Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man"

I'm taking the lazy way out and, instead of giving my own plot summary, quote from the book's back cover. The book is more serious, more subtle, than the language of this publisher's blurb may suggest.

With an ever-present five o'clock shadow, a crew-cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 1/2 shoes, Norah Vincent spent a year and a half as her male alter ego, Ned, and reported back what she observed incognito. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah ponders the many remarkable mysteries of gender identity as she explores firsthand who men really are when women aren't around. As Ned, she joins a bowling team, takes a high-octane sales job, goes on date with women (and men), visits strip clubs, and even manages to infiltrate a monastery and a men's therapy group.

The best chapters describe her experiences in the competitive bowling league ("Friendship"), the monastery ("Life") and the Robert Bly-type men's group ("Self"). In those chapters, Vincent is perceptive and thoughtful about the substance and limits of male relationships, and about the burden of men's gender role. I am most impressed by her ability to steer clear of academic orthodoxy, simplifications, and jargon, in order to see with her own eyes, and to write with her own words. The ability is that of a gifted reporter. She named George Orwell as one of her heroes.

In comparison with the other chapters, the ones on the strip clubs and the sales jobs were one-dimensional and unsurprising, though still well-written and witty. The theme of "Sex" is the humiliation of both men and women in the unsavory strip joints Vincent frequented. In "Work," the focus is on how the salemen saw their jobs as an extension of their dicks, or, as Vincent puts it, "Making the sales was like getting the panties, and losing it was taking it up the ass."

More surprising is her sympathetic, though not uncritical, take on the men's movement. It would have been easy to mock the rituals and activities of the men's weekend retreat in the woods, a program that culminated in a "spirit dance." But Vincent saw past those externals to the real struggles expressed by the men in trying to be man.

That chapter ends with a nuanced and bold reflection on contemporary gender relations that strikes me as true.

Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man.

True enough. But what to do about it? I can hardly write these words and defend them. Men's liberation isn't a platform you can run on, even if it is the last frontier of new age rehabilitation: the oppresser as oppressed. In our age we feel no political sympathy for "man," because he has been the conqueror, the rapist, the armonger, the plutocrat, the collective nightmare sitting on our chest. Right? Right. "Boo hoo," we say in the face of his complaint. "The tyrant weeps." When the bellowing image of the Great Oz turns out to be the befuddled homunculus pulling levers behind a curtain, we are understandably lacking in sympathy.

Yet, as Paul, who has spent years in the men's movement trying to defend it to angry feminists, once put it to me, "It is women who are paying the highest price for men's dysfunction. We are not in opposition to them at all." And he's right. Men's healing is in women's interest, though for women that healing will mean accepting on some level not only that men are--and here is the dreaded word--victims of the patriarchy too, but (and this will be the hardest part to swallow) that women have been codeterminers in the system, at times as invested and active as men themselves in making and keeping men in their role. From the feminist point of view this sounds at best like an abdication of responsibility, an easy out for the inventor, and at worst, an infuriating instance of blaming the true victim. But from Paul's point of view it means that men and women are finally agreeing on something: the system sucks.

The last chapter, "Journey's End," is particularly acute about the relationship between men's constrictive gender role and homophobia.

Somebody is always evaluating your manhood. Whether it's other men, other women, even children. And everyone is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy, as if it's some kind of plague they're terrified of catching, or, more importantly, of other men catching. If you don't make the right move, put your eyes in the right place at any given moment, in the eyes of the culture at large that threatenes the whole structure. Consequently, somebody has always got to be there kicking you under the table, redirecting, making, or keeping you a real man.

And that, I learned very quickly, is the straitjacket of the male role, and one that is no less constrictive than its feminine counterpart. You're not allowed to be a complete human bring. Intead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what's expected of you.

The worst of this scrutiny came from being perceived as an effeminate guy. Other guys, it turned out, were hypervigilant about the rules of manhood, an they were disconcerted, sometimes deeply so, by my failure to observe those rules. They could be obtuse as hell aout all kinds of other signals, especially emotional ones, but boy were they attuned to the masculinity quotient. So much so that it really does justify the term homophobia--and I've certainly never been a fan of that word. But it felt to me as if most men were genuinely afraid, almost desperately afraid sometimes of the spectral fag in their midst. It's hard to explain it otherwise. Only fear could make they spy that much on another man's signals, espcially when so much else in masculine interaction goes unremarked.

Again, this explanation of homophobia--a term I've never been shy to use--rings true. It explains its deep-seated and persistent nature, especially in cultures and historical periods that reify masculinity as invulnerability. It explains its virulence in straight men against gay men, and its opposite in straight women for lesbians. Straight men who fear and loathe homosexuals are not necessarily closeted homosexuals themselves, but they are very likely to be insecure about their masculinity. In Vincent's words, they are afraid of "the spectral fag" in themselves.

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