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Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year…

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man (original 2006; edition 2006)

by Norah Vincent

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Title:Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man
Authors:Norah Vincent
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (2006), Edition: ZZZ, Paperback, 287 pages
Collections:2012 (inactive)
Tags:autobiographical, interesting

Work details

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent (2006)

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    Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (espertus)
    espertus: A classic book on a white man's experiences disguising himself as a black man in the American South in 1959.

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I'm not super pleased about it being an abridgement, but since the author is reading it, I'll have to assume she had a hand in how it was trimmed.

I'm really glad I read (listened) to this book. Vincent is thorough and honest about getting to the core of her observations. This is what I appreciated the most about the story. Throughout it, she makes it clear that she is drawing conclusions based on her observations and the observations themselves take primacy over the conclusions based on them.

She is open about her preconceptions and biases as much as possible. She doesn't disclose her political leanings except is an an aside about abortion politics on first dates (Vincent is a conservative) but I found it somehow easier to empathize with conservative values coming from a lesbian woman trying to pass as a man.

Throughout the book, I did not see my own experience of masculinity mirrored in what Ned/Norah saw. I recognize it as true, but I think she was looking for a stereotypical version of masculinity that has not been my experience. That doesn't make her story invalid, I just want to be clear that being a dude is a richer, broader, and more varied experience than shown by the range of sad-sacks she sought out. For example, she bases work experiences on a door-to-door sales job. Dating is based on trying to pick up strangers at bars or internet dating sites. And group identity is based on a "men's movement" retreat. There is a lot more to masculinity than these brief glimpses. However, these brief glimpses are revealing and I think she's done fantastic work reporting them.

I used the term "sad-sack" before to describe the men Ned and Norah spent time with. I meant it to be casually insulting, but it is worth pointing out that she did not spend a lot of time with successful males. There aren't any stories of pride in work well done, the weird locker-room euphoria that comes from winning a sporting event, pride in providing for one's family or filling a set role society lays out for us. The men Ned interacts with all seem to be pride-deficient. I think pride is overdone, but it does seem to be a massive part of the social construct of masculinity I've experienced. She spent her time with Barney Fife and Fred Mertz visions of maleness, she didn't seem interested in finding Andy Griffins or Ricky Ricardos to spend time with. It could be that these stronger, better adjusted men are relatively rare or it could be that she has a set image of maleness that she was looking for.

In any case, this is an interesting and valuable book. The quest for empathy and insight is to be applauded. Vincent herself is explicit that she's just reporting her own experiences, but readers should be aware that this is just one woman's journey into manhood and not manhood in its entirety.

For a different vision of masculinity, I recommend reading Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. His treats male-ness with less kindness or gentleness than Vincent does, but it is a literary genius covering aspects of masculinity that Vincent does not. ( )
  nnschiller | Sep 18, 2014 |
After years of wondering how daily life differed for men and women, Norah Vincent quit her job and spent a year and a half adopting the appearance and persona of Ned Vincent. Passing as a man, Vincent joined a bowling club, visited strip clubs, went on dates, and even tested the waters of a men-only therapy group. Although she found her experiences eye-opening, the pressure of maintaining her male façade led to a mental breakdown, forcing the end of the experiment.

I’m not sure how I want to react to this book. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the process by which Norah became Ned. She makes it clear early on that she isn’t doing this as a transgender experiment. Norah never felt that she was a man trapped in a woman’s body or not fully female. She’s merely curious about the difference between how men and women are treated when they step out into the world. She assumes that life for a white heterosexual middle-class man is easier than for a white lesbian, but by the end of the book many of her expectations have been altered or completely thrown away.

Yet this book makes me uncomfortable, because there’s so much deception in it. Norah doesn’t don the disguise of Ned for one night at a bowling alley, but maintains the persona for months. Ned signs up for a therapy group in which men unloose their emotions in a raw, hyper-masculine state under the expectation that no woman will ever witness them. She sneaks into a Catholic monastery, for crying out loud! In each situation, Norah does eventually out herself, and the men are always surprisingly forgiving – but it sounds like none of their friendships lasted for long after her revelation.

Even more manipulative and cruel was Norah’s dating style. As a man, she opted to date straight women. Although she did eventually reveal her true gender to most of her dates, many of the relationships progressed and became quite involved and passionate before she ‘fessed up. One woman did end up having sex with Norah anyway, but most of them ended up dropping out of sight after finding out they’d been lied to. I found it curious and rather disappointing that Norah could be so callous with the feelings of others. She eventually concludes that the constant rejection men face as they ask women out is much, much harder than the women could ever suspect – but doesn’t spend much time thinking about how hurtful a deceitful man (or woman) can be to potential dates.

As a case study for cultural anthropology, Norah’s book would fail because she used so much deception that it would be considered unethical. Her project isn’t especially balanced. She chooses traditionally “masculine” roles for Ned to try out, like joining a bowling team or taking a high-pressure sales job, and ignores more neutral positions, like men in a church group or mixed sports team. Finally, she makes no attempt to be objective – she admits some of her biases early on, but I don’t think she makes much effort to ignore them when making decisions and drawing conclusions.

As immersion journalism, it’s certainly an interesting process and I enjoyed reading about Norah/Ned’s experiences. But it was certainly a flawed experiment and the ethics of some of her decisions are dubious at best, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Ultimately, I found many of Norah’s final conclusions to be – well, rather obvious – which made her whole adventure seem a bit shallow.

If you do enjoy this book, Norah Vincent did write a follow-up book called Voluntary Madness as she moved through three mental hospitals in an attempt to treat the depression that followed her experiences as Ned in Self-Made Man. ( )
  makaiju | May 3, 2014 |
This is a fascinating book, but I was shocked by how depressing it is (in fact, the author ended up checking herself into a mental hospital by the end of the book).

Norah Vincent spent a year or so as Ned Vincent - she disguised herself as a man, and explored how differently she was treated as a man, and tried to explore the male psyche as much as she could. She makes some really fascinating observations, although clearly these are just one person's observations, and Norah's past and personality play a huge role in her perceptions.

In some ways, I think gender ends up being a straw man in the book. As much as her insights about gender are fascinating, I think that Norah/Ned is often reacting just as strongly to other factors that are independent of gender. For instance, in the first chapter, she joins a bowling league and spends a bunch of time with white trash blue collar guys. She is surprised at their intelligence and sensitivity, and as an intellectual writer, finds her own supposed superiority knocked down a few notches. It seems to me that she is responding to their culture as much as to their gender. Something similar happens when Ned gets a job as a door-to-door salesman - the job is so life-sucking and depressing that the employers have to keep everyone really pumped up all the time, and they use sex to do it. I (a female) actually worked for a PIRG for a few days, which is also basically door-to-door salesmanship, and my experience there very closely mirrored Ned's experience - that kind of work requires a certain culture. I would have been far more interested in Ned's treatment in a boardroom than as a salesman.

Having said that, Norah's/Ned's insights into gender are fascinating. She essentially concludes that the two genders come from such totally different starting places that getting them to understand each other is nearly impossible. She compares genders to religious sects - there's just no way to get them to connect meaningfully.

Norah's/Ned's personal crisis at the end of the book is ultimately about identity: she says that conforming to any gender role is basically a denial of your own identity, and her year pretending to be someone else was really devastating to her.

This is an interesting read, with lots of food for thought, and has certainly changed my perception of men. ( )
  Gwendydd | Mar 9, 2014 |
I abandoned this earlier this year, for some reason this morning I picked it up and started reading it again. It took me the day to finish, so I didn't give it my most earnest attention.

It was a hard book to like because there was just so much vulgarity about it. On the surface I was expecting a deep incite into a female perspective of the male world. The book does deliver some really interesting stuff, but it is not whole. The book does not offer a well-rounded look at the male world, instead it tackles the really seedy stuff.

I found the chapter discussing the inner workings of a strip club, even to the point the the author had a few lap dances, really depressing. It was a sombre section of the book, but I don't think it required a female to tell that story, and that is the big problem I have with the book.

The author, a lesbian and feminist, paints with broad strokes. I read about how her male persona (Ned) hits up strips joints with a friend. The friend has a wife and kids at home, and I can't help but feel this is what she expects of all men.

She joins a bowling league, goes on lots of dates, spends time in a monastry, joins a weird mens help group, and takes a job as a hardcore salesman. These are testosterone filled groups to be sure, but hardly representative of men as a whole.

I struggled greatly with this.

I really took great issue with the lives that she messed with as well. Dating women, even getting into the bedroom before revealing herself to be female. Something about all of it bothered me.

She ends the book by checking herself in a mental hospital (which I just noticed is the subject of another book). I just don't get what is good about any of this. ( )
  alsocass | Oct 12, 2013 |
This is a great book. I absolutely adored it. Her writing voice is frank and thoughtful, and she does a fantastic job of exploring the gender divide. I want to own this book. It's the type of book that you just want to grab a pen or pencil and notate throughout the thing, marking all those awesome passages or thought-provoking ideas.

For instance, she brings up the observation that we tend to have 5 or 6 gender-specific set responses, and when people aren't certain of your gender (as happened later in her experiment, when she would go out dressed as Norah, but accidentally projecting the masculine confidence of Ned), they don't know how to respond to you.

At one point, she gets a sales job as Ned. Her account of this experience is fascinating -- the way that she lost sales when she tried to make them the way that was natural to her, as a woman. If she was polite, deferential and flirtatious (in the female manner), she was perceived by both men and women as weak and off-putting. But if she acted as a male -- polite, but confident, firm in voice and convictions -- she made more sales. However, she also worked with women who made sales just fine being polite, deferential and flirtatious. It was entirely the gender presented that worked against her.

The entire book is a great, fascinating and eye-opening observation of how deep and subconscious the gender divide really is.

I didn't come away from the book thinking, "Ugh, men are pigs, women are awesome." Nor did I think the inverse: "Women are horrid, I wish I was a guy."

Instead, I came away from it thinking, "Wow, it's a hell of a lot more difficult to be a man in our society than I thought."

Obviously, both men and women have gender-specific abilities and strengths that help them get ahead, socially. And I'm not talking about anything as obvious as physical characteristics. I'm talking about the ways we relate to each other, talk to each other and interact in society. This book really highlights how even the most gender-neutral, pro-gender-equality people still play to their gender's strengths, and still expect the opposite gender to act in certain ways. It really highlights how we, as a society, encourage certain behaviors in each gender, only to bemoan and complain when those behaviors come with a price.

This book is promoted, a little, as a "secret inside glimpse at male behaviors." But it's so much more than that. She really gets into the meat of the matter, discussing why each gender presents as the way they do. She talks about how as a child, she was raised in a liberal, feminist family. She's often told (when female), that she has a masculine aspect, and she'd thought that going in drag would highlight that aspect -- only to find that when she was in drag, her feminine qualities stood glaringly and off-puttingly obvious. So her background is one of a tomboy girl, a child who was encouraged to play with "boy" toys and "girl" toys, as were her brothers. Yet even as pro-feminist, lesbian woman, she still fell back on typical "female" behaviors, without even realizing that she'd internalized them so thoroughly until she did this experiment.

Because of this realization, she often touches on how women relate to each other and how women relate to men, as well as how men relate to each other and to women.

Seriously, everyone needs to read this book. It's incredibly fascinating. ( )
  mephistia | Apr 6, 2013 |
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'But this my masculine usurped attire...
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent...
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.'
- Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

'Were it not better,
Because I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will,
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.'
- Shakespeare, As You Like It
To my beloved wife, Lisa McNulty, who saves my life on a daily basis.
First words
Seven years ago, I had my first tutorial in becoming a man.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670034665, Hardcover)

Following in the tradition of John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), Norah Vincent absorbed a cultural experience and reported back on what she observed incognito. For more than a year and a half she ventured into the world as Ned, with an ever-present five o’clock shadow, a crew cut, wire-rim glasses, and her own size 111/2 shoes—a perfect disguise that enabled her to observe the world of men as an insider. The result is a sympathetic, shrewd, and thrilling tour de force of immersion journalism that’s destined to challenge preconceptions and attract enormous attention.

With her buddies on the bowling league she enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie undetectable to an outsider. A stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut- wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed. She frequented sex clubs, dated women hungry for love but bitter about men, and infiltrated all-male communities as hermetically sealed as a men’s therapy group, and even a monastery. Narrated in her utterly captivating prose style and with exquisite insight, humor, empathy, nuance, and at great personal cost, Norah uses her intimate firsthand experience to explore the many remarkable mysteries of gender identity as well as who men are apart from and in relation to women. Far from becoming bitter or outraged, Vincent ended her journey astounded—and exhausted—by the rigid codes and rituals of masculinity. Having gone where no woman (who wasn’t an aspiring or actual transsexual) has gone for any significant length of time, let alone eighteen months, Norah Vincent’s surprising account is an enthralling reading experience and a revelatory piece of anecdotally based gender analysis that is sure to spark fierce and fascinating conversation.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:29 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

For more than a year and a half Vincent ventured into the world as Ned, with an ever-present five o'clock shadow and a crew cut--a perfect disguise that enabled her to observe the world of men as an insider. With her buddies on the bowling league she enjoyed the rough and rewarding embrace of male camaraderie; a stint in a high-octane sales job taught her the gut-wrenching pressures endured by men who would do anything to succeed; she frequented sex clubs, dated women hungry for love but bitter about men, and infiltrated all-male communities including a men's therapy group and even a monastery. She ended her journey astounded--and exhausted--by the rigid codes and rituals of masculinity.--From publisher description.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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