Review: Self-Made Man

Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

While I distinctly remember picking up this recommendation from Feministing, a quick Google search shows only community posts about this book. In any case, it was in such a space that I was introduced to Norah Vincent’s account of a year and a half spent passing as a man and exploring masculine society from a feminine viewpoint. While I usually don’t care for memoirs focused on a year-long experiment, Vincent’s forays into male-only spaces interested me. When I saw it while shelving at the library, I decided to give it a whirl.

Self-Made Man follows Norah Vincent on her year and a half long experiment as “Ned”, her geeky male alter ego. While Norah, a butch lesbian with big feet, thought the experiment would be both easy and a pass into freedoms undreamt of by women, she discovers a stiflingly and painfully narrow view of masculinity (that ultimately drives her to a mental breakdown) and a greater appreciation of the social differences between the sexes.

Vincent is refreshingly honest about how this book got started; she was watching a program on TV where two men and two women attempted to pass as the opposite sex, and realized that the concept could yield interesting insights into gendered society. And then she went and did it. I have to be honest, I was expecting something a little more dramatic, but at least she’s upfront about it. She’s brutally honest and casually explicit, but she doesn’t dwell on things. At 287 pages, this is short (for me, at least), and she gets through the book at a steady pace. But this can sometimes mean that some things fall by the way side; I was taken aback by the revelation that her time as Ned was so distressing that she took months to recover from it, as it wasn’t established in her account that it was so distressing—sure, she feels guilty about the deception necessary to her experiment, but she seems otherwise okay. She does dwell on the guilt the deception causes and how to ethically go about a project that is totally about deceiving people, but oddly doesn’t address the fact that she ultimately sleeps with one of the heterosexual women she dates as Ned while still having a girlfriend.

This was an interesting read for me on several levels—as a woman, as a queer woman, and as an ace woman. There’s the horrified fascination of what really goes on behind closed doors; the overwhelming sexual language, the constricted displays of emotion, and I, for one, will not easily forget about what actually happens in strip clubs. Vincent ultimately comes out feeling sorry for men; if you ever want to know why the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, this is the book for you. Towards the end, she talks about how she was shocked to discover that nearly all of the men she met as Ned were unable to connect or even identify their emotions, which strikes me as a horrifying and empty way to live. Vincent’s Ned passed because the men around her were performing their gender just as much as she was performing Ned. But I think one of the most interesting things is that even the very butch Vincent can barely pass as a man; what’s masculine in Norah is effeminate in Ned.

When Vincent encounters heterosexual women when she strikes out into the dating world, she occasionally tries to disrupt the idea that it’s men versus women—after all, she’s dated women who have been just as bad—and puts it on an individual basis. But I don’t think she goes far enough here into the power dynamics that make any romantic encounter between a man and a woman difficult. Vincent assigns an enormous amount of influence to the male sex drive, which didn’t baffle me; what baffled me was that it goes unquestioned, that of course men would prefer to get their shameful, animalistic rocks off with an anonymous woman than their wives, that of course they’re hypersexual. I think she really missed an opportunity to explore how almost ludicrous sexual prowess is expected of men and how that harms them, although she does examine how sex seems to permeate every layer of male society she encounters, even in the monastery.

As you can imagine, this sort of book can lend itself to gender essentialism and, disappointingly, Vincent appears to start subscribing to it, at ultimately concluding that “we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can’t help almost believing … that we live in parallel worlds” (281). I don’t want to believe that. Yes, our current construct of masculinity—hell, both genders (and the idea of only having two genders is problematic in itself; there’s a reason I identify as panromantic instead of biromantic)—is problematic, but I think it can be overcome with acceptance, tolerance, and a healthy dose of genderqueerness. Vincent also turned me of with describing obnoxious dates as “liminally autistic” (107) and later referring to “the postfeminist world” (277). To quote an oft-used phrase, I’ll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy. It baffles me that someone who has written a book that’s essentially a textbook case for why the patriarchy hurts men would view the world as postfeminist.

Bottom line: While problematic in its gender essentialism and stylistically bare-bones, Self-Made Man is still an interesting look at how the patriarchy hurts men as well as women. If you’re interested.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Vincent, Norah. Self-Made Man. New York: Viking, 2006.

4 thoughts on “Review: Self-Made Man

  1. I wish that more was written that analyzes, carefully and thoughtfully, the differences in the experience of being male and being female. I am always surprised that there’s not more written about this by transgender people who have made the transition to the other gender — I would imagine their experiences would be incredibly valuable in this sphere.

  2. I’ve had this on my list since seeing Norah Vincent on my talk show but never sought it out because of the middling reviews. If I see it somewhere, I might pick it up. Pity she ends up being somewhat essentialist, though. Did she also delve into the literature or other firsthand accounts of gender?

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