About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, May 7, 2010

#36 - Self-Made Man

While Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent (New York: Viking, 2006) was a decent read, the concept was definitely stronger than the execution.

Jacket blurb: "Norah Vincent wanted to know what life was really like for men. Many women have long been convinced that men have always had it better, in every way. To find out for herself if this was actually true, and to see where the common perception fell short, Norah did it: for eighteen months she became a guy.

"Following in the tradition of John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), Norah Vincent absorbed a cultural experience and reported back on what she observed incognito. With the help of a makeup artist, a trainer, and a Juilliard voice coach, she infiltrated spaces and situations women never see. For more than a year and a half she ventured into the world as her alter ego, Ned, with an ever-present five o'clock shadow, a crew cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 1/2 shoes -- a perfect disguise that allowed her to observe and participate in the world of men as an insider. ...

"With her buddies in the bowling league Norah enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie undetectable to an outsider. A stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut-wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed. She went to strip clubs, dated women hungry for love but disappointed by men, and was welcomed into all-male communities as hermetically sealed as a men's therapy group, and even a monastery. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah uses her intimate firsthand experience to explore the many mysteries of gender identity as well as who men are when women aren't around."

Table of Contents:
  1. Getting Started
  2. Friendship
  3. Sex
  4. Love
  5. Life
  6. Work
  7. Self
  8. Journey's End
My take: Perhaps the shortcomings of Self-Made Man are intrinsic to the material. The idea is intriguing: Can a woman pass as a man? For how long? In what settings? Where it falls short, though, is in Vincent's failure to break much new ground, to reveal anything shocking about male enclaves that wasn't accessible to the public before. This makes sense, when you think about it. The parallels to Black Like Me (which I haven't read) and Nickel and Dimed (which I have) overlook an important distinction: while most white people don't know what it's like to walk around in dark skin, and few middle- to upper-middle-class readers have had to support themselves on the jobs and wages of the working poor, most women, through their fathers, brothers, or male partners, have at least some intimate knowledge of men.

Probably my favorite part of the book was Vincent's first real undercover chapter, "Friendship," which chronicles her experience in a men's bowling league. I was particularly impressed here with her observations on class (again, a favorite soapbox of mine, and often an elephant in the room in discussions of gender roles). Recalling a night when the entire bowling alley grew silent as one bowler closed in on a perfect 300 score, she notes,
"So much of what happens emotionally between men isn't spoken aloud, and so the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn't said isn't there. But it is there, and when you're inside it, it's as if you're suddenly hearing sounds that only dogs can hear."
Later, after Ned comes clean with his teammates about his true identity, and finds them surprisingly nonplussed, she fesses up about her own less-than-generous initial expectations:
"I had condescended to them all along, even in my gracious surprise that they were somehow human. They had made that leap on my behalf without the benefit of suppressed snobbery. I have condescended to them still in these pages throughout, congratulating myself for stooping to receive their affections and dispense my own, for presuming to understand them. Class is inescapable in tone, and even a pseudointellectual will always sound like she thinks she's earning points in liberal heaven for shaking hands with the caveman or, worse, the noble savage. The most I can say is that they were far better men than I in that, and undoubtedly far worse or just as bad in ways that I would never and could never know. They made me welcome in their midst, and by so doing, they made me feel like a bit of a shithead, like an arrogant prick know-it-all. In a sense, they made me the subject of my own report. They bowled with irony after all.

"They made me look ridiculous to myself and they made me laugh about it. And for that I will always be grateful to them, because anybody who does that for you is a true and great friend."
Sadly, the following chapters don't quite live up to this one. "Sex," about Ned's foray into strip clubs, is depressing, sure, but not quite ground-breaking; Ivy League Stripper or (if you prefer fiction) Garden of Last Days are more compelling on this front. Likewise for the dating ("Love") chapter; as a gay woman, going undercover as a man to date (presumably) straight women, Vincent does have a unique perspective on the fluidity of gender and sexual orientation, but the subjects of male vs. female communication styles and bad dates from hell have already been covered extensively elsewhere.

All in all, an interesting collection of vignettes, and worth reading if you happen across it, but it's more entertaining than illuminating.

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