Thoughts on Norah Vincent's book: "Self Made Man"
Contents Because who doesn't love hotlinks
- Why I Bought the book
- How this post is laid out
- Chapter 1: Getting Started
- Chapter 2: Friendship
- Chapter 3: Sex
Why I picked up this book
In light of recent events I have increasingly been confronted with a lot of ideals crashing. Ideals, which in my opinion, have common ground and could easily stand together. Yet the radical few always seem to destroy the chance of starting anew.
Realizing that has been massively important to me. So let me say this, a single Radical Feminist should never define your viewpoint on the movement as a whole. It is the actions of the majority that must be considered. Yet often it is only one bad apple that spoils the bunch. When I was in college I was required to take two "diversity classes". These classes were a univerity's top-down approach to solving a bottom-up problem. To sum it up in one sentence: the teacher ruined feminism for me.
Fast forward 2.5 years. After discovering Christina Hoff Sommers through [my interest in an ethical reform in gaming journalism], I started to pull away from my preconceived notions, watching her videos showed me a feminist I had seen little of before. While I had been exposed to a misandrist through the aforementioned class, here I was exposed to someone using statistics and surveys to speak to me in my own terms: rationality and logic.
So I walked into my local bookstore's women's studies section for the first time in three years and looked for one of her books. Sadly, I didn't find one, but I did spy Norah Vincent's "Self Made Man" sitting on the shelf. If there's such thing as fate in this world, then it certainly sent me this book.
One of the things my friends know about me, and to which my parents provide increasing disapproval each year, is that I enjoy cross dressing during halloween or conventions.
Pictured Left to Right: Fooling with makeup in general, Catwoman costume from last year (2013), Youmu crossplay I did at Pax East (before destroying noobs in Steel Battalion Line of Contact)
It's not always fun, being called rude things like "ladyman" from a group of drunk girls was painful, but it was and always is a worthwhile experience, even if sometimes upsets me. The moment Norah Vincent's book made it's appearance to me and I realized it was about a woman doing what I do sometimes, from the other side, I had to have it.
What shared experiences would we have? Boy oh boy, I couldn't have even fathomed how hard this book would hit home in some places. So without further disgressions, let's talk about how I'm going to approach this:
The format of my review and thoughts
Thoroughness is something to look for in a review of anything, so despite how long it may make this post, I'm going to do my best to be thorough. This means a mini review on the first 3 chapters of the book and my reactions, agreements, disagreements, and general thoughts on each. There are 8 total chapters, all worth reading, but I figure talking about 3 of them is enough. If you're looking for a decently comprehensive review then here it is:
The Whys and Hows of It
The start of the book is a simple introduction to why Mrs* Vincent wrote the book. How her time as a child and a rough coming of age throughout puberty and college shaped the decisions that eventually led her to crossdress for a year and a half. Also, she discloses that the book is not a research study on gender differences, but rather one woman's experience of a social culture of which she had never been a part of.
This chapter goes over a few things that I immediately related to, learning how to use makeup to disguise oneself, binding gendered parts (for the author: her breasts, for me: my penis), minding gender cues and getting voice training. All of these were things I as a reader could immediately relate to (though she had theatre help while I mainly used youtube), and for someone who doesn't crossdress: I think they'd find it fascinating what someone needs to do to portray themselves as someone else, and accept the person looking at them in the mirror as someone else.
One of the things that struck me, that must be talked about (especially since this is the opinion blog on my site), is the section in the beginning about eye contact. From her perspectives of both male and female I qoute:
(Pg 2 & 3)
As a woman, you couldn't walk down those 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 astoundind, 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 looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.
But that wasn't 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 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 accept the status quom to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.
When I first read this I found myself very conflicted. I took offense to her "pecking order among male animals", in it I saw a slight inclination to view the male as subhuman, other language in the chapter also made me feel that she saw herself as some sort of enlightened pinacle of moral superiority coming to visit the savages.
But I continued reading, and I decided to ignore anything that immediately started to offend me and instead to look into what she was saying and not how she was doing it. Once that position was taken, I could follow and agree with her in many places. For example, during my first cross-dressing experience I was catcalled and wolf whistled at by a group of fratboys on a porch. This amused me to no end because the thrill of passing as a woman and fooling these blowhards made me laugh. Throughout that night the difference in treatment by friends and strangers was extremely evident to me. Some good, some bad. I received more looks and was noticed more by people walking down the street. I felt the eyes on me. And the funny thing was that many were women, sizing me up in what felt like a competition of some kind.
In the same way as Mrs Vincent found a difference in treatment, so did I. Having cross-dressed every halloween since, I've started to build up my own personal experience of life through the eyes of a woman. While no way nearly as comprehensive as her's, I found similarity in many of her expressions about the pyschological affects it can have to hold two views on something at the same time. Wondering: would I be treated this way if I was X or Y? And there is definite truth in her words when she discusses the value of perception and your own projection. If you go into a scene awkward and uncomfortable, trying to make sure no one finds our you're not what you are trying to appear as, the cracks show, but if you assert yourself as being a man (in Mrs Vincent's case) and presenting that to the people you're talking to, then you'll see people accept you as what you say you are.
This chapter even by itself, despite simply being an introductorary 12 or something pages, is worth getting the book for. And the rest of the book dives far deeper into the rabbit-hole of masculinity. I'm curious what others think about her analysis of eye contact, it would be very interesting to hear both men and women's responses in the comments below.
*I say Mrs becuase there is a dedication to her wife at the start of the book, I assume this is correct title use, but if not let me know in the comments below
Friendship, Manning up, and Closeness
The second chapter details how the author infiltrated a men's bowling league. An area which she found a group of men who, despite her being poor at the sport, took her under their wing. At first, Mrs. Vincent was wary and nervous:
My eyes blurred in panic. I didn't see anything. I remember being aware only of a wave of noise and imagined distrust coming at me from undistinguishable faces. Probably only one or two people actually turned to look, but it felt as if every pair of eyes in the place had landed on me and stuck.
However, upon meeting her teammates she is instantly welcomed and made to feel welcome with a simple gesture:
There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.
This solidarity of sex was something that feminism tried to teach us, and something, it now seemed to me, that men figured out and perfected a long time ago. On some level men didn't need to learn or remind themselves that brotherhood was powerful. It was just something they seemed to know.
While one of the men doesn't greet her with as much enthusiam, simpy nodding from across the table, throughout the months at the league she observes this man's son being taught some of the stereotypical rules of manhood. Bob's son, Alex, is a chatty kid who, like many children, will blather your ear off if given the chance. During her time in the league, Mrs. Vincent observes what she percieves as Alex's trial and error eduction. Where the boy is "thrown to the wolves" and taught through teasing and thickening of his skin. The irony that both the boy and author were going through a sort of tutorial in mandhood isn't lost, and a good number of interesting insights are given.
Interestingly enough, Mrs. Vincent assumed the worst in these men, as they all represented the stereotypical white man (plumber, construction worker, etc). In her own words:
Exposing my own prejudices, I had expected these guys to be filled with virulent hatred for anyone who wasn't like them, taking their turn to kick the next guy down.
Yet throughout the chapter she finds places again and again where these men show their true colors, as "rock bottom utilitarians" who judged people by their actions and not by their words.
The chapter also covers topics on humor, death, and even some political leanings. It was really a fascinating read, and the author draws her own perceptions, critiquing the macho culture around her in a way only a woman could. Despite my feelings that she had a bit of confirmation bias, her views and opinions were often fresh and interesting. Her lense of the world of these men's men gave me a good deal of food for thought. Perhaps the thing that kept me engrossed in reading was her praise of the nurturing and educational methods of the various men around her.
They took me under their wings. Another older bowler had done this. Taking me aside between rounds, he tried to teach me a few things to improve my game. This was male mentor stuff all the way. He treated me like a son, guiding me with firm encouragement and solid advice, an older man lending a younger man his expertise.
This was commonplace. During the course of the bowling season, which lasted nine months, a lot of men from the other teams tried to give me tips on my game.
Mrs. Vincent finds herself in a masculine dominated area for nine months, and becomes friends with the members of her team. One in particular, Jim, she grows close to and reveals herself as a woman to him first. Opposite to her expections, Jim and the rest of the crew aren't bothered at all. And after revealing herself to them, they continue to be her friends and treat her just the same. Not just as "one of the guys", but as a friend. In Norah's words:
They made me look ridiculous to myself and they made me laugh about it. And for that I will always be grateful to them, because anybody who does that for you is a true and great friend.
Ultimately, my reactions to this chapter were to be amused by each joke and story, to feel sympathy when hearing of some of the very real and very difficult issues each of these men face, and to feel solidarity with the author and these men I don't even know. There are truths echoed that you'll hear any man repeat in those pages, to see them on page, written by a woman, was remarkable. Often I feel that men's issues are brushed under the rug in favor of womens, while there are plenty of reasons one might prioritize, it was still nice to see even slight recognition of this. Reading more of the book only further showed me just how seriously the author had taken her work.
If you're looking to see how your typical 'guys night' is, no look further than this chapter, it hits on a lot of core pieces I've seen in all male events. Though there were some things which I've never seen and found unsettling. And if you find something that disturbs you during the chapter, remember that this is a small set of men, and Mrs. Vincent specifically went out of her way to find areas of intense stereotypical masculinity.
Strippers, Sex, and Secrets
I have never been to a strip club, nor have I ever considered it something I wanted to do. In this chapter Norah enters the vile world of strip joints and attempts to analyze it.
Sometimes even respectable men with respectable lives have primal ugly stuff bracketed somewhere in theirminds, kept in its place apart from the purported love that goes with the responsibility of fatherhood and husbanding. How could it be otherwise? Much as they might have liked them to, these drives and desires didn't somehow cease to exist in respectable company. It was only society's prevailing myth, or perhaps female wish fulfillment, that had pretended otherwise. As a result, individual men and women were left to sort out the sordid reality ontheir own, hurting and getting hurt because sometimes it was too hard to successfully resolve the conflict between baseline male sexuality and the civilized role of a man.
These clubs and the thoughts and feelings that produce them are the squalid subbasement of male sexuality in which a lot of men have at least one foot or toe firmly planted. No matter how high they ascend in the civilized world, no matter how tall, how dapper, how educated or savvy they stand in the stratosphere of age and accomplishment, a lot of average guys still have a nudie film looping in the back of their minds. And the more educated, politicized, refined they become, the more ashamed of their base proclivities they often feel.
Mrs Vincent brings an interesting perspective to the table in the above quotes and throughout the chapter. Primarily focusing on the feelings of the men in the clubs, (or what she assumes they must feel) and honing in on the why and what it all means. Diving into the notions of primal instincts, understanding of base needs, and trying to find some facsimile of herself and her character Ned she's playing.
One thing I want to note, is her use of the word purports in the first paragraph. I don't know how many male friends Mrs Vincent has, specifically, how many friends she has seen transition from the role of bachelor to father. But many of my friends have gone through this. It changes a person greatly. For her to casually spew the word: purports in reference to the love which fathers have for their children, and imply that somehow it is a false one, disturbs me. To be frank, my rule of not looking at not how she was saying, but what she was saying, when used here and only on that section, causes me to pause and wonder if the author believes men to be some type of inhuman creature incapable of love entirely. This one issue within a larger chapter focused on sexuality is easily ignored though, as much of what she says throughout is engaging and thought provoking.
At some point all of this ceased to be about desire, if it was ever really about desire in the firstplace, and became about something else: loneliness, or inner pain, or doing time or penance for some longago hurt that had never healed but somehow found companionable misalliance here with all the other misfits and detritus. I don't think anybody in that place was really capable of normal arousal anymore. They were dead inside and you could see it. They were in pain and sitting with it, looking for it, maybe even getting off to it, because when pleasure is used up, painis all that's left. It's the only thing that lasts longer.
Her discussions about her perception of male sexuality were interesting to read, especially when she was reflecting on being exposed to what she called the base of male sexuality. While interesting, I can't help but wonder if she ever thinks about the way that people often seek comfort within the embrace of a stranger during difficult times in their lives, or the way that some people engage in rebound sex after a relationship as if it were therapy. But most of all, I wonder if she feels the same when going to a lesbian strip club, would she be able to make the same arguments or hold beliefs such as this then:
... emotion, seduction, imagination, mental connection -- the things that are, perhaps, the hallmarks of female sexuality...
When confronted with a similar notion of what she calls male sexuality within a
stripper named Gina, she becomes confused. When asking why Gina is a dancer, and
being met with the reply: "I love men.", doubt was the first thing that comes to
her mind. At Gina's distaste for women and their anatomy, Mrs Vincent is shocked
and assumes that Gina simply must have had a traumatic past that caused her
dislike of, in Gina's words: "Wet sloppy pussy". Perhaps it is because of the authors orientation that she doesn't understand, or she simply enjoys secretions of mucus. It seems strange to me that someone would be shocked by another person's preferences so much. Perhaps I'm simply biased because Gina echos some of my own sentiment towards bodily fluids and I'm more inclined to agree with someone who has chosen, from 18-34, to dance due to their passion for something despite not needing the money, and not allow a societal stigma to get in the way of that.
However, Mrs Vincent is by no means unaware of the duel power play within the scenes she visited:
This place wasn't just where men came to be beasts. It was also where women came to exercise some vestige of sexual power in the most unvarnished way possible. My pussy for your dollars. I say when, I say how, I say how much and I get paid for it. There was tremendous manipulation built into the rules under which these places operated. The provision against touching the girls could be bent or borken at will by each individual girl, and enforced by guys hired for the purpose, guys like the pierced biker at the couch-room door. This was an age-old whore-john-pimp dynamic, but more played at than truly enacted, and always in a controlled setting. It was a grotesque parody of what women and men did in real life, the mating dance with all the civilized pretense stripped away.
And near the end of the chapter reflects on how no one within these environments is better than the other, that each individual within the clubs has a role to play, and that no participant was more victimized than any other, the debasement of the individuals was equal. Perhaps that was the saddest part about this chapter, perhaps it was one of the more enlightening notes to take from it. Either way, a chapter worth reading.
I thought about creating a review of all the chapters in this book, many of them are fascinating, for example, the next chapter is about love and dating as a man. Where the author runs into the troubles and pressures of being, literally, in the man's shoes when trying to pick girls up at a bar. There's a chapter about life within an all male monesty, an all male retreat, and even a door to door salesman experience (I didn't even know that was still a job).
While I think people who believe that all feminists are evil man-haters might get turned off by some of the language or views held by the author. I also think that this book is a good stepping stone towards being open to listening to those types of views, even when you don't agree with them. Norah Vincent's writing is approachable, and though her peanut gallery comments and side jabs at masculinity can be offputting, the stories themselves are a good mix of touching, emotional, and stressful lives. The mental strain she put herself through, ending up with depression after experiencing what it's like to be under the day to day pressures of manhood, is a testament to just how serious she was in getting what she believes to be the full masculine experience.
If you've read this book, and disagree or agree with any of my points, or even want to talk about sections of the book I didn't mention, feel free to comment below after you've read the disclaimer.comments powered by Disqus