Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Self Made Man, by Norah Vincent

This book is about a lesbian who successfully impersonates a man and details her experiences, throwing light on the differences of the sexes. It's a good fast read and has moments of exceptional clarity, like when the author postulates that men embrace the concept of brotherhood much better than women and sisterhood: she argues that men have a greater tendency to be sincerely happy for each other, without those feelings being tinged with jealousy, as they are in women. I'm not sure if I agree with this statement, but it's certainly hard to launch an argument - has any other woman been taken for and treated like a man? I'd say Norah has a lock on this one.

For a feminist lesbian, Vincent is surprisingly (and I thought at times almost too) compassionate towards men. Her pity for them in the chapters titled "Sex" (her experiences at strip clubs) and "Love" (her experiences dating women) is sometimes a bit too cloying and condescending. (Ironically, it reminded me of the way my father feels about gays and lesbians - "I just feel so sorry for them, poor people, I'd never wish that on anyone...".)

The "Work" chapter illuminated the overwhelming pressure men feel to succeed in their jobs. Ned (the author's man name) goes to work as a door-to-door salesman, and this inevitably reminded me of a dark patch in my own employment history when I worked for Cutco one summer selling expensive cutlery sets door-to-door. Me and Ned's jobs shared the same cultish environment, the same overstated masculine carrot of "if you work hard you'll get to drive a Mercedes like me" aspect, (even though my boss was a young petite Indian girl and it was obvious to anyone who took their eyes off the script long enough to have independent thoughts that her Daddy had bought her the Benz). Even so, while I worked at Cutco it became an important part of my identity to prove my prowess as a salesman. Also, I've found that I used some of the same male genitalia themed figures of speech to psych myself up for intimidating office tasks that Vincent's prototypical men use in this chapter. "C'mon, show your balls," I tell myself before I phone someone I have a professional crush on. "No one has any balls!" I say when no offers come in on a short story collection or literary drug novella I'm shopping. "Don't shoot your load all at once," I advise a co-worker who, in my opinion, is sending a project out to too many places at once. I know these phrases are ridiculous when I say them, and that, in part, is why I say them. I suppose I'm being one of Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs trying to join the never ending frat party of the male experience (or at least the males who use these types of phrases without irony).

"Ned's" experiences in a monestary and a men's therapy group struck me as a bit cliched, but alas, cliches exist for a reason, and I never doubted the veracity of these experiences.

Low point #1: Norah's take on strip clubs struck me as a tad biased - she presents them as cesspools of masculine depression and shame. Perhaps this is because she's apparently only visited a few small dilapidated rural outposts with warehouse-like interiors, old beer gutted men with filthy fingernails, and washed up vericose veined stippers. Since she is billing herself as a strip club expert, and enlightening all us naive women who have never, ever been, couldn't she have gone somewhere where the strippers and clientell were somewhat attractive? Or at the very least somewhere that didn't so strongly channel the adjective "weathered?" I agree that strip clubs may not be as tittilating as their advertisements, (in my experience the men's interest is usually split 50/50 between the strippers and the sports channel), but Norah's take is just as misleading.

Low point #2: Norah's class conciousness eventually started to wear on me. I suppose she is just being honest, but she frequently reminds us that as a college educated New Yorker it's a real culture shock for her to go bowling or sell coupons door-to-door. I, too, consider myself a college educated New Yorker, but somehow I don't consider it such an imaginative leap to identify with the rest of the country.

Overall, Self Made Man is very smoothly and nicely written, . It's eye-opening, and saves most of the thoughtful introspection for the last chapter. I recommend it, but with limited enthusiasm.

Favorite excerpt: "I had thought that by being a guy I would get to do all the things I didn't get to do as a woman, things I'd always envied about boyhood when I was a child: the perceived freedoms of being unafraid in the world, stamping around loudly with my legs apart. But when it actually came to the business of being Ned I rarely felt free at all. For from being loose, I found myself clamping down instead.I curtailed everything: my laugh, my word choice, my gestures, my expressions. Spontaneity went out the window, replaced by terseness, dissimulation and control. I hardened and denied to the point of almost ossification."

Another good one: "I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can't help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects."

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