Friday, March 10, 2006

Review: Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man"

(Link) A social experiment in which a lesbian passed as male for 18 months could have yielded some fascinating insights on gender and social differences. Instead, says one reviewer, it's more useful as a dress up guide for drag kings.

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
by Alexandra Mendenhall

"Self-Made Man" by Norah Vincent

A book chronicling the experiences of a lesbian living as a man for 18 months should be fascinating. Unfortunately, journalist Norah Vincent's book Self-Made Man is not.

Vincent first got the idea for such a social experiment seven years ago when she was spending time with a drag king friend. It was not until years later when she saw a reality television show where people lived as the opposite sex to win a prize that Vincent felt compelled to delve into the world of manhood.

Vincent notes that the reality TV program she saw did not in any way look at the sociological implications of a woman living as a man or vice versa. So, she intended to don a beard and a suit and examine those implications, as well as to gain insight into what it is to be a man.

She left her job as a syndicated opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times to transform herself into and live as Ned, her male alter-ego. By far, Vincent's account of her surgery-free physical change into a man is the most interesting part of her documented journey.

To make Ned as convincing as possible, Vincent went to a make-up artist to learn how to apply fake stubble, a voice coach to master using the lower registers of her voice, and to a personal trainer to bulk-up as much as possible. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the photos of Norah and Ned on the book's cover show just how impressive and successful the transformation was. This is the most impressive aspect of Self-Made Man, in fact: that with little more than make-up and men's clothes, a woman was able to successfully live as a man for a year and a half.

While living as Ned, Vincent infiltrated many “guys-only” sorts of groups, places, and situations. She maneuvered Ned into a men's bowling league, a monastery, strip clubs, and went on several dates with women as a man. Vincent's accounts of what happened during her time within these groups are page-turning not necessarily because you care what she was learning, but because you cannot wait to find out how those around her react if/when they find out Ned is really Norah.

In many situations, Vincent does come out not only as a woman but as a lesbian at the end of her time with a certain group or person. As Vincent notes in her book, people perceived her the way she wanted to be perceived, which was as Ned. But whenever Ned revealed himself as Norah to someone, that person always said something like, “Well, that explains a few things.” Like reading about her physical transformation, finding out how those around Vincent reacted to the news is vastly more surprising and intriguing than the conclusions she comes to at the end of her experiment.

In fact, Vincent's conclusions are exactly what bring Self-Made Man down. The book promises to “transform the way we think about what it means to be a man.” In essence, while Vincent's mode of research was bold and a bit shocking, her realizations about being a man, sexuality, and the differences between men and women are flat and a bit obvious for the year 2006.

After living as Ned for 18 months, Vincent's overall finding was that being a man is no better or easier than being a woman. Men, she tells us, have problems, fears, and societal pressures, too. This might transform the way some people think about what it means to be a man, but for most readers, it is likely to be a disappointingly obvious conclusion.

It is also less than enlightening when Vincent decrees that the only emotion that society allows men is anger, that they think about sex constantly, and that they worry about providing for their families. Nor does the reader learn anything new when Vincent concludes that strip clubs are depressing places where women with low self-esteem dance (among other things) for men whose wives would scream if they knew where their husbands were.

I cannot say exactly what I expected Self-Made Man to reveal and teach us, but I know I was certainly looking for more from a woman who was so immersed in manhood for so long. Vincent truly did have an opportunity to change the way we perceive men, masculinity, and manhood, but instead she gave us nothing more than obvious and uninspired conclusions.

Self-Made Man is half fascinating social experiment, and half disappointing lessons about what it is to be a man. You will likely enjoy following Norah along as she becomes Ned and lives as him for over a year, but Vincent's over-hyped and under cooked realizations and lessons ultimately prove less than impressive.