Book Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

Imagine that you posed as the opposite sex for a year and a half.  You’re still the same sex, but your outward appearances are changed through makeup and different clothing so that you look like the opposite sex.  Now imagine that you can infiltrate in various groups, just so that you can see how this opposite sex functions.  Norah Vincent does just that. It was an odd journey, but it was still interested.

Vincent is a woman and she dresses and acts like a male.  She makes a beard with professional makeup, she buys new clothing, and she goes to a voice actor in order to talk like a man.  She takes on a new identity named “Ned” and she goes into male dominated groups to see how the men act.  Her book is divided into various categories:

Friendship.  “Ned” decides to join a bowling league.  She sees how the men act around each other.  It’s typical: they tell dirty jokes and they make fun of how they bowl.  However, Vincent picks up a few things that I never really thought about as a man.  She shook hands with the members of the bowling league and this handshake felt warm.  It was as if to say, “you’re included in our group.”  She never felt that when a women shook her hand.  I never thought of it like that.  I just always thought of shaking hands as a form of greeting.

However, the men tell the jokes as a form of bonding.  In one story, a man’s wife has cancer and the way he deals with it is by telling jokes.  This is how men bond, Vincent thought.  When it comes to it, the men judged each other on what they did.  They really didn’t have a concern about who you are as a person.  They seemed to be practical like that.  When it came to jokes, everyone was included, including themselves.  It’s not as if they’re against these certain groups, it’s just that jokes are a way to form a bond.  Everyone is the butt of jokes.

With bowling, Vincent was surprised that the men helped her on her technique.  Even the opposing team helped her out with that.  It’s another form of bonding.  Women, it seems, are more competitive to sports then men.  When men compete, they do it for fun.  When women compete, they seriously want to beat you.

Sex. Because Ned really wasn’t a guy, the closest thing that “he” could do was watch it and hopefully gain the experience vicariously.  Thus, a strip club that included illegal (?) sex shows.  As Ned was watching the women dancing and grinding up against the men, including Ned, Vincent thought that this seemed fake.  In fact, it seemed too fake.  The women there had the exact perfect proportions in terms of their bodies and Vincent didn’t gain the attraction from it.  Now, Norah Vincent is a lesbian so she is attracted to women, but Vincent couldn’t see what the big deal was.  As Ned is looking around, he sees the men and most of them are either bored or excited.  It seems that the bored ones are so used to this that the only way to get them more excited is to up the ante.  In this case, we would assume the women lose because she has to be more objectified and do more risky activities.  But Ned notices that both sides lose.  The men who regularly went to these clubs were looking for some emotional outlet but this was the closest approximation to do so.  Yet, they fully couldn’t let themselves go.

Love. Ned decides to go on a few dates and see how the dating world was as a man.  From the bat, Ned gets rejected a lot.  Rejection sucks.  When he is able to go on a few dates, he notices that the women act to Ned differently than if it was Norah.  The women are always on the defensive.  It’s as if they have this attitude that “men are guilty until proven innocent.”  It really takes a toll on Ned that at the end of this experience, he starts to gain some misogynistic attitudes and really starts to loathe women in general.  But at the same time, we often think that men are free to do whatever they want, but women are stuck in this virgin/whore false dilemma.  Ned starts to notice that men aren’t exactly free.  Men must live up to the warrior/minstrel false dilemma from what society imposes onto them as well.  You’re either a lover or a fighter.  Along the way, Ned notices some faux pas: he listens to much, he makes too much eye contact, he writes lengthy.

Life. Ned decides to join a Catholic monastery and live with some monks.  He wants to get a feel of how the men can live with each other without women being around.  The monks have a simple life.  But the way they live out their lives seems to have this rationalistic outlook of life.  You do things a certain way in a certain order.  Their crafts are put together nicely and being emotional is something to get away from.  In fact, anything that has to do with the body is irrational.  Most join the order because they saw life with another person as unbearable.  They preferred the company of men because (a) it gets rid of loneliness, and (b) having a wife still fulfills obligations whereas having men around doesn’t.  Indeed, these men are so rational that when Ned reveals himself to actually be Norah.  Some of the men didn’t change their demeanor in a huge way.  In the previous examples, everyone else did.  Sorry I can’t say much in this section.  I actually found this section a bit boring.

Work. It’s all about competition, getting pussy, scoring, telling the dirtiest jokes you can think of, and racing yourself up to the top.  Ned joins a team where it’s full-out competition by selling coupon books.  Ned joins up a team and the team is doing the best they can, but they’re very cut-throat when it comes to competition.  Music is always blaring in order to encourage the employees for doing a good job.  Every person is the company isn’t your friend (although they say they are), but it comes down to a Machiavellian scheme where you take advantage of everything.  (This part really tore me up because it seemed to contradict her chapter on friends.  But then again, I guess in work, Machiavelli is your philosopher, and when it comes to true friendship, you use Aristotle.)  If no one buys the book, everyone makes it a big deal.  It’s as if you have to walk the hall of shame because you didn’t put enough effort into it where it may have been something as simple as perhaps the people OUT THERE didn’t want to buy the product.

Self. There’s a retreat for men only.  It’s a retreat where men can be real men without the social conventions stopping them from being their true selves.  Men actually want to display emotions, but not feminine emotions.  However, society has told them that they aren’t supposed to do that.  Ned decides to join this retreat.  There Ned meets people who have a different exterior than what they have on the inside.  There’s someone there who looks tough, mean, and has a body-builder physique.  But he’s very sensitive and he has emotional breakdowns all the time because society makes him conform to the idea of being a “tough man.”  The men there draw pictures of their heroes and I wasn’t exactly sure what the point of that exercise was.  But most of the complaints dealt with the men who had a hard day at work, but then they were expected to be the Mr. Fix-It man around the house.  The men get tired of having all of these responsibilities.

All in all in was an interesting read.  But I have one problem: Vincent seems to go the extremes in order to find out male culture.  I don’t know about you, but when I think of male friendship, I don’t think of a bowling league.  I simply think of my friends and I in someone’s living room just simply relaxing and discussing life.  We bullshit around but I doubt joining a league would be an adequate aspect of male bonding.  In sex, Vincent says that she went to the seediest strip club she could find.  I don’t know many males who go to the seediest strip clubs.  Again, in terms of love, life, work and the self.  I honestly don’t know many males who gets involved in a monastery, a job that’s purely on commission, and retreats to discover your manhood.  Thus, it seems that Vincent is saying this is how males are when her sample is on the fringes of what males actually do.  Some of the males I read about seems so far-fetched that I can’t recognize me or my male friends in any of them.

To her credit, she does bring up some interesting tidbits that I never thought of as a male.  Her discussion about handshakes was what I found the most fascinating out of the whole book.  I never really thought about handshakes as a way of “including” someone.  It’s perhaps worth reading once but if you had the time.  She’s states that in the end it was truly hard being a guy and she was glad to hang up Ned.  Her overall message is clear: females have it harder than males, but don’t automatically think that males have it easy.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

  1. thekillerj says:

    Good review man. You have my interest. Let me borrow that!

  2. shaunmiller says:

    I’m listening to an audiobook of Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. If you want, I can put it on a CD or something so you can listen to it. It’s actually pretty good and persuasive. If I find some other good books, I’ll send them your way.

    By the way, what did you think of the Peter Singer book? I’m curious to know.

  3. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2009 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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