Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Self-Made Man

I finished reading Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent, a former columnist for the L.A. Times who quit her job to write this fascinating book. Vincent is a lesbian who grew up a tomboy and thought it might be fun to write a book on what it would be like to go undercover and live as a man. She felt she was in a good position to pull it off, and she did so successfully. For a period of eighteen months as "Ned" she joined a bowling league, dated women, went to strip clubs, worked in sales, and even lived in a monastery for her research.

She did not do this as a transsexual (someone who believes he is a man trapped in a woman's body), or as a cross-dresser (someone who enjoys dressing as a man). Rather she had to endure tremendous psychological and emotional stress to keep up the act, disguising her speech, mannerisms, feelings and body language (not to mention her appearance) to complete her transformation as Ned. Aware of the common feminist complaint that men have a cushier lot in life than women, she was eager to experience male life for herself and report back with her findings. She writes:
At the beginning of the project I remember thinking that living as a man and having access to a man's world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside. I expected everything to be big and out in the open, the real deal live and three feet from my face, instead of seen through a glass darkly.

Yet what she discovered completely surprised her. Instead of living large once she was freed from the social expectations of femaleness, as a male she felt she encountered only a different type of repression, a different set of problems. She learned that the only socially acceptable emotion Ned was allowed to express was anger ("As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range"). She found that women were immediately hostile to Ned on the first date ("'Pass my test and then we'll see if you're worthy of me' was the implicit message coming across the table at me. And this from women who had demonstrably little to offer"). Among men Ned was always on guard against doing anything that might get him labeled a "fag."
Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. White manhood in America isn't the standard anymore by which women and all other minorities are being measured and found wanting, or at least it doesn't feel that way from the inside. It's just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.

The entire book, in fact, could be summed up as a politically incorrect critique of radical, anti-male feminism. And no one is in a better position to pull it off with greater credibility than this free-thinking lesbian intellectual. Norah Vincent's message to women is: Men aren't what you think. Her message to men is: You have it harder than people know. Far from thinking that the line between male and female can be obliterated into some sort of androgynous human existence, her experience of having lived as Ned brings her to quite the opposite conclusion:
I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can't help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in a parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects.

As a woman and a lesbian, Vincent can get away with raising issues no conservative male could without sounding reactionary, sexist and defensive. And, of course, the irony is that by run-of-the-mill conservative standards, when it comes to dealing with feminist viewpoints on sex and gender issues, a lesbian is automatically relegated to the enemy camp.

Yet not only did Vincent use her lesbian angle on life to her advantage in doing the research, coming to some surprisingly conservative conclusions, but she pulled it off at tremendous personal cost. The strain of maintaining her male identity for eighteen months and shutting off her female self resulted in a breakdown that landed her for a few days in a mental hospital. The fact that she could, in the end, recover from her ordeal and write such a winsome and compelling account is a testimony to her personal strength, as well as her compassion and commitment in trying to understand both sides of the male-female divide. Considering her book is not likely to be embraced by either conservative traditionalists or liberal feminists, she has paid quite a price. I hope she gets the credit and recognition she deserves.