Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent.

"Before I can walk in another person's shoes, I must first remove my own."
--Brian Tracy

The men's movement has an unlikely champion.

A lesbian feminist: Norah Vincent.

However, she had to walk in men's loafers (and clothes, glasses and beard disguise) for about 18 months (p. 15) to arrive at this destination. Moreover, the process landed her a psych ward. (p. 268.) As a psychiatrist told her: "'[H]aving done what you did, I would have thought you crazy if you didn't have a breakdown." (p. 271.)

Vincent infiltrated six different contexts as a "man" and wrote about them in Self-Made Man. Apart from an introduction and epilogue, the book is organized according to each of these experiences: "Friendship" (about playing on a men's bowling team); "Sex" (about visiting strip clubs); "Love" (about dating women as a "man"); "Life" (about staying at a Catholic monastery); "Work" (about selling coupon books in a testosterone-fueled company); and "Self" (about participating in a men's group, including a "retreat").

Vincent writes: "But, of course, getting inside men's heads and out of my own was what this project was all about. Part of the project was writing a book like this is to learn something about the infiltrated group and then ideally to put that knowledge to good use. Inevitably then I have to ask myself whether or not my experience as Ned [Norah's male alter-ego] has changed the way I see and interact with men." (p. 283.)

She concludes: "Unexpectedly, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I have an inescapable empathy for men that could not help but come from living among them. I know in some sense how it feels to be on their end of things and to receive some of the blows and prejudices the world inflicts on them." (p. 283.) In this vein, Vincent reluctantly concludes: "Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man." (p. 271.)

Through this unusual process, Vincent reports some poignant observations about men that probably could only have been the product of such a study--a woman living as a man, mostly among men. In addition to insights about the male gender, the book also provides understanding about women especially in their expectations for men. (See, e.g., Chapter 4, "Love".)

As drawbacks, Vincent contradicts herself intermittently (such as whether or not she was just being herself in a male disguise) and traffics in some stale gender stereotypes.

Nevertheless, this book adds some fresh (and surprising) content to the "conversation" about gender.