Feminist Fridays: A Review of Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

self-made man

This week I’m discussing Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent, published in 2006 by Penguin. I purchased a copy of this for one of my graduate classes (Anthropology 750: Cross-Cultural Perspective on Masculinity) but we only read an excerpt. I recently reread the entire book and was surprised by how much my thoughts on book had evolved since those days in my first Anthro class.

Norah Vincent is a “conservative lesbian” journalist who for a year and a half, dressed as a man and to explore gender identity. Written in a very accessible and witty manner, Self Made Man is a fascinating, if problematic, read. While the anecdotes she shares of her experiences seductively draw you in to the story, the conclusions that Vincent draws based on her own observations and interactions are painted with far too broad of brushstrokes. Dangerously essentialist, she writes about masculinity as if it were a solid, eternal, and universal thing, rather than fluid and personal. She shoves aside the way it intersects with race, class, and other axises of identity. Bowling leagues, strip clubs, and first dates are interesting places to explore versions of masculinity, but it’s not as if these can hold the truth about what it means To Be a Man across time and space and within different cultures.

The merit in this book is it’s premise: masculinity is confining. But instead of dismantling gender stereotypes, it reinforces them.  As someone who would never be able to pass as a man, I found it interesting to read about the experiences of someone who did, but it was not enlightening. I’d recommend this book with reservations. As long as you don’t go lucking for The Truth about Men, it’s an engrossing read.

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There were a number of essays and posts that touched on some aspect of feminism that I read this week, but in particular, I think you should check out this piece in The New Yorker by Susan Faludi about the death of radical feminist Shulamith Firestone and the history of the second wave of feminism.  This article is about so much more than the life of one woman. Faludi explores a movement torn apart from within and a how often madness lurks within great thinkers. It’s a moving, fascinating portrait of a woman who may not be well known to even dedicated, well-read feminists.

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14 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: A Review of Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

  1. I find it hilarious that you, another woman is trying to say what is and is not acceptable masculinity. You reinforce the idea that masculinity is acceptable only in so far as it’s useful to women. I just got done reading this book and I find it pretty interesting. It re-ignited a desire to have men around me that I respect and honor, which as of late has been in decline. I respect most, but the honor part is missing.

    I found her portrayal of the male experience to be pretty spot on, and as a white man that makes great efforts to get to know black men it sure seems like their experience of being a man as much as it can be separated from race constantly resonates with me. I am not color blind, yet when I talk to men of all ethnicities we can always find fraternity in this shared experience. I found her conclusions about the experience very interesting and I took exception to several points, but ‘essentialism’ is not it.

    Your insistence that one must first focus on the outliers instead of looking at the 2 standard deviations of the bell curve, you know that huge part where most people live to be derisive of the real experience men have in this world. It seems to me in your world view a cis-gendered man should first look to a trans-man, for masculinity cues, before looking to his father, that is just wrong headed. Maybe one should try and understand before dismantling so that men don’t become as systemically unhappy as women have become.

    1. I’m not at all trying to define what is and is not “acceptable masculinity” — quite the opposite. I’m saying that trying to pin any version down is problematic.

      I did find the anecdotes fascinating, but possibly because she’s a journalist and not an anthropologist, some of the conclusions she drew from her experiences and her attempt to piece together a universal understanding of masculinity was misguided.

      I’m not saying that one must focus on outliers, but that they should be acknowledged. If not, people become marginalized for being different.

      I don’t think you can understand what something is unless you dismantle it; but that’s my personal opinion.

      And I’ll just ignore the comment about how “systematically unhappy” women have become, since it’s so inflammatory.

  2. As a woman, I found the book fascinating and i think you can’t dismiss the author’s perspective and write it off as generalities when she is writing about the basic perspective of which men function. There is no true way to explore the overall nature of all men because that is such broad subject line but Norah focuses on manhood in its rarity. The basic needs of any human being is connection (friendship), love, money (work), life, and self. The book examines how social behavior, dreams loss, needs for connection, relief of telling ones truth can impact these needs. There is no real way to truly understand how “race, class and other (axis’s) of identity” will tell you the truth about all men.

    You may say that “instead of dismantling gender stereotypes, it reinforces them” but the books larger point is generational behavior and the ideals in which some men believe is detrimental to their manhood. Quite frankly, If you were looking for an scientific explanation to help you better understand the “Truth about Men” then you’re not going to get it in this book. It is simply a relatable read on human behavior.

    1. I’m not trying to dismiss her perspective. I think the way she portrays men’s “nature” is fascinating. I’m not looking for a more “scientific” approach, just one that considers outliers or men who don’t conform to these behaviors. It’s been months since I re-read the book, but I still feel like Vincent’s conclusions aimed to describe a universal male experience, which negates the experiences of those who don’t conform to the “normal” version of masculinity.

      1. What I found interesting about her perception is that when she reveals herself to some of the men, you begin to see the stripping away of social behaviors or so called stereotypes. She first reveals the behavior then reveals a deeper part of the male masculinity. So I think that the hegemonic masculinity picture that she paints is purposely put there so she can then reveal that there is a deeper reasoning behind there male facade. I don’t agree that there is one type of masculinity but I do believe that there is a baseline/bottom line in which masculinity exist. I believe that there is a basic form of masculinity instinctive in nature in which other forms derive.

  3. I found the perspective of the author very interesting as many of the things she was surprised by ( in the way men interact with each other) are simply taken for granted by men. It illustrates the different perspectives that men and women have on the world and the social pressures and constraints on both genders. It was heartening to read a book that recognised men as emotional beings, simply with different ways of expression and different limitations. I would suggest that the essentialism touched upon in the book comes from the fact that many of the men she met are of an age where masculinity was very rigidly defined giving rise to the appearance of an essentialist basis for masculinity. Gender roles and boundaries may have broadened over the last 40 years or so but they are still pretty narrow.

  4. The male gender role is a problematic one, because on one hand the male stoicism prevents men from consciously being willing to accept themselves as victims (for whatever reason it may be warranted), and on the other they are emasculated if they do, such as taunts by women at the sight of true male existential vulnerability.

    As a man, I found that the book expressed the timeless issues caused by these inescapable boundaries, and quite frankly, I wish you wouldn’t dismiss what is one of the few ways in which the male view can truly be communicated without scorn and dismissal, and it seems that you did just that without, and did so without touching on anything but the idea that it’s essentialist (which I don’t think any male would agree with).

  5. As a man who also read the book I think she comes to some VERY valid points. Anyone who reads this book learns alot about how different it is to live on this world as a man and at the same time about the similarities across genders…

      1. But why did you find the book “dangerously essentialist”? It just shows the ocidental masculine universe nowadays. And it is no different of 30, 40 years ago.

        As a man, I grew up seeing men acting just like Norah discribed in her book. I always questioned the reason why do men have to behave like that to be considered a “true man” and attempted myself to experience other way of doing things to prove that all those matters about being man were nothing but a social-contructed image, or a stereotype, like you do.

        But I was wrong! I was just trying to deny the basic nature of a man inspired by the ideal of equality among genders. The harder I tryed to be different, stronger was the feeling that I wasn’t being myself. Slowly an uncounciously I started to behave like other men do, because it is my nature!

        If this is essentialism? Maybe, but it is also reality! There is no danger about being man or woman, but it is too dangerous do not consider the nature of each gender. There are some things men and women will naturally do, without being taught. Ignoring that fact is the key to never have an agreement or understanding among genders.

        It is just and fair to claim equalitty in political and civic rights, for all of us are humans. But to claim complete equalitty among genders is non sense. Men and women DO ARE different! What we should learn is how to accept and respect those differences and work thogether. Maybe, when someday we realize we are not enemies, we, women and men, can live in peace.

      2. When I say dangerously essentialist, I mean that the way the experiences are framed, it reinforces the idea of a unverisal male/masculine experience. Which means that this is ‘normal’ and anyone who expresses/experiences maleness/masculinity differently is ‘not normal’ — I do think the book is fascinating.

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