Review: Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

Journalist Norah Vincent turned herself into a man for a massive eighteen months in an attempt to explore the ‘man’s world’.  Ned, as she called herself, spent time with many different kinds of men, in lots of different situations.  The experiment is no doubt an interesting one, and Vincent’s objective certainly fascinating but the question is, did she manage to pull it off?  Well, that’s debatable.

This is definitely a girl’s book – a book for girls searching for an insight into what all-too-often seems a man’s world.  I am a girl (as much as I am sometimes loath to admit it) and I do enjoy a bit of pop psychology, thus this book should have been for me – and it was in a way.  It was an interesting social experiment that kept me thinking throughout the read and beyond.  My partner, on the other hand, is far from a girl and guffawed at (and doubted the authenticity of) the whole investigation.

In parts, the book reads simply as a series of caricatures of the different people she meets – Jim, Father Fat, Ivan, Paul.  Sweet as they are, they left me wondering whether they had any place in the work and whether they were there as a ‘bumpf’ to increase her word count.  These snapshots certainly made the work more readable, as opposed to a dry experimental report, merely expounding method and consequences.  Some of the characters also are ones that will stay with me for a while – Ivan made me laugh, the monks were somewhat reminiscent of Prachett’s wizards, the men in the retreat were simply amusing, if not a little pity-inducing.  Their presence in the book though, did not make me understand the male plight any more than I did before.

I wonder whether it was Vincent’s intention to portray men as snivelling, drivelling emotional wrecks that need little other than our pity – for that is certainly how they came across.  The blurb told me that she painted a surprisingly ‘sympathetic’ picture of manhood but this was far from what I was imagining.  It’s almost as though she didn’t meet a single happy, well-rounded man during her whole time as Ned.  Women didn’t fair much better mind – those demonic leviathans, full of confidence, well-adjusted emotional intelligence and the desire to put men down at the slightest moment.  Vincent’s incessant generalisations were infuriating.

Similarly, her experience of female interaction is far from consistent with my own.  She says “the company of other women doesn’t generally make women tense. We don’t have our guard up in the same way. […] We hug and touch and break the barriers of one another’s space in ways that men find startling among themselves.”  Does she simply exist amongst a circle of touchy-feely, superficial women?  The idea reminds me a little of the chatty airheads that American comedies mock so well but perhaps that is where this inconsistency comes from – a mere cultural difference?  Perhaps this gender divide is more starkly observational in her part of America and perhaps the females around which she has grown up have been just as she claims.  I cannot relate to that for the people around me simply aren’t the same.

Ironically, the parts of the work that I found most interesting are the parts that she seemed to brush over more.  Vincent focused primarily on what it is to be ‘a man’ and male social conditioning but the parts of her book that were truly fascinating were the way that men and women behave according to the sex of the person with whom they are interacting.  I also think that these were her best parts – for, as a woman, she can never truly know what it is to be ‘a man’ but with her disguise, she can confidently and reasonably accurately account this difference of reaction and behaviour.  One point that she raised truly got me thinking – the idea that we have different ‘conversation sets’ for different genders and it is true to my experience as well.  I will behave differently to a man than I would a woman, even if they had made exactly the same initial contact with me but that is natural, isn’t it?  Even down to our basest needs and desires (regardless of social conditioning), we look for different things in different genders.  We look for a reproductive mate in the opposite sex, perhaps companionship and friendship in the same sex.

I was also interested in the times when her disguise didn’t quite work, which is something she touched upon extremely briefly.  I was intrigued by her comment that people froze when they couldn’t work out her gender.  I wonder just how often this happened and I mourned the lack of photographs that would normally join a book like this so that I could see just how like a man she looked.  I found myself referring to the small cover photographs regularly and wishing I had more to go on.  And of course, I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that she makes a masculine woman and an effeminate man.

Although her portrayal of the sexes was irritating at best, the book did get me thinking about gender conditioning.  I wonder though, is it really bad that we behave differently according to gender?  We are different after all.  I wouldn’t want to be more like a man and I certainly wouldn’t want the men in my life to be more effeminate.  Perhaps a little more understanding and acceptance would go a long way but the idea of gender merging into a single, indistinguishable entity is quite frankly frightening.

Review first published on Goodreads.  

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