Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: Self-Made Man

So last night in my infinite boredom I decided to go to my local library for something to do. Yes, that's right. I went to the library to hang out. 

Not to knock it, because I love my local library. Though I prefer to hang out at Barnes & Noble because of the newness of the books and bigger selection, I can't walk into the place without dropping $100+ on books I really don't need. Since my husband isn't here to moderate my spending, I decided to go where the books are free. 

I found a title that I have been eyeing for awhile on amazon.com: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent.
I immediately jumped in upon returning home and ended up finishing it in a single sitting. I am now pleased to recommend this book to all of you who are interested in issues of gender, but who would prefer to stay away from the scientific (or not-so-scientific) side of things. 

Norah Vincent is a journalist who decided to spend a year and a half living the life of a man. She is not transgender or transexual. She is a lesbian, which gave her a unique point of view for telling this story because she was able to truly get inside the life of a heterosexual male. 

I say get inside the "life" rather than get inside the "head" of men, because most of her story deals with how other people treat men. It would have been impossible for her to truly think and feel as a man does without the social cues around her. In other words, when she came home at night she was still a woman. (For the most part, but I'll get to that.)

Her journey was not as simple as taking on a male persona in her own daily life. She divided her experiment into several parts with the purpose of experiencing male culture as much as possible. She joined an all-male bowling league, frequented strip clubs, dated women, got a job in testosterone-fueled hardcore sales, spent some time living in a Catholic monastery, and even joined a men's support group and joined them on one of their retreats. The chapters of the book are split up according to each phase she experienced. 

I'd like to share some quotes with you from this book - ones that I thought were interesting, thought-provoking, and that I thought you would feel the same way about.

This first one is particularly relevant for the discussion that has been going on over at several blogs on the topic of the male gaze - see PhysioProf, DrugMonkey, SciCurious and others if you don't know what I'm talking about. 

Talking about the first night she ever dressed in drag (on a dare) and the night she conceived of the idea for this book, she writes:

"I had lived in this neighborhood for years, walking its streets where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops, and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn't walk down the streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty - that, or you were just another pussy to be put in its place. Either way, their eyes followed you all the way up and down the street, never wavering, asserting their dominance as a matter of course. If you were female and you lived there, you got used to being stared down because it happened every day and there wasn't anything you could do about it.

But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn't stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring. 

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys look away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares. 

But that wasn't quite all there was to it. There was something more than respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him" (p. 3).

This passage is a great illustration of both the tone and the content of this book. 

Here is another great one that deals with the issue of Norah dating as a heterosexual man (Ned was her name when in costume):


"Yet as much as these women wanted a take-control man, at the same time, they wanted a man who was vulnerable to them, a man who would show his colors and open his doors, someone expressive, intuitive, attuned. This I was in spades, and I always got points for it, but feeling the pressure to be that other world-bestriding colossus at the same time made me feel very sympathetic toward the heterosexual men, not only because living up Caesar is an immensely heavy burden to bear, but because trying to be a sensitive new age guy at the same time is pretty well impossible. If women are trapped by the whore/Madonna complex, men are equally trapped by this warrior/minstrel complex. What's more, while a man is expected to be modern, that is, to support feminism in all its particulars, to see and treat women as equals in every respect, he is on the other hand often still expected to be traditional at the same time, to treat a lady like a lady, to lead the way and pick up the check" (p. 112). 

Vincent writes with incredible sensitivity, clarity, and insight into how men and women differ. She is not a scientist and this was not a scientific experiment, but her observations are in line with what current gender research tells us about gender orientation. 

I urge all of you to read this book. Women will gain insight into how the men in their lives think and operate in the world around them, and how that world operates on them. Men may find validation in the things they experience but have never verbalized. I would think that, as a man, it would be very interesting to find out how women see them from the inside out. 

Norah Vincent experienced what can only be described as a nervous breakdown from this project due to the incredible amount of cognitive dissonance she experienced. She describes it as "holding two mutually exclusive thoughts in my head while trying to ride a bike and juggle at the same time." The implications of what she experienced, I think, may be incredibly important for understanding transgender and gender dissonant conditions. I would love to see this book more widely circulated so it can get the attention from the scientific community that it deserves.

8 comments:

DuWayne Brayton said...

I've been rather wanting to read that and will do so ASAP. In particular, this caught me:

What's more, while a man is expected to be modern, that is, to support feminism in all its particulars, to see and treat women as equals in every respect, he is on the other hand often still expected to be traditional at the same time, to treat a lady like a lady, to lead the way and pick up the check"

What she doesn't mention, is the paralyzing fear that comes when, as a man, I am unable to read what a particular women is expecting of me.

She describes it as "holding two mutually exclusive thoughts in my head while trying to ride a bike and juggle at the same time."

I was very tempted when I was younger, to try exactly what she did. It was a very close friend, who is also transgendered who told me that it would probably cause exactly what she is describing here. In my dear friend's words:

"Honey, I spent twenty seven years experiencing that - trust me, you don't want to and don't need to."

After which she happily answered all of my questions. I'm glad too, because I'm just not sure I could have pulled it off - especially given my rather prominent adam's apple.

There was something more than respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect.

Wow, just fucking wow. If this is indicative, this book definitely deserves a hella lot of attention. This is a very keen insight into human nature that I think very few men, much less women, really understand - even though most men do this constantly.

I am all over this book, as soon as I can find the time...

JLK said...

@DB - definitely read it, you won't regret it. With respect to her insight into male eye contact, she later states in the book that to look a man in the eye (as a mean) literally means "I want to fuck you or I want to kill you."

It's pretty powerful stuff.

PhizzleDizzle said...

wow, that looks totally awesome. i love books like that - but for me the unifying crux is not necessarily gender issues but "living like another" books.

for example, the book "black like me" is also very good (though I read it > 10 years ago so hopefully it wasn't just my child-mind appreciating it), and "Nickeled and Dimed" is also very good.

i would totes love to get my hands on that - i wish i had a library i could love.

Mrs. CH said...

That sounds really interesting and I definitely intend to put it on my reading list. It would be quite something if everyone got to experience life from "the other side" from time to time. I think the world would be a better place!

Isabel said...

I've been thinking lately that it would be helpful for some women to experience what men go through....having to deal with the fact that their every action, however innocently meant, is being scrutinized for sexist intent. I can't imagine what that's like....

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I haven't read that book by Vincent, but I recently read her most recent book, Voluntary Madness, where she "pretends" to be mentally ill and gets herself committed to various mental institutions. She is a very very good writer.

Toaster Sunshine said...

Contrasting women's Madonna/whore complex with men's minstrel/warrior is apt. There's a tension there that I'm familiar with: when I am known as a musician before a scientist, I am expected to be somehow sensitive and understanding...until women hear the tracks I have composed that aren't all marshmallows and unicorn piss, when I become seen as angry and nihilistic.

There's also a third function of the male gaze: to establish dominance. Depending on other body language, two males meeting each other's gaze can be a contest to figure out who is dominant. The first one to look away is seen as weaker. If you don't believe this, go watch people on a busy sidewalk and you'll see that those who meet everyone's gaze fearlessly are those who never have to step aside or alter their paths for others.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Toaster -

...until women hear the tracks I have composed that aren't all marshmallows and unicorn piss, when I become seen as angry and nihilistic.

I so have to email you again, which I will soon. That, more than anything else you have said makes me really want to make some music with you, before you flee MI. Suffice to say, I have been thusly accused myself.

"I love your singing, but are you sure you're ok DuWayne?"

If you don't believe this, go watch people on a busy sidewalk and you'll see that those who meet everyone's gaze fearlessly are those who never have to step aside or alter their paths for others.

I've actually experimented with this one and you'd be surprised how many men are fairly easily intimidated by a little beige boy. It's really all in the bearing - if you walk and look like people should be intimidated by you, they usually will be. And it really doesn't matter much their size or yours.

When I've been in a pissy mood, I have actually had folks get up out of their seats for me on MAX back in Portland - always a good sign that I really need to change my attitude. At the same time, always a good skill to have when assholes don't want to get up for the elderly or infirm. They will often object if you tell someone to move for them - a lot more effective when you can scowl them out of their seat...

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