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.


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