Saturday, March 24, 2007


Title: Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back
Author: Norah Vincent

“As Jim extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I’d seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone’s living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. 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.”

For a year and a half, Norah Vincent did something that most of us of the fairer sex only dream of. She cut her hair, bound her breasts, pasted some shadowy stubble to her chin, and presented herself to the world as her new incarnation: Ned, who’s just another one of the guys.

Just to clarify – this was an undercover social experiment, not a lifestyle choice. Vincent, a reporter for the L.A. Times, merely wanted to see how “the other side” lived behind closed doors. Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back is her chronicle of what she discovered.

And what a fascinating account it is. Vincent infiltrates a men’s bowling league, a testosterone-charged sales office ("Juice! Juice! Juice!" they chant), and even a monastery. Along the way, she navigates the difficult waters of dating women as a man (Vincent herself is gay) and pays more than a few visits to seedy strip clubs.

Some of these excursions, like those to the strip clubs and sales offices, are deeply depressing. Others are evocative and emotional. The time Vincent spends in the monastery is particularly bittersweet, as she realizes that the monks have lived together for years, and yet often feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood by their peers. And the chapter where she goes on a weekend retreat with a male support group starts off terrifying (in a Fight Club sort of way), but ends rather humorously. These men, you see, have “rage” problems. But as the weekend goes by, Vincent realizes that it is she herself – and not the little boys playing at being warriors – who’s truly the most dangerous person there.

Self-Made Man is an incredibly engaging read, even though there are certain sections of the book where Vincent simply infuriated me. She has a tendency, you see, to draw sweeping conclusions about both sexes. And the conclusions she draws about women are often disparaging. She has some truly nasty things to say about female athletes that made my blood boil, and claims at one point that Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was the “universal guy’s anthem of troubled love.” I thought that was a rather strange conclusion to draw, seeing that “Ring of Fire” was written by a woman – June Carter – about her troubled love. Whatever, Norah. Get a clue.

But despite these drawbacks, Self-Made Man remains a true page-turner. She approaches the male-psyche with an open mind, and doesn’t engage in any of the guy-bashing you’d expect. In fact, I often felt she was sometimes overly-sympathetic in the depiction of some of her subjects. (Personally, I’ve never been able to feel that sexist jokes were “harmless” or “good-natured.”) But while I often argued with Vincent in the margins, the arguments were usually fun and entertaining. I definitely wasn’t bored. And Vincent herself is wise enough to acknowledge that she offers no universal truths in her book. Rather, she proclaims, this was merely her experience. Take it or leave it as you will.

Well, I’ll take it, with a few reservations scattered here and there. I hope some of you read it, because it’s a great book to argue over – “gender,” I find, being one of the few debates that never gets old. Preferably such conversation would take place in a bar over a few beers, but I’ll settle for an electronic forum if that’s all I can get.

[And ket, I’m planning to force this off upon Adam or Jason sometime soon – I’m dying for at least one guy’s opinion on it. I think I can probably get Brendan to bite at the apple, too. So if you consent to letting me bully you into reading it, let me know. I’m pretty sure you’d finish it faster than they would. But no pressure!]

posted by Elizabeth at 9:09 PM


Post a Comment