus story or Pinocchio, it’s no accident. That’s one of the points of those stories.)

So, hmm, it seems my reluctance, as an adult male, to getting a BJD (a doll, an action figure) and to let myself play and pretend, to fool around with them…my objection was just smoke and mirrors, a false construct based on several preconceived notions by other people, who weren’t right.

My budget’s getting back in line gradually, but for the boost, the restart, for my creativity and the enjoyment from it all, the price has been more than worth it.

And if you’re a guy, either a kid or adult, who’s not sure if he wants to get caught playing and pretending with some silly dolls or action figures — don’t let that stop you. If people will watch the latest blockbuster movie or hit TV show with alien creatures, either actors in makeup or animatronic puppets, dolls too, then it’s OK for you to play and pretend too. Just maybe, you might be the next guy making hit stories, creating those great effects, or the star actor, and oh yeah, getting paid to have fun doing it.

Not so geeky or uncool after all. Plenty manly enough.