Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

I have been intrigued with the concept of this book ever since it came out, and I recently ran across it in a used bookstore, and happily started it the next day. It's very interesting that Norah would not just dress but really try to impersonate a man to see what life is like on the other side. Luckily she's tall (for a woman, although she felt like a small man), and she worked out before the project with the project in mind, so she worked out her shoulders and lats a lot to try to get broader. I found it interesting that smooth facial skin is a very female trait as that hadn't occurred to me before. The prep work she did (figuring out how to bind her breasts, how to create fake stubble) was fascinating. And then the experiment began!

Like a sociologist would, she decided on topics that would demonstrate the largest range of male experiences, from friendships to dating to work, and the chapters are divided up as such. Instead of just living as a male and seeing how life was, she purposefully searched out these situations and environments, and instigated relationships to force the issue. Sometimes she eventually came out to people as a woman (not a transvestite, although she is a lesbian) doing a research project, but not always. She didn't have a hard and fast rule about that but instead played it by ear. To me the most intriguing chapters were the ones where she stayed in a monastery (as a guest, not pretending to be a monk, just pretending to be a male visitor), and where she joined a men's movement group. Honestly, I didn't realize those existed anymore - so that section was also interesting to find out about those groups at all.

Personally, I have always said that I am not a feminist - I am a humanist. I think all people should be treated equally, regardless of gender. And while that means I'll get pretty miffed if a male asks if I need help carrying a 10 pound box, it also means I'll be annoyed if I see a male drop a door in another male's face instead of holding it open. I hold doors for both genders equally, and men are always effusive in their thanks, implying they've never before experienced a woman holding a door open for them, which is sad. Just like I don't like to vacuum, I know not all men like to do yard work, and I don't expect them to. But Vincent points out beautifully in her book that men's lives in this era are overly difficult. We expect them to be so many things, most of which are diametrically opposed. We want them to be tough, but sensitive. Strong, but caring. Protective, but emotionally available. We want them to do the yard work AND the vacuuming and be happy about it. Most men are confused. Not to mention, they didn't get any direction as children on how to accomplish any of this. Most of the men she encountered had difficult or nonexistent relationships with their fathers, which didn't help. She found some hazing, and she found it actually had some reasoning behind it - for teaching (kids mostly) appropriate behavior and social cues.

At the very end, she has a bit of a breakdown - inevitable after trying to live 2 lives according to her therapist (her second book is about checking herself into a mental hospital). She is very honest about it and it does certainly help everything ring true. And in reviewing what she's learned she's found she doesn't interact with men very differently. There were three traits she enjoyed and has incorporated into her own life, such as confidence. But otherwise, she interestingly found that this experiment has made her more feminine (she was described previously of being a rather butch female). She is very sympathetic to men's plights, and she does say next time she encounters a man in pain she will repress her innate desire to mother and pet him as she now knows that's not what men want and it's not helpful. But that's about the only way she's going to act differently. But she will always be much more attuned to gender roles and cues than everyone else, and this book really made me think. It was truly fascinating, and I applaud Ms. Vincent's effort in going through such a difficult ordeal - physically and mentally - to enlighten us all.


Sadako said...

I've heard about this book but never got around to reading it...it sounds really interesting, though.

Kate said...

I'm glad you liked this book - it's one of my favorite. I really need to read her second one, but it seems like every time I look for it at a bookstore they don't have a copy... and then I forget about it again.

I found it interesting that she points out all the contradictory things we expect from men.

Great writing!

Kate said...

Oh - I also wanted to let you know that I linked this post in my Friday Five this week!

Jeane said...

I've been curious about this book, so it was nice to read more about it. I had no idea that she suffered a breakdown at the end of the experiment. Are you going to read her second book, too?