Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 304 pages
# Publisher: Viking, 2006
# Price: $24.95
# ISBN: 0670034665

Few things fascinate us, all of us, more than the opposite gender. Surely that is the main draw of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, the nonfictional story about this gay female journalist who spends extended time disguised as a man in order to learn more about that gender. To see the world from and through a man's eyes, or at least as closely to his view as possible.

I expected to be fascinated. I was. Vincent begins with a chapter that describes how she accomplished this feat, then adds chapters on friendship (she joins a bowling league), sex (she delves into the baser side of the male psyche and visits strip clubs), love (she dates a long string of very varied women with surprising results), life (she joins a Catholic monastery), work (pounding the pavement as an aggressive salesman), and, finally, self (she joins a men's therapy group and accompanies them on a retreat to get more in touch with their emotions). Her conclusion, if we are not to give too much away, is that she is most happy being a woman, thank you.

Vincent's journey of discovery begins with a revelation that made me almost gasp YES! that's exactly how it is! the very first time she dresses as a man and walks the same street she has so many times walked as a woman:

"As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty...

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares."

I have no doubt most any woman can relate to this. It is nearly impossible to describe to our brothers in humanity just how this feels. Vincent, switching places from one side of the gender fence to the other in this manner, does it beautifully.

Perhaps most difficult to read is the chapter on Vincent making the strip club rounds with her male pals. I have often pondered why men seem so mesmerized with the images seen in porn, on street corners, and the glossy, airbrushed and objectified images presented in media, even while beautiful real women stand available beside them. Vincent gives insight:

"But as I began to understand more about the shame that arose in men from the need to visit places like this, and the undoubted shame that arose in the dancers for having to work in them, I thought I began to understand something more about the kind of woman that becomes a sex object in the eyes of men. A lot of women have asked themselves why so many men are so fond of modern porn stars and centerfolds, women who aren't real women, whose breasts are fake, whose hair is bleached into straw or perversely depilated, whose faces are painted thick, and whose bodies have been otherwise altered by surgery or diet to conform with doll-like exactitude to something that isn't found in nature. Why, I had so often wondered, didn't men want real women?..."

Vincent describes what these men really want, and I will not quote here because of the language used (appropriately), but the conclusion is that men do not want witnesses to their basest behavior. And so, writes Vincent:

"A real woman is a mind, and a mind is a witness, and a witness is the last thing you need when you're ashamed. So f--ng a fake, mindless hole is what you need. The faker the better."

Crude, but apt. When I checked this section with a male friend, he reluctantly agreed.

But Vincent is not on a mission to degrade the male gender. Dare I say, the male gender does so well enough by themselves, certainly in these episodes. Yet there is another side, and Vincent equally well taps into the rest of the story, rounding it out. She writes of male bonding with a tenderness that never loses its masculinity (and continues on how real women love real, read imperfect, men -- agreed!). She exposes the suffering of men when they are denied their father's approval and warmth. She speaks of the injustices women sometimes throw on men at first encounter, judging them in as fully an objectified manner as men judge women. She chides women for often bringing on male hostility themselves when assuming an emotional superiority that closes down all communication. Finally, however, she states that both genders are hurting, lonely, longing to connect, and fault can be found, just like quality, in both sides.

This is not a journey to be missed. Perhaps I can't claim great surprise in reading any of Vincent's revelations. But I was given an insight into the opposite gender that was as open as any I've encountered. This author had no mission but to be a good journalist and see what she could see, record what she observed.

I recommend this book highly to both men and women. It is great and much needed fodder for discussion and learning. Agree or disagree with Vincent's conclusions (I didn't always agree), nevertheless it has tremendous value for open communication.