by Mary Harrington
Monday, 30
January 2023
Analysis
07:41

Dylan Mulvaney’s new face is only the beginning

Butchering your own body for entertainment will become commonplace
by Mary Harrington
TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney during his ‘face reveal’

There’s a well-trodden genre of viral video that compiles photos or videos showing someone transforming their body through exercise, over time. We’ve also been staring at people who have done grotesque things to themselves through plastic surgery ever since Lolo Ferrari on Eurotrash. Now, though, the funhouse mirror of digital culture has thrown up a new twist: plastic surgery as influencer content. 

TikTok personality Dylan Mulvaney recently underwent ‘facial feminisation surgery’. After posting a bandaged-up video from a hospital bed, and presumably waiting until the bruising, sutures and other evidence of cosmetic surgery had faded, the world may now enjoy the resulting  “face reveal” video, complete with Swan Lake music.


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Mulvaney has built a large following via a series of highly stylised TikTok transition videos. Mulvaney’s depictions of “reliving the moments of girlhood that I missed out on” often prompt an angry response from many women — including detransitioners — to whom Mulvaney’s output looks like contemptuous parody, by a male, of a female adolescence that many young women experience as a turbulent and sometimes frightening time. 

But leaving aside the gender politics, what’s startling in the ‘face reveal’ video is watching someone self-objectify to the point of treating their own physiology as a kind of Plasticine, for others to consume as entertainment. Here, the video story isn’t a familiar body in a different costume, or even a slow transformation of one body through effort. It’s the transformation of someone’s physical self through surgically-applied violence: nose broken and re-shaped, skin peeled back from facial bones to more feminine lines. The sheer brutality of this process is clear from Mulvaney’s swollen, scarred post-surgery video

In the process, it reveals an increasingly widespread ambivalence about what ‘normal’ means in physiological terms. Mulvaney’s ‘facial feminisation surgery’ doesn’t make sense, after all, unless we have a general, Gestalt understanding of what women usually look like. But the whole Mulvaney TikTok project — and transgender activism more broadly — also takes aim at the idea that there is a ‘normal’ sexed physiology. One Mulvaney video demands, for example, that someone wearing tiny leather hotpants with a visible penis bulge shouldn’t be stared at, just because most (female) wearers of tiny leather hotpants would not bulge in that location. 

And when this is mapped onto the internet’s perverse incentives, it suggests that we’re only into the foothills of flesh-sculpture as entertainment.

The content machine is always hungry, and internet notoriety is reserved for whoever is willing to take the most extreme course of action. As a result, we’re now well accustomed to people who over-expose their inner lives, or indeed their physical bodies (‘posting hole’, as the kids say). In this genre, pornography proper shades into — or often combines with — what I’ve called ‘pornography of the self’. 

And with our growing ambivalence about the existence of ‘normal’ increasingly, er, normalised by uncanny-valley influencers of the baroque and bizarre, it’s possible to imagine a post-surgery ‘face reveal’ as the oncoming bow-wave of a whole new genre of content. For when all of activism is oriented toward abolishing ‘normal’, why not liberate self-carving from its increasingly weightless constraints altogether?  

Bodies are now plastic and protean: fair game alike as content, and raw material. And when everything is a funhouse mirror, you have to do more to stand out. Expect the fame-hungry to begin re-sculpting their very flesh for the digital carnival sideshow.

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Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 months ago

I learnt who Dylan was a few weeks back. Never paid the story much attention but I did stumble across a viral video yesterday. I didn’t watch with audio (there were subtitles), but Dylan gushes about carrying tampons in case if a lady needs them. What’s interesting were Dylan’s mannerisms. It was a 21st century version of “girlhood”, complete with Sweet Valley High uncanniness. I honestly didn’t know what to think. My body turned completly numb. There’s something vulgar going on but it’s unclear how best to describe it. It’s like a David Cronenberg body horror movie matched with Saw, topped with The Stepford Wives.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

Yes it’s sooooo weird. The trans activists seek to eliminate sex stereotypes and boundaries, and then promote stereotypes of fantasy women with fantasy behaviours.
I am starting to conclude that this is almost totally just sexual fetishism. A man who genuinely thinks they’re in the wrong body wouldn’t be so shallow as to take on extreme feminine behaviours.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The thinking behind this fetish is that these men become the exact kind of women they fantasize about having sex with. Most of these fantasies are derived from the imaginings of prepubescent or adolescent boys who seemingly get off on anime or some other such comic book depictions of women. A lot of this arises from children’s unprecedented access to sexually explicit materials and as such their minds are actually formed by the content they are viewing. What we are witnessing is the end result of p0-RN addiction: sex divorced from all the ‘messiness’ that comes with being a women or indeed an actual human being.

Last edited 2 months ago by Julian Farrows
Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Not just boys. In a YouTube interview by Jordan Peterson, one female detransitioner reports on her teenage trans addiction to pornography.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Sadly, I think you are absolutely right.

Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
2 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

This is an excellent observation: A man who genuinely thinks they’re in the wrong body wouldn’t be so shallow as to take on extreme feminine behaviours.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 months ago
Reply to  Patrick Butler

Unless the experience is so unsettling that they are hiding behind a mask: behind the kabuki-like appearance they are hiding a real person who is afraid to simply be themselves. They are making an avatar out of themselves and sending that out into the world – they are gesturing something about themselves but not revealing the real self?

Last edited 2 months ago by Russell Hamilton
Daoud Fakhri
Daoud Fakhri
2 months ago

This is all symptomatic of the relentless trend towards ever greater fixation on the self. In earlier times young people would express their identity through the clothes they wore or the music they listened to: mods & rockers, punks and goths. But that isn’t enough for Gen Z’s: they feel compelled to go further and change their very essence by opting for new gender identities, and in extremis, undergoing reassignment surgery.
It’s all part of the endless quest for individuality and exoticism, and it’s a consequence of capitalism and the desire to sell us stuff: think of all the adverts over the years that have urged us to break with the norm, express ourselves, defy convention, or stand out from the crowd. Companies have become expert at extracting money from us by flattering our egos and encouraging self-obsession.
And I’m not sure where it ends: every generation takes things one step further than the one before, and I dread to think where we’ll be in 10, 20, 30 years hence.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Daoud Fakhri

The tragic thing is that they will have to continue to spend a fortune on maintaining their synthetic appearance in order not to look like deformed freaks, especially as they get older. By that time many of them will also have forfeited any chance of forming a healthy relationship or naturally starting a family with the result that we will see the growing commodification of children who are already being treated as complementary accessories to LGBQT lifestyles.

Last edited 2 months ago by Julian Farrows
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Quite. I’d put money on the subject of this essay being dead before they’re 40, either from their own hand or due to going too far with the surgical business. No doubt a video of their demise will be planned.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

While I share Mary Harrington’s scepticism towards much of what’s described here, I’m also tempted to chuck it all in the “let them get on with it if they want to” bin.

If I’m mistaken about that though, and this new phenomenon demands an organised response from society in in general, what should that be? We can’t even get an ambulance to heart attack victims in time to stop them dying at present so even if this is a real and pressing problem, maybe we just have to let it be a problem for the time being.

Last edited 2 months ago by John Riordan
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Not sure I understand the downtick.

S Wilkinson
S Wilkinson
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I’d really like to totally agree with you but I can’t!
Without writing an essay I can only express my issues with two questions.
Did the display for entertainment of Joseph Merrick and the inmates of Bethlem hospital enhance the values of the viewers or society or was there a moral compromise, a diminution in humanity?
What is the impact of this influencer on the influenced and is there a case for protecting the vulnerable, ie children, young people, the easily influenced/searching for answers autistic and/or depressed person?

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

It seems that as more and more serious issues arise, which governments/society fail to resolve; so the cultural focus shifts to every more trivial issues, which are every more confidently ‘resolved’ by postmodern rhetoric.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Yes, I’ve often found the promotion of LGQBT (non)-issues helps give politicians the false impression that they are out doing something, when in actual fact they are doing sweet f-all to improve the lives of their constituents.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Good point – this could be simply another of those “issues” that politicians use to distract us from the fact that they can’t fix anything important.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Another day, another barking mad fruitcake vying for attention on the internet. I would happily leave them to it, save for the fact that I work in The Blob (good way off retirement too) and far too many (mostly middle class Guardian types) are falling over themselves to validate and encourage what is clearly going to end badly. You just can’t ducking escape it.

Aden Wellsmith
Aden Wellsmith
1 month ago

He’s definitly one of the better trolls out there

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

John, for women (51% of the population)this is very important! Men invading our spaces the dehumanising language of “cervix havers” “birthing parent” and the like. Lesbian life is like it was 50 or more years ago-there can be no publicity for a lesbian disco or film showing for it will be assailed by men pretending to be women. Women speaking are bullied attacked and often left unprotected by police who drive around in LGBTQ+ adorned cars. No woman in hospital can be assured of a singe-sex ward and women who need care in the home could be confronted with a man in a nurses uniform. Please wake up!

Esther Barna
Esther Barna
1 month ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

Yup, welcome to the new “woke” patriarchy: men taking over both genders.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The problem with letting them “get on with it” is that where the young are concerned they so often seem to be dragging along a following of their peers on their ride.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
2 months ago

The outward appearance of a troubled soul who thinks he can buy femininity and womanhood. No, you cannot, and every cell in his body will still show an X and a Y chromosome. Nothing will change that. Others have already written that this is very much reminiscent of self-harming behaviour, and I completely agree. One could even say that this is a form of prostitution; no sacrifice is too great to get the most clicks/likes/views/etc.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 month ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

every cell in his body will still show an X and a Y chromosome.

Except, somewhat ironically, his sperm (whilst he still produces them).

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
1 month ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Well spotted you biologist you!!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Which will have just one or the other.

Matthew Hubbard
Matthew Hubbard
2 months ago

It’s a bloke in a dress

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Yes it is, and that’s ok.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago

He’s a bloke in a dress.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
2 months ago

My intuition suggests that there’s more than a little self-harming in all this. I’ve known people who were cutting or burning themselves. It never made them less unhappy about whatever it was that was bothering them, but it did, in both cases, lead to their getting some help.
On the other hand a young man I knew was able to go from one plastic surgeon to another driven by a forlorn obsession about “correcting” his nose. When last I saw him he was more miserable than ever, with more surgery planned and no real help with the emotional issues that seemed to be at the heart of all this. The surgeries were obscuring the real issues; from his care-givers and from himself.
I don’t know anything about this person Dylan, but I hope he’s not as troubled as my friend was.

Last edited 2 months ago by laurence scaduto
Edward Seymour
Edward Seymour
1 month ago

Isn’t there a kind of onanism at work here? This man has “transitioned” into a conventional stereotype of what a woman should look like according to a certain type of male. One assumes that Mulvaney thinks this look is the look of the ideal woman: a pastiche of Audrey Hepburn and a gamine. The Canadian schoolteacher with the bazooka size false chest presumably idealises the more “Mae West” look (but without her brains). The fact is that they try to become that which they want to f##k. They are their own masturbation fantasy. In reality, outside of fantasy, we men don’t really know women like them, we don’t fall in love with them and we don’t partner with them. I suspect that when Mulvaney is called upon to hand out one of the tampons he so “thoughtfully” carries with him in case a gal is faced with an emergency, he makes her feel even more inadequate: not only does she not look like the ideal but she can’t even provide for her own hygiene without this He/She.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Edward Seymour

Insightful comment. I’ve often thought that the desire to ‘outwomen’ women lies at the heart of all this, instead of the desire to trap a man.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  Edward Seymour

Interesting idea. A lot of women like to view this sort of thing as an attack on them (e.g. the comment above: “the new “woke” patriarchy: men taking over both genders”). While I sympathize with the problem of their spaces being invaded (while ironically insisting on being able to invade ours) and their sports being essentially demolished, I think in many cases you are right. That is not necessarily the goal. Acting out some kind of sexual masturbatory fetish seems closer to the truth.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
1 month ago

I think it was pity for these people that led us to stop just saying ‘you are gross and a freak and will never be content while you suffer from this mental illness.’ But pity – a version of that all-consuming infinitely-malleable Christian ideal of ‘being nice’ – meant biting one’s tongue and letting people go their own ways. And now they demand we affirm their disorders, cut up their bodies, suppress our retching, etc. There’s really only one way forward… to recognize that allowing someone to wallow in this self-degradation isn’t being nice to them at all. We all must intervene and say, ‘no, you may not behave that way here.’

Last edited 1 month ago by Kirk Susong
Aden Wellsmith
Aden Wellsmith
1 month ago

Ah the pay to view, lopping off the meat and two veg.
Comming soon to a streaming service of your choice. ….

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Couldn’t care less.
People should be able to modify their meat bag any way they want.
It’s nobody else’s business and watching his videos is not compulsory.

Note I wrote his, not her’s.
People can physically present however they want.
I’m not offended or threatened by how they present.
But it’s impossible to change sex.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Here is an author expressing her concerns over the actions of a man who wants to look like a woman.  Her criticism of him, indeed any criticism from women in general is highly hypocritical.  
Here’s a partial list of body modifications undertaken by women:
Tattoos, ear piercings, dental work, permanent hair removal, lip fillers, fat injection, liposuction, nose jobs, cheek and chin sculpting, breast implants, vaginoplasty.
So to this woman and all women I say hypocrite.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

Meh. Millions of women inject Botox into their face. That can’t be healthy either. If an adult wants to get plastic surgery, I don’t have an issue with that. Live and let live. Just don’t impose your ideology on others.

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The problem, Jimi is this: will people who are inclined to this sort of behavior extend the same gesture toward you? (the “live and let live” one). I seriously doubt they will, considering what has been happening lately.

Mônica
Mônica
2 months ago

That’s a different question from “should adults do whatever they please with their own bodies”, to which the answer, in my mind, can only be yes. Once we stablish that’s indeed the case, what they think about my dealings with my own body is immaterial – and again, a completely different discussion from “should transgender people be treated as the gender they identify with?” and others in that line.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Mônica

For me the question is less about whether adults can do whatever they please to their bodies and more about should we allow medical expertise and equipment to be used in non-essential surgical procedures, particularly at a time when medical resources are already limited and costly for those who really need them. Moreover, this goes against the very spirit of the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Who pays for the surgery is a totally different question. Being from the US, I assume the govt didn’t pay for this surgery. If you think this violates the Hippocratic oath, which I don’t believe it does, I assume you are opposed to virtually all plastic surgery.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I am except in the most extreme of cases, but, like you say, it’s not my business to judge others who undergo it. I also was careful not to say that plastic or sexual reassignment surgery violates the Hippocratic oath, just that it goes against the spirit of it. I’m also not a fan of the US healthcare and insurance system which has become a for-profit business. I’ve seen too many people here succumb to diseases that were easily treatable if not for the extortionate costs, but that’s another story.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

I bloody well doesn’t matter. I’ll take the high road regardless.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I’m disappointed by all the down votes. If we are to live in a free society, people should be able to get whatever plastic surgery they like, with the usual caveats of not hurting others etc. A lot of people here, including myself, are opposed to the progressive agenda being forced down our throats. Yet a lot of people seem quite comfortable imposing their beliefs on others.

Michelle Perez
Michelle Perez
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think one issue here is that this person, Dylan, is highly influential amongst the younger crowd. As an adult, he should be able to do what he wants, but sadly many young (insecure) people will follow his lead. The internet dilemma!!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Michelle Perez

It sucks that someone like this has a massive platform, but a lot of people think it sucks that Joe Rogan has a massive platform. How can you support freedom of speech for one and not the other? Free societies are messy, but the alternatives are worse.

Michelle Perez
Michelle Perez
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

we agree on that.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I understand your concerns, Jim – I haven’t downvoted you by the way. I see the promotion of plastic surgery in the same way as I view tobacco advertising. If adults want to engage it in it, that’s fine, but ‘selling’ it to children should be discouraged.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Thanks for that Julian. I don’t mind getting downvoted, especially if my reasoning sucks, which it often does. I’m more troubled that a seeming majority of people on this site don’t support individual freedom. I hope I’m misinterpreting the downvotes.

Scott Towns
Scott Towns
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

When individual freedom is imposed on the rest and the rest are forced not only to accept, but to embrace and celebrate, then it is it not merely one’s individual freedom. Add to that, the trend of introducing these fetishes or self-harm techniques or symptoms of mental health to children who aren’t mentally and emotionally prepared to discern the mental and emotional problems a person like Mulvaney is suffering from, then society as a whole has a problem. Social Controls, a concept which so many demonize, are what has kept society/humanity from devolving.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Scott Towns

Do you support individual freedom or social controls? I reject anyone forcing their ideology on others. Period. If an adult wants to get plastic surgery or any other surgery, that’s their business, not mine. This is a separate and distinct issue from indoctrinating children.

If you believe in freedom for me, but not freedom for thee, then you don’t really believe in freedom. How can someone be outraged when progressives try to cancel Joe Rogan, but deny someone else their right to plastic surgery?

Iris Violet
Iris Violet
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

We can’t and we shouldn’t. I am a free speech absolutist (sorry I think Elon M said this recently too but it’s true). Everyone can say what they want to including Kanye W and this Dylan M. That does however not change that young people (I work with them daily) are simply not yet able to compute and handle the many ideas out there that they are being bombarded with by aggressive algorithms if they have looked at a particular clip for more than a few seconds. They are sucked in, into ‘supportive’ online communities and – especially for those awkward, nerdy or just painfully shy – that is a powerful pull that may (and I see it does) lead them down paths that could well turn out to have been wrong for them i.e. gender dysphoria and transitioning, even if just ‘social transitioning’. These things are not reversible like getting blue hair or a piercing for a while is. The content is forcefed and pervasive and the issue here is where free speech (or rather the big tech data and clicks monster) clashes with safeguarding of young people.

Last edited 1 month ago by Iris Violet
Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Somebody needs to tell that to the schools, counseling and medical communities.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Me too, actually. I’ve seen anything you’ve said along here that would warrant it IMO. The libertarian in me has caused me to counter with upvotes; were they not in the red I probably wouldn’t have voted at all. I might think they’re seriously screwed up and will always refuse to use pronouns I don’t think appropriate, but “Just don’t impose your ideology on others” seems to sum that up pretty nicely.