A woman dresses as a man and infiltrates masculinity.
Gender issues are one of the many sore topics of today, controversial and filled with vitriol. During these times a clear voice to slice through the rhetoric is most welcome. And what's better than the voice of a woman who disguised herself as a man for a year and a half in an effort to cross party lines?
Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man
, though written in 2006, has not lost its relevance. Norah is a lesbian and a self-described butch, so with help from her male and drag friends she was able to create a convincing disguise: Ned. She sought out places that were decidedly masculine and usually closed off not only from women, but from popular media in general: a bowling club, a shark door-to-door sales job, an all-male monastery, and a men's therapy group. I use quotations often because her book is immersion journalism and nothing else. She cites no statistics and has no overarching theme; it is simply a travelogue of her adventures as a man. Thus, what she says exactly is of most value.
Her acceptance of what she found was something that I, as a man, could appreciate: that being a man is hard. She said "It was hard being a guy. Really hard... In fact, that's the only way I can truthfully characterize my life as a guy. I didn't like it."
Most of the book labors on slowly, but value does come near the end of the book when Ned goes to the men's therapy group where they did activities such as drawing their heroes ' which revealed not idealized man-gods, but heroes who can fight away the hurt that their regular selves can't seem to. While there she hears men worrying, chiefly, about all of the expectations laid on them. They felt pressed to be everything at once: commanding, kind, forceful, gentle, understanding, and dictatorial. One very muscular man was there. Norah, incredulous that such a strong and handsome man could have any deep troubles, said "How does it feel to be in that body?" His response: "Objectified".
It was a response Norah never heard a man use about himself before. The man went on to explain how hurtful it was that everyone around him assumed he will probably physically assault them. People distanced themselves from him in day to day interaction out of fear, which scarred him. Norah pondered "Was this really any less insulting that presuming every blonde to be a bimbo?" She also wrote "Being the second sex imprisoned us, but it came with at least one sizable benefit. We didn't have to carry the world on our shoulders."
She had dated women as her male alter ego, and found that to be confounding (and I, admittedly, relished in her vexation). "They wanted me to in control, baroquely big and strong both in spirit and in body, but also tender and vulnerable at the same time, subservient to their whims and bunny soft... someone who knew his reduced place in the postfeminist world nonetheless. They held their presumed moral and sexual superiority over me and at times tried to manipulate me with it." She felt consistently pressed to be as stoic and tough-guy as possible, because everyone ' men, women, and children ' judged her masculinity. A woman she dated briefly had kept referring to Ned as "her gay boyfriend", even though Ned talked direct, strong, and had a constant five o' clock shadow. Ned just wasn't manly enough, so the woman felt it alright to refer to him in an emasculating manner.
To say that reading this as a man will be cathartic is an understatement. Norah laments with men that there is no way for them, as the prototypical oppressors, to legitimately complain about the pressures of being a man, which stuffs men into powder kegs of quasi-clandestine therapy groups and clubs, increasing the risk for their masculinity to get out of hand and brew misogynistic ideas. For instance, Norah appreciated the allowance women get in our society to express all of their emotions in full force, whereas men must be stoic at all times; she likened it to having a symphony as opposed to three notes on a keyboard. "...Guys get little more than bravado and rage. Forget doubt. Forget hurt. They take punches. They take care of business. And their intestines liquefy under the stress. I know mine did."
The book does well to stay balanced, and not, I think, at the cost of truth or blaming the victim. After the experiment Norah skipped back into womanhood and said "...I am: fortunate, proud, free and glad in every way to be a woman," while still maintaining that being a man has powerful difficulties that shouldn't be taken lightly. She writes that the current system of expectations is bad for both sexes and that women are equally guilty in perpetuating these problems. She however does not go into any sort of economic, political, psychological, or sociological detail, which may or may not be to the book's detriment.
Readers are left to wonder if her thoughts or conjectures pan out in truth, and what possible counterarguments may be. It would have helped the book's scope to see statistics or consensuses on the matter, but Ms. Vincent might have wanted to leave that out because it's overplayed: we all know the arguments and the statistics, but we don't know what it feels
The book is cathartic for men and informative for women who know little of the inner troubles of the masculine mind. It puts forth effort to be truthful and open, and the revelations are tempered and helpful to the discourse primarily because it is decidedly lacking in hatred.