“Self Made Man” is about journalist Norah Vincent’s year and a half living as a man. She got the idea after cross dressing for an evening with a drag king friend and seeing a reality show with a similar theme.
Vincent states that her book should be considered as being similar to a subjective “travel log” kept while taking a long journey abroad. She makes it clear that her book isn’t to be taken as a definitive treatise about all men. It is about her interpretation of her experiences, only.
I’ve seen so many reviews that evaluated her book in the exact opposite manner to her disclaimer and I enjoyed her book so much that I wanted to make that clear before writing about her book further.
Norah Vincent’s journey begins with choosing “Ned” to use as a name, working out to put on fifteen pounds, clothes shopping in drag, getting coaching from a makeup artist friend and getting lessons from a voice coach.
Thus, “Ned” was created. As Ned, Norah Vincent joined a blue collar bowling team, frequented strip clubs, dated straight women, lived in a monastery, held down a high pressure commission only door-to-door sales job and finally joined a Robert Bly styled men’s group.
The first thing that struck me about Norah Vincent’s book was just how feminine her narrative was. As you can see from the picture of her book above, Vincent’s appearance fits the stereotype of a manish lesbian. Indeed, in her book Vincent herself mentioned that all of her life she had been considered a masculine woman, but to her surprise, as “Ned”, she was found to be a little bit effeminate.
My favorite chapter was the one Vincent wrote about dating straight women disguised as “Ned”. Women’s frustrations about the dating scene are expressed copiously all over the place. TV talk shows, movies, magazines, books and even blogs. It is rare that you ever hear men’s frustrations with the dating scene expressed or hear those expressions given legitimacy. I experienced great joy in reading a woman give her account of how she experienced the same things that men do in dating. It was refreshing. In my opinion this chapter was one of the most insightful parts of the entire book. If I started quoting the good bits from that chapter I would end up posting the entire chapter. I think both single women and single men could benefit greatly by reading it. I will settle for posting one quote from that chapter, which I think is one of the most insightful out of the book:
pages 105 – 106
“Perhaps women have been guilty of hubris in this regard. We think of ourselves as emotional masters of the universe. In our world, feelings reign. We have them. We understand them. We cater to them. Men, we think, don’t on all counts. But as I learned among my friends in the bowling league and elsewhere, this is absolutely untrue and absurd. Of course men have a whole range of emotions, just as women do — it’s just that many of them are often silent or underground, invisible to most women’s eyes and ears. Tannen was right enough on that point. Women and men communicate differently, often on entirely different planes. But 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.”
( the bolding is mine )
I also found her chapter on her time in the Robert Bly styled men’s group fascinating. I have long had the prejudice that such groups are silly and I had my suspicions mostly confirmed through Vincent posing as Ned. I found this chapter interesting because it was in this chapter I thought she struggled most with her bias as a woman, her bias from her education as a feminist and her strong desire as a journalist for intellectual honesty.
She wanted the leader of the group, a man of imposing stature, to turn out to be a narrow minded, angry, monster. When he turned out not to be, Vincent was still scared of and resentful of him. Yet at the same time in this chapter, she was being fair to both him and his group. Her internal struggle was fascinating to read.
Despite the subject of the book very little is actually written about crossdressing. There is however, this fascinating quote:
I was walking taller in my dress clothes. I felt entitled to respect, to command it and get it in a way that Ned never had in slob clothes. The blazer neatly covered any chest or shoulder worries I had, filing me out square and flat in all the right places, allowing me to act with near perfect confidence in my disguise. A suit is an impenetrable signifier of maleness every bit as blinding as the current signifiers of attractiveness in women: blond hair, heavy makeup, emaciated bodies and big tits. A woman can be downright ugly on close inspection, and every desirable part of her can be fake, the product of bleach, silicone and surgery, but if she’s sporting the right signifiers, she’s hot.
I can remember having the same thought in Junior High seeing guys go ape over girls who didn’t have the most pretty faces or interesting bodies, but who had blond hair, intense make-up and large breasts.
In her final chapter Norah Vincent recounts her struggle returning to her normal life after living as “Ned” for 18 months. She mentions that a number of times she let herself get lax in her disguise. Forgetting to apply her fake 5’oclock shadow, forgetting to strap her breasts down with her intentionally undersized sports bra or not wearing the most hyper masculine clothing. Yet, people still saw and treated her as a man.
Vincent credits this to living her role internally, she “became” Ned. After she became “Norah” again in her habits and in her thoughts, people began recognizing her as a woman again.
I thought this was an unappreciated discovery. Vincent in her stint as a door to door salesman also discovered that raw confidence in the face of uncertainty and a willingness to “take control of the situation” could turn failure into success in the absence of any other resources.
I think the golden lesson Vincent didn’t see as gold was that psychologically investing yourself into who you want to be can do a tremendous amount in taking you at least partially there. I’m not saying that you will perfectly reach any particular goal, but that if you throw enough against the wall, something will stick.
All in all, I would say “Self Made Man” was a fun, fascinating and thought provoking book to read. Norah Vincent is a professional writer and it shows. Her writing is skillful, her tone is down to Earth. Vincent had her biases, but she made a palpable struggle to be intellectually honest.
There are many more fascinating aspects to this book that I didn’t mention. I barely scratched a fraction of a percent. I recommend it to everyone.
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