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.