23 April 2006

A Man’s World After All

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part V. A review of Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent, published 2006 by Viking, New York

Every now and then, a book comes along that smashes through a new barrier to our understanding of the world – and in its straightforward, easy-to-read way, Self-Made Man is one such book. It is a paradigm-buster, and I have only admiration for Norah Vincent’s remarkable achievement. For those who do not know the story, a quick summary: Vincent decided that to investigate and understand the male experience, she had to assume a male identity, and do so as thoroughly as possible. This she did, with much success, and the book is a series of chapters looking at different aspects of her engagement with the world as “Ned,” her male alter ego, from friendship to dating to working life.

Reading this book, there were many times when I found myself in stark agreement with Vincent’s characterizations of life as a man – mostly articulated in a way that I likely never could, because they come through the eyes of someone dropped into the male role as an adult, rather than born and bred in it. Identity issues? It is not wonder Vincent found herself hospitalized by the end of this ordeal. But the book is as much about women as about men – and that is one of its great strengths, because you cannot talk about the one without acknowledging the existence and interrelationships with the other.


For the purposes of my “Feminism & Me” series, I want to explore how Vincent expresses the contradictions of both the male and female experience, and what they say about the modern American construct of feminism. In Chapter 2, titled “Friendship,” Vincent details how she has developed relationships with three men as part of a four-man bowling team. The men have accepted “Ned” as part of their group and seem as close to him emotionally, after just a few weeks, as they appear to each other despite many years of friendship. During these bowling experiences, the men tease each other, compliment each other, criticize each other, and make observations on their perceptions about their role in the wider world. However, Vincent observes that “much of what happens emotionally between men isn’t spoken aloud, and so the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to life being overt and spoken (often over-spoken), tends to assume that what isn’t said isn’t there. But it is there, and when you’re inside it, it’s as if you’re suddenly hearing sounds that only a dog can hear.” (P. 46) The inner, hidden female in “Ned” is not always sure how closely bonded these men are, but over time it becomes apparent – particularly after she reveals herself to one of them, and his shocked reaction reflects a mixture of loss and gain: the loss of one kind of friend, his bowling buddy, and the gain of something wholly other and unexpected. Suddenly, the wise-cracking friend of “Ned” has become a sweet, emotive friend of Norah’s. This not only confounds Vincent’s expectations – she was nervous she would get beaten up – but seems evidently to confuse and confound her bowling buddy as well.

Vincent later bolsters this whole point in her fourth chapter, on dating, when she states that too often women “think of ourselves as emotional masters of the universe.” (P. 105) As a result of this sense of superiority, “Ned” experienced something stark in the process of trying to pick up chicks: discrimination, right from the start. Women’s “refusal to see men as individuals, and more importantly to see their initial encounters with them as tabulae rasae, doomed” the process of dating (P104-105); each negative experience with a man reinforced the expectant negativity of the next interaction, even though the women that “Ned” dated all seemed intelligent and somewhat self-sufficient, and even though “Ned” was most assuredly different from all the other men these women had dated. Nonetheless, the women assume that “Ned” will try to take advantage of them, physically or emotionally, at some point – and therefore never stop to consider what his needs might be in the first place. After describing several awkward and painful dates, Vincent refers to some of these women as “liminally autistic” (P. 107), and she says “There I was, caught square in the middle of the oldest plot in the world: he said/she said. It was the woman’s job to be on the defensive, because past experience had taught her to be. It was the guy’s job to be on the offensive, because he had no choice.” (PP. 97-98)

Despite all this anti-male prejudice, Vincent (who is a lesbian, and therefore normally at a remove from dating men) finds that women want men – that is, they want men, sexually, physically, and even psychically. They want men, and relationships with men, even with the host of contradictions attached: women want men who will allow them to be independent while simultaneously supporting them; they want men who will be emotionally open, while simultaneously not allowing their own emotions to overshadow the woman’s. And, Vincent acknowledges, modern life has provided women with the options and opportunity to be this demanding, and this flexible, about their needs. (PP. 129-130)

It is within this set of contradiction that the book brought me sharply back around to thinking about feminism. Towards the end of the chapter on “Love,” Vincent notes that the power of the modern woman also increases her risks, her danger. (P. 128) Gone are the rough-and-tumble days when protecting women’s modest virtue was an implicit male obligation (as per Wendy Shalit’s dreamworld); women must now be more self-protective, and they are at more risk because they engage with the world in a wholly different way. This is, by no means, to blame the victim: the fact that women in 2006 have rights they did not in 1906 is no excuse for men to take advantage of them sexually or otherwise; it was not right then, and it is not right now.

Yet this question of power and powerlessness does point to the recurring contradiction within feminism that I have articulated several times over these past few book reviews: that feminism-the-movement’s lack of understanding of men has embedded flaws in how feminism-the-philosophy seeks to characterize, develop, and sustain the rights and roles of the modern woman. In constructing a political movement based on the idea of equal rights for women, feminism overlooked crucial aspects of how men engage with the world. Feminism-the-movement assumed – as the women that “Ned” dated also assumed – that at bottom, men’s needs were purely base (i.e., about sex and power), and that it was men’s physical power and capability for sexual abuse or abandonment that was the driving force behind men’s control over the world. I expounded upon this poor set of feminism assumptions in my review of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, but it is Vincent’s clear articulation of the repressed male emotional experience – as experienced by a woman – that makes the point that much clearer and more difficult to escape. As Vincent says, “just as men have failed us, we have failed them. It has been one of our great collective female shortcomings to presume that whatever we do not perceive simply isn’t there, or that whatever is not communicated in our language is not intelligible speech.” (PP. 105-106)

Of course, as I thought about writing all this, one problem became even more apparent: philosophy can incorporate nuance, where political movements cannot. So no wonder there can be no movement for “equalism” (as I argued in my Feminism & Me intro) in place of feminism. In constructing what was intended to be a power-grab, feminism as a political movement had little time and even less interest in understanding the complexities of men. To acknowledge these complexities or contradictions would have forced women, in turn, to cast a more critical eye on their own role in supporting and sustaining male dominance, or the degree to which greater power had previously lain within their grasp – or might even have raised the question of whether equal rights would bring everything that was expected and desired.

To the extent that women enjoy equal rights in America now, feminism clearly has not resolved all the problems or contradictions of women’s role in our society. How odd, and yet how charming, that a book written by a woman disguised as a man does such an effective job at elucidating these points.

09 April 2006

Process v. Product

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

We live in a culture that is focused on product, broadly defined: on the completion of a task, achievement of a high mark, creation of an object, or sale of a good. From the smallest school-age child to the biggest corporate chieftain, the “winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing” framework is, for all practical purposes, the only one under which we live. God may love a tryer, but American society loves success.

As a consultant, one of the most difficult things I do on a daily basis is negotiate between the a client’s desire for a successful product and the value of helping a client improve the processes needed to achieve that product. While those sound like they might be the same – both end with success and product – in the business of consulting, the very idea of product has multiple, often conflicting, meanings. At one level there is the straightforward project: being hired by an organization to (let’s say) help raise visibility for some new program or initiative, and being judged by the client on the basis of its outcome. If the firm has done its job well and the program was successful, then the firm and the client all move on to the next thing, gratified by the attentions of a major newspaper, a marked increase in audience, or the financial favors of wealthy donors. If the process turns out to be less successful than we or the client expected, then we go back, analyze, reassess, and the firm and the client make decisions about next steps. Given the focus on success – on product – this analysis sometimes means that clients go looking for greener consulting pastures. This does not happen often, but when it does, it may be the best path for all concerned.

Sometimes, however, the product for which my firm is hired is the process itself. For example, a small museum might find that – despite critically-acclaimed exhibitions and respectable attendance – it cannot gain the momentum it needs to keep pace with inflationary costs and rising community expectations. We will be hired to analyze the institution’s position in the community and within the broader field; to help the museum articulate its short- and long-term goals; and to work with it to develop an achievable, realistic path to meet those goals. Although no one normally speaks of it this way, this is often a therapeutic kind of consulting; discussions may take place under the umbrella of terms such as “strategic planning” or “management consulting,” but the consulting role can be more akin to therapist than business planner.1

And, much as with psychotherapy, this is also where things become much more complicated – and potentially more meaningful – because there is so much that can be learned from process, separate and apart from product. It does not take a genius to make the observation that management is hard work; even under the best of circumstances, not every member of every crew pulls their own weight all of the time. People’s personalities and needs can obscure or reveal problems, aid or obstruct work flow, and cause all sorts of unpredictable jam-ups. Unlike the individual who goes for therapy seeking better self-awareness, for even the smallest organization such investigations come with a package of detail that looks at how each employee is performing, how each office or department functions, the nature and value of its leadership, and whether the sum of the parts is as strong and fluid as it can or should be.

Achieving product seems like a no-brainer; we learn this as children, the very first time we are rewarded for a successful accomplishment of one kind or another. But one has to prepare for process; it does not always come naturally. When an individual seeks therapy, they have chosen to have someone hold up a mirror for them; they willingly engage in the concept of self-study, self-examination, guided by a therapist. For an organization, though, the decisions are not always so clear-cut: the consultant may be scrutinizing people who did not ask to be examined, or may be pushing an organization’s employees to look at their own weaknesses or job failures in pursuit of a larger set of goals they do not support or care about.

In a business situation no less than a personal one, we consultants have to take care to insulate ourselves appropriately – to protect against over-identifying with the client’s struggles, and to be supportive of their efforts to address their challenges, whether successful or not. Sometimes, the most difficult part is to address a client’s expectations at the outset: to say to a client that the benefits of process are not always, immediately, better product. The very “process” of institutional analysis may be the start of a much longer-term set of changes than any simple “product” might represent. And: you, the client, might fail.

It is tempting to believe that the obvious answers are always the best ones, but it is not always true: for a company that makes 1,000 widgets a year, the answer to continued success and growth is not necessarily to make 2,000 widgets a year; it might be to diversify, to make a 1,000 widgets and 1,000 do-dads. In an arts context, the analogies are similar: just because one blockbuster exhibition was successful, producing more blockbusters is not necessarily the answer to the question: What’s next? (We see this all the time with movie studios: Movie X is a hit, so clearly the best thing to do is throw twice as many resources into producing Move X, Part II. Alas, we are also all too familiar with the tragic results!)

Engaging in a process of self-examination – freed from a concern about a specific end product – is not easy for most organizations. In fact, it is often frustrating, fraught, and fragile, and for the consultants requires drawing on intuition and psychology as much as any body of knowledge. Yet when managed properly, the process will turn out to be the best product: it helps an organization and its people grow, enabling them to look at themselves – their challenges, and their strengths, individually and as part of an institution – and learn. That’s the kind of success that is gratifying beyond all measure.

1At least, in the world of arts and culture, wherein lies the preponderance of my experience.

02 April 2006

Missing in Action

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Watching the many students protesting in France and in the Los Angeles area, I have been heartened by the sense that someone out there actually cares – kids, young adults, taking some risks to take to the streets and show the world that they think the issues being discussed by politicians are serious and worthy of further consideration. What a shame, then, that in so many ways, these protests are not what they seem, are not being given the respect they deserve, or are representative of mistaken (if understandable) impulses.

That last point first. France’s protesters are up in arms over a law that would limit the degree of protection people have in civil service jobs, making it possible – get this! – for them to be fired every now and again. It is, for France, a radical concept, but it is more radical as a concept than as a reality, given the high degree of unemployment that has been a pervasive French problem for more than a decade; getting fired requires first having a job. If the students, bureaucrats, and politicians of France would like to see a not-so-small example of where they, as a nation, may wind up if they persist with this jobs-for-life approach, they need look no further than the situation of General Motors and the United Auto Workers here in the United States.

In today’s New York Times, Daniel Akst makes the point that “workers and managers in the American auto industry have been rowing in unison, albeit directly toward the cataract,” and the results have been predictable for GM (among other companies): wages and benefits that have been disproportionately high both for the automotive sector and for American manufacturing; expensive, unsustainable commitments to cover wages and benefits for non-working former employees; and ultimately, limited flexibility to respond to changes in the market by firing (or hiring) new workers, closing or changing plants or production methods, etc.

This is not a new analysis, but regardless, the French – employers and employees alike – should take note. It may have taken three decades, but GM’s decline looks irreversible, and if it can be traced back to any one element, it is the company’s labor relations and the out-sized demands of the labor union. (Arguably, the UAW is not responsible for GM’s near-total failure to produce innovative, high-quality cars; that rests with GM’s management and designers. But even innovation would have been unlikely to save a company with bad management practices and labor contracts that virtually prohibited it from shifting its manufacturing processes to respond to these innovations.) So, citizens and students of France, take to the streets and protest all you want – but take care that your near-term success does not become the key to your long-term collapse.

Contrast all of this with the protests in California over proposed changes in immigration laws that would further criminalize the status of illegal immigrants to the United States while doing little – realistically – to stop more immigrants from coming into the country. Putting aside the philosophical arguments about the rights, wrongs, or real options in the discussion of American immigration law (versus the rights and wrongs of lifetime employment contracts), there is an important distinction between the protests in France and those in Los Angeles: the nature of the participants themselves.

In France, the protests seem to be driven mostly by those who are already part of some mainstream elite, the students of the universities and training programs that produce that nation’s consistent supply of government workers. In the United States, though, the protests are driven – as most of our protests have been, ever since the nation was founded – by the poor or the disenfranchised, the students whose families and communities are comprised of the illegal workers whose fate is being discussed so abstractly by our government. The elite in the United States tend to stay away. The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, criticizes these students for skipping school to protest – but instead, he should be encouraging the citizens of his city to join in the demonstrations, to show support for a better set of immigration policies. After all, if France is nothing without its bureaucrats, then California is nothing without the low-wage immigrant workers who sustain both the agricultural and “domestic service” economies across the state. The well-to-do of Los Angeles would likely be devastated by some of the changes in immigration law being discussed in Washington, DC, but not enough (so one gathers) to take to the streets in support of better policies.

Somewhere in all of this, something has been lost. On the one hand, there are the people of France who seem to enjoy protests, national strikes, and face-offs with riot police as if they were the national sport. This is not to belittle their concerns, but it is also difficult to distinguish between all of these French protests what, if anything, matters (except perhaps the aperitif, cigarette, and heart-felt conversation that I might romantically imagine follows a hard day of protesting on the streets of Paris). On the other hand, there are protests in the United States: generally small, soulless affairs, rigorously controlled by the police and seemingly exciting or engaging no widespread political interest.

I am not old enough to recall, except as history, that most famous of American protests – the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – but none of the other, subsequent Washington marches ever seemed to carry what I imagine must have been the punch of the 1963 event. I think this is because that 1963 march was part of a movement, an event integrally tied to demands for change taking place, in some way, in almost every large community across the country. Since then, there has been nothing like that: no further nationwide civil rights campaigns, no real, energetically driven anti-war protests, few direct confrontations between protesters and police (aside from the misguided, anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, the most notable achievement of which was to change how security is handled for the World Trade Organization meetings) – and nothing that has engaged the hearts and minds of America’s middle classes and educated elites.

We are, by and large, a nation of immigrants. So, perhaps this is the moment for a new movement, to support those who are here, and those who wish to come, to sustain and continue building a nation whose energy and drive is a result of that very influx of people seeking the two things for which the United States is most known: jobs and freedom. I don’t know about France, but I think that’s worth skipping one day of public school in L.A. to make a point.