Creative Destruction

May 16, 2006

Book Review: Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent

Filed under: Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 10:15 pm

I recently read Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent’s non-fiction book about passing as a man for a year. It was… okay. Lots of stuff about how men’s lives often suck, men are cut off from their emotional selves, how the pressure to be a man can be crushing, expecting to initiate dating rituals bites, etc.. I agree with that, to a great extent. Patriarchy has always hurt the large majority of men.

I was a bit disturbed by the New York Times review, which said:

But “Self-Made Man” turns out not to be what it threatens to be, a men-are-scum diatribe destined for best-seller status in the more militant alternative bookstores of Berkeley and Ann Arbor. Rather, it’s a thoughtful, diligent, entertaining piece of first-person investigative journalism.

Let’s ignore all the anti-feminist stereotypes in that paragraph. (Remember how “liberal” the Times is supposed to be?) What I can’t figure out is, why would anyone expect Norah Vincent – who is, on most matters, a conservative – to write a “men-are-scum diatribe”? Vincent’s stuff written before this book can hardly be described as anti-masculine (apart from Islamic masculinity, of course).

Some people have questioned the honesty of Vincent’s narrative (in order to protect her subjects’ privacy, Vincent changes names and identifiable details). I don’t think she’s lying about having dressed as a man, or having joined a bowling league, a monastery, a men’s retreat, and so on. But she gives the reader the impression that living as a man caused her to endorse and admire conventional gender roles for men. In reality, her views pre-drag seem pretty much the same as her views post-drag, although you wouldn’t know that from reading Self Made Man.

Plus, Vincent seems to believe that the men she reports on represent all of masculinity. But virtually all the men she describes are White, and all of them are straight. All of them are working-class (except perhaps the monks) and macho. Many of them – the monks, and the men in the men’s retreat – have committed to environments that make sex segregation (and the ideologies that justify sex segregation) a big deal. But nothing in Vincent’s narrative indicates that she has much awareness that this is a book about some men, rather than a book about Men.

I’m not saying the men in Self-Made Man aren’t fascinating characters – they are, and Vincent does a good job fleshing them out. But even though I’m a man, the men Vincent hung out with – men who visit strip clubs regularly and go on John Bly-style male retreats and have Glengarry Glen Ross jobs – are just as foreign to me as they were to Vincent. The gulf between Vincent and these men contains a lot besides the male/female gulf, but Vincent seems unaware of that, and as the book goes on she increasingly chalks up all the differences she sees to biological determinism.

From the Salon review of Self-Made Man:

It’s undoubtedly brave and noble that Vincent tried to cross class as well as gender boundaries, but as aware as she is of that issue on the bowling team, I think the former category is more important than she realizes. Beyond the agonizing dating chapter, she never tries to pass for the kind of straight man she might already know, an urban guy with bobo-style, liberal-arts values and inclinations. (For that matter, she also doesn’t try to be a gay man.) In that context, I don’t think being a man is half as hard as she thinks it is, and whatever one thinks about the biochemical basis of sex and gender, the performance of gender roles is a lot more fluid than she depicts.

My personal experience as a man may have no more general applicability than Ned’s, but, hey, I’ve been a guy much longer than he has. If the legacy of feminism has complicated certain things about being a heterosexual male, I’m pretty happy with that. Maybe men still don’t “open up” as readily as women do, but the intense emotional self-censorship Vincent describes is not ubiquitous or unanimous.

Despite these limits, Vincent’s book is certainly a fun read, and although the male problems she describes aren’t ubiquitous, they’re real for too many men and certainly worth addressing.

Vincent’s description of the emotionless, mean sex played out in strip clubs is particularly affecting, and repulsive. As an aside, before reading this book I had no idea that men are actually supposed to ejaculate inside their pants during lap dances. (At the risk of seeming naive, I really didn’t know what a lap dance was – TV had given me the impression that a lap dance was just like a stage dance, only much closer). Let me just say: ewwww!

But at the same time, because I don’t go to strip clubs, I have no way of judging if Vincent’s depiction of strip clubs is accurate in general, accurate just for some clubs, or wildly off base. The same problem applies for Vincent’s description of male life: what she writes may be accurate for some men, but it’s not what all men experience (certainly not all the time), and I’m not sure that Vincent understands that. By focusing so closely on men who themselves seem to completely buy into and try to live out stereotypical masculinity, while failing to acknowledge any other ways of living are possible for men, Vincent seems to suggest that no other approaches to manhood are biologically possible.

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9 Comments »

  1. As an aside, before reading this book I had no idea that men are actually supposed to ejaculate inside their pants during lap dances.

    OK, first: Ewww! Thank you for squicking.

    Second, that’s news to me. My impression has always been that strip clubs were there to let guys get worked up at seeing really hot women, and then they’d leave the club and have sex with the less-hot women they had access to (somtimes prostitutes, sometimes not).

    Methinks Vincent is over-generalizing (perhaps understandably) from the testimony of her new buddies.

    Comment by Robert — May 16, 2006 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  2. I used to go to strip clubs. Back in the day, I was young, dumb, and full of… Well, you get the idea.

    But I must say that I never squicked in my jock. My stamina’s a lot better than that.

    This is the Y-Chromosome of OC, signing off. We now return to our regularly scheduled parenthetical comments. (Oh great. NOW I can talk… Sheeesh.)

    Comment by Off Colfax — May 16, 2006 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  3. I wonder what Norah Vincent’s background is. If she was a women’s studies major, I’d expect her to avoid the traps you’ve identified and write a more academically balanced and insightful account. If she’s was communications major turned journalist turned author, I’d expect a fairly slipshod approach aimed at selling copies through exageration and thoughtless baiting of stereotypes.

    Comment by Brutus — May 16, 2006 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

  4. From guys I know who get lap dances regularly, getting off in your pants is not really the goal. Yes, it’s paying for dry-humping, but they aren’t interested in getting that far. (For one thing, you have to go clean up and then what’s the point in staying in the bar?)

    Comment by mythago — May 17, 2006 @ 12:34 am | Reply

  5. These things are so silly. Real studies on these things can be done in a way that yields information which can actually be used for the sake of discussion.

    These documentaries or non-fiction pieces which cast the author as the main character serve no other purpose than to further one person’s career, and give ammunition to some ideological cannon or other.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 17, 2006 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  6. Brutus, Norah Vincent is a pundit who markets herself as a socially conservative lesbian.

    Comment by mythago — May 19, 2006 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  7. If I can point out, getting a guy off during a lap dance isn’t really in the stripper’s best interests, either — once they’ve blown their wad, you’re not getting any more money off of them. You want to keep them erect and paying for more, thinking they’re *going* to get to have an orgasm, and trying hard not to let them.

    Which is really, when you think about it, far more fucked up than just ejaculating in your pants.

    Comment by Cera — February 15, 2008 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

  8. I think it was reasonably clear that the establishments in question were pretty low rent – Cera is quite correct, a lot of strippers / dancers are selling the promise of orgasms more than the fact, but in low end places like that, you tend to get women who aren’t necessarily the media stereotype of beauty, and they maybe have to go the extra mile for their money. It’s simple economics really, there’s a definite cap on what they can expect to earn from any given dance. Not for them the porn star / stripper experience of a constant shower of $100 bills for making their audience believe that they are in their own personal porn film for a few minutes. They give what they give, they get what they get, and the transaction is complete. It’s pretty Darwinian.

    As a sidebar, I know a couple of women who have worked as strippers in a variety of places, and the “apparent class” of any given joint is not necessarily a guide to the rules inside, but in general, the law not withstanding, at the low end of the scale, strip joints are often (not always) little more than thinly veiled prostitution (pun intended). The same is also true of some extremely high priced places, and some low end joints are very stict on touching etc. It’s always a 3-way negotiation between management, the employees and the patrons, and in the end a very wide spectrum of tastes is catered for (mostly for the patrons, but to a more limited extent the workers too).

    If a woman is stereotypically desirable, and willing to do whatever brings the best price, she can make a great deal of money, very quickly, but in the right place with the right crowd it can be a job you wouldn’t be ashamed to tell your Church-3-times-a-week, grey-haired parents about.

    I’m more inclined to applaud a woman for not blindly assuming she knows all there is to know about being a man, because she is a woman, and having ovaries is just sooooo much harder than any teste bearer could *ever* realise, and actually having the courage to 1) try out life as a man, 2) stick with it as she did, and 3) have the intellectual honesty to write about the positives of being perceived as male, as well as the negatives. She came with an open mind, and discovered a great deal which was new to her, even if it was not new to you.

    She expected to walk into a world of unbridled privelege, and whilst some expectations were upheld (the ability to walk down the street without constant scrutiny), others were not (heterosexual women can be incredibly cruel / thoughtless / demeaning / demanding / confusing / etc). She notes that the same white, working class guys who schemed to visit titty bars during their ski holiday spoke with reverence about their wives – hardly the rapist-oppressors of some feminist dogma, whilst still being far from perfect.

    Certainly, the scope of the experiment contains many limitations as regards class, colour etc, but in her defence I’d say that you have to recognise the limitations of doing this task alone. Whilst she was very successful at passing as a straight white man, I can see where she might have considerable trouble passing as a gay black man, for instance.

    Interestingly, that does throw up the corollary that the default in society is still the straight white man, although she does point out that the default path is not always as gilded as some would like to believe

    Comment by Anon — June 29, 2010 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

  9. […] But at the same time, because I don’t go to strip clubs, I have no way of judging if Vincent’s depiction of strip clubs is accurate in general, accurate just for some clubs, or wildly off base. The same problem applies for Vincent’s description of male life: what she writes may be accurate for some men, but it’s not what all men experience (certainly not all the time), and I’m not sure that Vincent understands that. By focusing so closely on men who themselves seem to completely buy into and try to live out stereotypical masculinity, while failing to acknowledge any other ways of living are possible for men, Vincent seems to suggest that no other approaches to manhood are biologically possible. * * *PLEASE NOTE* * * My threads on “Alas” are heavily moderated. If you’d like to avoid that, you might prefer to leave a comment on the identical post at Creative Destruction. […]

    Pingback by Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent | Alas, a Blog — December 1, 2011 @ 8:28 am | Reply


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