Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man is Norah Vincent’s true account of how she managed to infiltrate the secret lives of men as an insider. I say infiltrate, because in order to accomplish this ambitious task, she had to actually take on a male persona whom she named Ned. She learned to look, walk and talk like a man and as Ned she participated in a series of activities that she felt embodied the masculine experience. The book is divided up into chapters, with each one devoted to a different pursuit. In one chapter, Ned joined a bowling league, in another he went to strip clubs. Ned also spent time in a monastery, he dated and he worked a high-pressure, comission-based sales job. One of the more interesting chapters came at the end, in which he joins a men’s group inspired by Robert Bly’s Iron John.

I have to admit that I almost didn’t finish this book. It wasn’t that it didn’t have its excellent moments or redeeming qualities or that I didn’t learn a lot. On the contrary, it got me thinking about gender in a new way. Well, not an entirely new way, but it got me thinking nonetheless.

Throughout the book Vincent openly discusses how difficult it was to be getting so close to these men all on the basis of a lie. She agonizes over the deception and talks about her discomfort at various points. This is perfectly understandable. There is something heavy and burdensome about looking people in the face and presenting something that is completely false. Yet, I got the impression as I was reading that she hasn’t quite processed all of the emotions surrounding her behavior yet and she seemed to bring that unresolved guilt into her writing. So much of the book was painted with an apology to these men and I felt she overcompensated for her actions by always portraying a sensitive picture of these men and that she sometimes went a bit too far in her understanding. Of course, I say that out loud or write it down on paper and I am instantly aware of how jerky that sounds. Clearly her writing brought out many of my own personal reactions.

I realize that she got to know these men on a much more personal level than she ever could have done as a woman, but at times it felt as if she were portraying them all in the same light, drawing sweeping conclusions and generalizations based on the few groups she interacted with. Frankly, I wanted more of them and less of Ned. Her ultimate conclusion that they are victims of the patriarchy too is nothing new — we know this, it has been said again and again. So it was a little redundant, sometimes overly sentimental and no matter whether she realizes it or not — still the observations of a woman looking into a group of men. And in fairness, she often stated that she could feel her responses as a woman and knew that this was not what she was supposed to be saying or doing as a man.

Her writing style was probably the most distracting element of all. It came across as part Sex and the City and part op-ed “reporting.” She drew her own conclusions and wrote about them. It was all very obvious and in your face and attempts to stylize her writing and make it more “literary” fell a bit flat. My personal preference is to be given the facts — obviously they will always be “the facts” as seen through the eyes of the author, but I like to be given a little more credit than that and left to draw my own conclusions. This did not happen with this book. I was not surprised to read that she does a lot of writing for newspapers. I don’t know if she intended for this to be some grand social commentary, but it wasn’t that grand and the writing was only so-so.

Here is what was valuable about the book. It did make me stop and think. And not just me either. Other people, specifically other woment that I spoke with who read it had whole epiphanies about men and new insights into their own relationships with them. My favorite one came from my dear friend Juno who said, when she got done reading it she felt she couldn’t just dismiss the behavior of men anymore that she had to give them the space to have their own emotional response and that she had to recognize that it was valid on some level — even if it was something she couldn’t understand or relate to, it didn’t mean there was no validity to it.

Also, it was, and I am aware of the irony as I write it, honest. Her take on the dating scene in particular was fascinating. The expectations Ned encountered, the hostility and bitterness, these are all things I have observed in women I have known (women who are genuinely surprised by their inability to attract a nice, stable mate). She talked about how much of the pressure in the dating scenario is still laid on the doorstep of men — making the first move, asking for the date, etc. Not to mention the constant rejection and sense of being on the outside. This chapter alone was worth reading through the book. Of course, as my sweetie pointed out, she also fails to mention that the women she is talking about are the kind of women who would be attracted and drawn to a man like Ned, so it is hardly an exhaustive or comprehensive look at dating, but it is an interesting and realistic one from its own corner of the world.

I think that I have sort of a knee-jerk reaction to some of what I see as hubris in feeling that she can understand what it feels like to be a man just because she dressed up like one and became “one of the boys.” As I mentioned before, I’m not sure she is entirely done processing her experiences and so the book at times feels a bit half-baked and not quite done. I never felt that in all her observations she truly understood that her conclusions were all still filtered through her woman’s brain. She certainly came closer to penetrating the veil of gender than many of us do, but nevertheless was always in her woman’s body looking out on these men. And let’s not forget how weighted down the deception left her. It ate away at her with unrelenting consequences.

Over all, I’m glad I read it. I do feel that I gained a tremendous amount of insight — not so much from her observations, but more from my own emotional reactions to the content. Throughout the book, her style of writing was not my cup of tea, mostly because I don’t think it was particularly great or artful and the older I get, the more picky I am about that. Particularly since there are so many non-fiction books out there that are written so well. But it clearly wasn’t meant to be great literature of any kind and she seemed to be concerned mostly with getting some kind of a message across. And in that, she accomplished her task.

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6 Responses to Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

  1. kaizerin says:

    I have been struggling to frame my response to this, because while it’s an interesting notion, that there’s a secret world of men we can sneak into and spy on, it’s also annoying me, the implication that men (all men) are something other, something different from women (all women), something SO different you’ll never get it unless you ‘are’ one of them for a while. Horse hockey, as my dear departed granny would say.

    I think about the men closest to me, and I guess I don’t believe there’s anything more I could learn about them by pretending to be one of them. In fact, I think the whole range of them would be pretty offended if I started approaching them from a “Me Jane, You Tarzan” perspective—it would be a step backwards in the relationship, for sure, because we pretty much operate on the “I’m a person, you’re a person” level. Differences in experience and outlook caused by gender inform the conversation—sometimes ARE the conversation—as much as differences in urban/rural upbringings, education level, etc., do. I don’t think I’m being naïve about how open my closest male friends are with me, but they all read this blog, so perhaps they’ll pipe and tell me if my femaleness makes them hold back?

    Now of course, my approach to gender in general is pretty flexible, and so is that of the men I tend to befriend. Ain’t none of us too hung up on our identities as males and females, so maybe it’s really different for people who get their relational notions from sitcoms (“He’s big and dumb! She’s small and sass-ay! Watch them completely fail to communicate on any level!” Blechh!!) I always tell my boyfriend that he’s also my best girlfriend, because he’s great to talk to and go shopping with and sets a mean tea tray and is just, generally, a girl’s best friend. If I weren’t dating him, I’d be one of the vast legions of his devoted female friends (which is exactly what I was, until six years ago.)

    This morning, I recalled a conversation I had years ago with a good male friend. I said that it was odd, my notions of “MEN” and my experiences of actual men were wildly divergent. I had all these prejudiced opinions that said men were more aggressive and emotionally stunted and less considerate and thoughtful than women, but when I looked at the actual men I knew, they were lovely, sensitive, emotionally-connected, brilliant and kind beings. So why did I think the men “out there” were all brutes, when the all the men “in here” were so wonderful? Was I just lucky in meeting good men? He said, “Oh, the brutes are out there. What you don’t realize is, they see you coming and know they have no chance of pulling any crap with you, and they just go right on by. The men who approach you are the ones who aren’t interested in playing those games in the first place.” I’d never been told before that I have a “Keep on Walking, Asshole” sign before, but I was glad hear it. And it goes both ways—as Corvus pointed out, “Ned” was getting the kind of women attracted to what he was putting out. Maybe he needed to work on his signage?

    My overriding response to this whole notion was, yes, there might be men about whom I could learn more if I pretended to be a man, but why would I care to know it, or them? I mean, if we can’t just be people with each other, what’s the point?

  2. CountessZ says:

    I hear you, Kai. While the men (and women) I tend to associate with seem to transcend their gender on some level, I do think that our societal gender training informs our approach to the world much more than we realize. I also think it is the height of arrogance for the author to assume that because she could dress up like a guy and pretend to be one, that she could get the whole guy experience. And to be fair, I think she pretty much came to the same conclustion.

    But the guy/girl differences aren’t just the tragic result of people watching stupid sitcoms with flat, one-dimensional gender representations, it comes from people who watch their parents and their grandparents and their friends’ parents and their relatives and teachers and bosses and so forth model these roles and behaviors, which they then try to emulate. And while it may not affect your social circle (though I expect it does to some extent — after all, we work in environments where these roles are played out, we have family members who are deeply entrenched in these roles, we watch media that is affected by it and so on and so forth), I think that her curiosity after observing that many men seem to go through the world with a different approach and experience than women engendered (no pun intended) in her some desire to know why. I guess as a feminist I have to give her some credit for wanting to have some understanding of the ways in which the patriarchy hurts men as well.

    And I guess in a way, I feel that she was trying to learn how to just be people with these men by developing a deeper understanding of what they went through in their lives and how they learned to relate to each other, to women and the world around them. As much as I would like to some days just take all the people I like and start a separate country where fascists aren’t president and bigoted constitutional amendments aren’t being proposed, in practice I wouldn’t do it. Seriously. So you and I have people in our lives, men and women, who just interact with us as people. What about the others that don’t have a clue how to do that? I personally want to see things change, because it benefits us all and I think change starts with understanding. And I truly believe that was her intent — just to gain a little understanding. I don’t, however, think that lying and/or deception is the way to go about that and there is where my problem with the book lies. Want to learn about men? Talk to them — any of them. Of course, you might need to build a relationship with them, develop some trust, but overall, nothing beats a good dialogue.

  3. Ramona the Opinionated says:

    Oh, little one, you would be surprised. Have you had the opportunity to be the little mouse in the corner when men were talking?
    There is so definitely a difference between the way men and women communicate – men-to-men, men-to-women.
    Perhaps your experiences, i.e. choice of men friends, has made a difference in your adult life. Perhaps the generational difference makes me see this topic differently? I’m sure that is part of it…..
    Go back to your original concepts of men as the aggressor, emotionally stunted, inconsiderate, thoughtless blankety blanks. Do you know where that came from? Was it personal experience or something you learned from your same sex parent?
    This is one book I will not read. I did see some interviews with the author and was not impressed.
    I concur with your final paragraph; why would you want to pretend being a man just to learn more about how to beat your chest?

  4. kaizerin says:

    Oh, I’m sorry, I misspoke. I meant to say, “Thank the Goddess we finally got a spy behind their lines and can find out what they’re up to! Was she able to sneak out the top-secret plans to repeal the 19th Amendment? That’s what those bastards up to in there, isn’t it? Sisterhood Forever! Fight the Power!”

    By which I mean to say, all kidding aside, I question the productivity, gender-relations-wise, of treating men like an enemy encampment to be infiltrated. Or as a monolithic entity we can draw conclusions about after observing a select few of them. I know I’d be pissed as hell if some guy put on a dress and spent a bunch of time with stereotypically “female” groups and then thought he knew something about my life experience.

  5. CountessZ says:

    Just for the sake of clarity, especially since reading back over my original post I now realize it wasn’t very clear, I did use the phrase “secret lives of men” a little bit tongue in cheek and the word “infiltrate” was entirely my own and very much along the same lines (perhaps irony doesn’t become me?). Also, let me clarify, because I feel like many of my comments sound more like a defense — I didn’t really care for this book. I didn’t think it was groundbreaking or wonderful or well written. I too question the wisdom and productivity of the venture. It was just an interesting read — not so much because of what the conclusions she drew said about men, but because of what they said about the author and her perception of men, women and our relationships with one another.

    Looking back on it all, that was really what I walked away from the book still thinking about. I also do want to add that based on my reading of the book, I don’t think she would say she was drawing conclusions about all men, but more that she hoped she would have insight into some aspects of the male experience. There was a time where my feminist commitment would have been incensed had a man attempted to say they understood anything about what it was like to be a woman in this world, but those days are in the past. Perhaps the conclusions drawn would have been ridiculous or even incorrect, but the attempt to understand is a point of connection. And for the most part, interestingly enough, that is how the men and women she revealed herself to responded. The post-revelatory conversations were the most interesting.

  6. kaizerin says:

    It sounds like, much as often happens with travel, she learned more about where she was coming from than about the ‘place’ she was visiting. And there is value in that.

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