Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man

by Norah Vincent

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143038702
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/26/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 469,525
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.67(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Norah Vincent is the author of the New York Times bestseller Self-Made Man. Previously, she wrote a nationally syndicated op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Self-Made Man

One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again
By Norah Vincent

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-03466-5


Chapter One

Seven years ago, I had my first tutorial in becoming a man.

The idea for this book came to me then, when I went out for the first time in drag. I was living in the East Village at the time, undergoing a significantly delayed adolescence, drinking and drugging a little too much, and indulging in all the sidewalk freak show opportunities that New York City has to offer.

Back then I was hanging around a lot with a drag king whom I had met through friends. She used to like to dress up and have me take pictures of her in costume. One night she dared me to dress up with her and go out on the town. I'd always wanted to try passing as a man in public, just to see if I could do it, so I agreed enthusiastically.

She had developed her own technique for creating a beard whereby you cut half inch chunks of hair from unobtrusive parts of your own head, cut them into smaller pieces, and then more or less glopped them onto your face with spirit gum. Using a small round freestanding mirror on her desk, she showed me how to do it in the dim, greenish light of her cramped studio apartment. It wasn't at all precise and it wouldn't have passed muster in the daylight, but it was good enough for the stage, and it would work well enough for our purposes in dark bars at night. I made myself a goatee and mustache, and a pair of baroque sideburns. I put on a baseball cap, loose-fitting jeans and a flannel shirt. In the full-length mirror I looked like a frat boy-sort of.

She did her thing-which was more willowy and soft, more like a young hippie guy who couldn't really grow much of a beard-and we went out like that for a few hours.

We passed, as far as I could tell, but I was too afraid to really interact with anyone, except to give one guy brief directions on the street. He thanked me as "dude" and walked on.

Mostly though we just walked the streets of the Village scanning people's faces to see if anyone took a second or third look. But no one did. And that, oddly enough, was the thing that struck me the most about that evening. It was the only thing of real note that happened. But it was significant.

I had lived in that neighborhood for years, walking its streets where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty-that, or you were just another piece of pussy to be put in its place. Either way, their eyes followed you all the way up and down the street, never wavering, asserting their dominance as a matter of course. If you were female and you lived there, you got used to being stared down, because it happened every day and there wasn't anything you could do about it.

But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked right by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn't stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.

But that wasn't quite all there was to it. There was something more than plain respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.

I surmised all of this the night it happened, but in the weeks and months that followed I asked most of the men I knew whether I was right, and they agreed, adding usually that it wasn't something they thought about anymore, if they ever had. It was just something you learned or absorbed as a boy, and by the time you were a man, you did it without thinking.

After the whole incident had blown over, I started thinking that if in such a short time in drag I had learned such an important secret about the way males and females communicate with each other, and about the unspoken codes of male experience, then couldn't I potentially observe much more about the social differences between the sexes if I passed as a man for a much longer period of time? It seemed true, but I wasn't intrepid enough yet to do something that extreme. Besides it seemed impossible, both psychologically and practically, to pull it off. So I filed the information away in my mind for a few more years and got on with other things.

Then, in the winter of 2003, while watching a reality television show on the A& E network, the idea came back to me. In the show, two male and two female contestants set out to transform themselves into the opposite sex-not with hormones or surgeries, but purely by costume and design. The women cut their hair. The men had theirs extended. Both took voice and movement lessons to try to learn how to speak and behave more like the sex they were trying to become. All chose new wardrobes, personas and names for their alter egos. The bulk of the program focused on the outward transformations, though the point at the end was to see who could pass in the real world most effectively. Neither of the men really passed, and only one of the women stayed the course. She did manage to pass fairly well, though only for a short time and in carefully controlled circumstances.

But, as in most reality television programs, especially the American ones, nobody involved was particularly introspective about the effect their experiences had had on them or the people around them. It was clear that the producers didn't have much interest in the deeper sociologic implications of passing as the opposite sex. It was all just another version of an extreme make-over. Once the stunt was accomplished-or not-the show was over.

But for me, watching the show brought my former experience in drag to the forefront of my mind again and made me realize that passing in costume in the daylight could be possible with the right help. I knew that writing a book about passing in the world as a man would give me the chance to explore some of the unexplored territory that the show had left out, and that I had barely broached in my brief foray in drag years before.

I was determined to give the idea a try.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Self-Made Man1. Getting Started
2. Friendship
3. Sex
4. Love
5. Life
6. Work
7. Self
8. Journey's End
Acknowledgments
Author Interview

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A thoughtful, entertaining piece of first-person investigative journalism . . . Self-Made Man transcends its premise altogether. . . . So rich and so audacious . . . [I was] hooked from Page 1. (David Kamp, The New York Times Book Review)

Vincent’s account of how she ‘became’ a man is undeniably fascinating.” (Los Angeles Times Book World)

Eye-opening . . . Self-Made Man will make many women think twice about coveting male ‘privilege’ and make any man feel grateful that his gender is better understood. (The Washington Post)

[Vincent] can be as perspicuous and exact as Joan Didion or Gloria Steinem at nailing a hitherto disregarded truth about the sexes in a single elegant and witty phrase. . . . This is a brave and often fascinating book, with Vincent . . . offering us perspectives that are entirely fresh and new. (The Times,London)

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
The true story of Norah Vincent’s audacious gender-bending experiment, Self-Made Man is a fascinating account of a year and a half spent discovering how the other half lives. Remaking herself as a man named Ned, Vincent exposes the truth by experiencing it; the men she meets, as well as the man she becomes, not only alter her perceptions of the opposite sex forever, but, in doing so, deeply affect her understanding of women and herself.

Vincent, fearless from the first, begins by tackling the stereotypes of male competition, aggression, and sexual swagger. To her chagrin, she discovers truth in the clichés. Within the bastions of high-pressure, low-wage sales jobs, her assumptions about male hierarchies and power displays are confirmed; in visits to strip clubs, the combined objectification and resentment of women are indeed on display. Vincent, the intrepid social scientist, does not simply observe but gets into the mud and participates. She talks the talk, she walks the walk; she competes for sales and ogles women. She doesn’t reject the rituals but instead begins to understand the form of male culture as well as the functioning behind it.

Sympathetic but never simpering, Vincent’s humor and heart strike a balance throughout Self-Made Man. Joining a bowling league, a men’s therapy group, even a monastery, she insinuates herself into the secret world of male intimacy and forms lasting friendships. She learns the codes of conduct when men are alone, not only what they speak about but how they do it—the meaning behind silence, the subtle nuance of physical gestures, the difficulty of living within the ideals of masculinity. In her disguise, Vincent delves into the pressure of social expectations and peers behind the curtain of manliness, exploring what it means to be a son, father, partner, or breadwinner. Never limiting her focus to simply being male, she also peers through the looking glass at her own gender and exposes some unpleasant truths about women’s contributions to sexual inequality. She is as unrelenting an analyst of herself as she is of society.

Candid, compassionate, and witty, Vincent has written for the Washington Post, Village Voice, and Los Angeles Times, and she brings the full force of her experience to bear on the battle between the sexes. Her sharp intellect, emotional honesty, and keen perception combine to create a book that is difficult to sum up and impossible to put down. Self-Made Man both confirms and explodes stereotypes, ultimately presenting manhood as a complicated and contradictory experience that deserves greater attention from both sexes. Whether male or female, readers will find Self-Made Man a compelling, illuminating read and one that is certain to spark conversation. This, Vincent would agree, is the first step toward better understanding between the sexes.

 


ABOUT NORAH VINCENT

Norah Vincent left her job as a nationally syndicated opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times to research this book. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, the New York Post, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post, among other journals, and she has appeared on numerous radio and television talk shows.

 


AN INTERVIEW WITH NORAH VINCENT
Can you describe the process of your readjustment to life as a woman? How long did it take? Were there any surprises involved? What, if anything, do you miss about living as a man?

Living as a man taught me a lot about the things I most enjoyed about being a woman in the world, things I consider to be the privileges of womanhood—the emotional freedom, the range of expression, the sexual and social power we can exercise over men. Returning to my life as a woman was about reclaiming those privileges and taking greater satisfaction in them. Here’s one small example, which may sound hopelessly old-fashioned and silly, but it made me smile so warmly: The other day a clerk in a store turned to me and apologized for having to refer to pornography in front of me during a discussion he was having with a male customer. I found it very thoughtful and sweet. When a man does something like this now, I connect again with all the vulnerability that I felt as a man in front of women, and I remember all the conversations I had with the men in my men’s group about their need to take care of and protect women. Not all men behave the way this clerk did, of course, but nonetheless I feel a deep sense of the respect that men like him have for women and I feel grateful for it. It’s nice to feel that someone is looking out for you, or trying to, and worries about offending or debasing you even in speech, and this is something I never felt as a man.

It took me months. Probably a good six months to really get back into being a woman. And this is partly because I had some unpacking to do. It wasn’t just a matter of returning to myself, because I am a different person now than I was before I embarked on this project. I feel more womanly now, more in touch with my femininity, than I ever did before I lived as Ned, and that has taken some getting used to, though it has been very pleasant.

I don’t miss anything about being Ned. The few social advantages I discovered in manhood—the swagger, the self-confidence, the entitlement—I’ve learned to incorporate into my life as a woman. Everything else I was happy to discard.

How has your concept of being a woman changed since your experience as Ned, in both general and personal terms?

Being able to incorporate the lessons of manhood into womanhood is, I suppose, one of the best examples of how my concept of womanhood changed because of Ned. In my view, this is the greatest liberation of feminism, a liberation that men haven’t yet experienced in their own roles. They haven’t really been allowed to express traditionally feminine qualities, and they are limited as a result. Having lived as both a man and a woman, it seems to me now that the definition of womanhood, at least as I live it and as I believe our culture defines it, is so much larger, can happily encompass so much more, than the definition of manhood. I can borrow from the boys—wardrobe, mien, temperament—and still be all woman. The reverse is not really true, or at least it wasn’t for Ned. He had to shed all my female qualities and, as a result, became much smaller. I like to say that in that respect Ned can fit in Norah’s pocket.

What influence do you think the media have on sexual roles? Do you see any trends that alarm or encourage you?

I think that the media reflect more than they influence. They show us images of ourselves, often idealized images to be sure, but I don’t think they invent out of whole cloth. They’re not that creative. Sexual roles are a very intimate business, I think. They change at the microcosmic level first. Individuals, often obscure individuals, are the creative ones, and they’re the ones who end up changing the way we think and behave, and the media in turn digest those changes and spit them back at us as trends. If there’s a trend that disturbs me it’s probably that tendency on the media’s part to homogenize originality, to dumb it down and sell it back to us as the norm.

Are there any public figures whom you admire for expanding social definitions of gender? Do you have any heroes—personal, political, or literary?

Though I disagreed with her often, I admire my friend the late Andrea Dworkin. Some heroes/heroines, in no particular order, are: Hamlet, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Elizabeth I.

In Self-Made Man, you discuss the relationship between childhood experience and understanding gender roles—for example, fathers withholding affection in order to create tough young men. What advice would you give to a parent today to help him or her avoid imprinting gender expectations on children?

Having no children myself, I’m hardly in a position to judge, but if I had to say, I suppose I would suggest leniency when it comes to children’s self-discovery. Too often parenting is a kind of narcissism. Parents see their children as little more than extensions of themselves, or potential re-enactors of their lost youths and missed chances. This is toxic to any child’s self-actualization, especially when it comes to matters as intimate as sexuality and gender identity. If a child shows a proclivity for a particular style of dress or hobby or pursuit that the parent may not deem gender appropriate, or does not himself like, I think it is the parent’s duty to resist showing disapproval, or, worse, distaste, and to encourage the child to be most authentically himself or herself in every way possible. God knows, the child will find enough disapproval in the outside world. Our parents are the first and foremost people whose job it is to love us entirely for who and what we are, and that means, when it comes to the expression of our individuality, letting us be.

Short of dressing up as a member of the opposite sex for a year and a half, how can a person begin to break free of gender clichés? Is there such a thing as a beneficial stereotype?

As has often been said, stereotypes are born of truth. I found this in my research. They are useful shorthands that help us to make sense of our world. The danger lies in being slavishly devoted to them, or allowing them to cloud our judgment when it comes to seeing and treating another human being as a person and not a set of categories. Similarly, gender roles are born at least in part—perhaps in large part—of natural inclination. Women may always be the primary nurturers on this planet, perhaps because something in our hormonal drives directs us toward intimate and interpersonal life or because we give birth. Maybe instinct conditions us far more than we know or may want to believe. The same is true, I think, for men. Perhaps their hormonal drives will always make them more physically competitive and better suited to high-pressure, teleological pursuits. This may mean that no matter how we jigger it, by virtue of who we are as creatures, women will always tend to predominate in the nursery and men the boardroom. This doesn’t mean, however, that either sex should be mindlessly shackled to a prescribed or straitjacketed role, even if the vast majority of each sex tends to make a traditional choice. The key word here is choice, the cornerstone of feminism. Women should be able to choose whether to work or stay home, and so should men. Breaking free of stereotypes means being true to yourself and being flexible within your choices. You can, after all, be a stay-at-home mother and not be a shrinking violet, and you can be a type-A breadwinning dad and still join a knitting group if that’s what turns your crank, or vice versa and a thousand other permutations as well.

Self-Made Man not only exposes the truth about contemporary manhood but is quite intimate in its discussion of your personal history, sexual identity, and emotions. How do you feel having so much of yourself in the book? How did you decide what to reveal and what to keep private?

I tried to write about everything that I thought was relevant, even if it didn’t reflect particularly well on me. I had to overcome a lot of shame, for example, about mental illness in order to write honestly about my breakdown. A number of people who read the manuscript early on told me to take certain things out because they made me sound nuts. But it’s precisely the things that embarrass or discomfort you the most that are most important for you to write about. That’s the good stuff. I don’t mean that endless navel gazing is desirable or makes for good writing. Tempering the urge to overwrite the especially mucky parts is important, but I didn’t want to edit out the weird bits altogether simply because I didn’t want people to know that I’d been in the bin, or that I’m not always the most attractive person on the planet. Of course, the downside of this is that if you’re extremely sensitive, as I am, it means you need to protect yourself from people who take a malicious pleasure in sharpening their blades on your misfortunes and brandishing their cleverness at your expense.

The psychological toll of your experiences as Ned is both frightening and completely understandable. If you did the experiment again, knowing what you know today, what—if anything—would you do differently? Do feel that the knowledge was worth the pain?

Ignorance is courage. If I’d known then what I know now, I could never have embarked on the project. Yet, all the same, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The knowledge was absolutely worth the pain; especially because part of what I learned was how to better take care of myself psychologically in my everyday life. I listen to my emotions much more carefully now. I take care of myself. I take responsibility for my own psychic health, and that’s a daily practice. The lesson I can apply to my next project is that I can never again try to be someone else, someone that I’m not. I can and will immerse myself in situations and environments in order to write about them, but I will never again do so as another person.

Among the people you met as Ned, what range of reactions do you expect the book will receive? Do you think they will recognize themselves?

As a writer friend of mine told me when I embarked on this project, “When you write this intimately about real people, you are an assassin.” And he’s right. Almost invariably people object to something you’ve written about them. Either they say you got them wrong, or it didn’t happen that way, or that’s not how they remember it. I expect some of the Rashomon effect: The story of the same event will be told ten different ways by ten different observers. All the versions will be true and none of them will. The people in the book will recognize themselves. They’ll agree with the compliments and they’ll object to the disparagements, and that is to be expected.

This was a difficult, even dangerous experiment that consumed a year and a half of your life. What’s next?

Ned is going to be an extremely hard act to follow. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what to do next, and I haven’t hit on anything definitive yet. I’m trying very hard to resist the Hollywood temptation to find a formula that works and work it to death. I’d like to follow my imagination and have an adventure and that’s all I know right now.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • If you could switch genders for a day, what would you do? Why? What sort of man or woman do you think you would be?
     
  • Vincent is candid in admitting the assumptions she made about men. What assumptions do you make about the opposite sex? Your own? Who or what shaped these ideas?
     
  • Have you ever relied on sexual stereotypes for your own benefit? Have you ever challenged sexual convention? What prompted these behaviors? How were they received?
     
  • In her introduction, Vincent refers to her experiment as “meddling” (p. 18)—why do you think she labels it as such? Do you agree?
     
  • Discuss the two quotations at the beginning of the book. What does each one mean? What is their combined effect?
     
  • Self-Made Man is organized around experiences of friendship, sex, love, life, work, and self. Why do you think Vincent structured the book this way? How does each section relate to the others?
     
  • Of all the men Vincent befriended, who was the most intriguing? Did you see any similarities to the men you know in her acquaintances?
     
  • Compare and contrast the author’s relationships with Jim and Paul. How does each man reflect the success of Vincent’s experience?
     
  • Think back to your expectations of the book before you read it. Which of Vincent’s revelations shocked you the most? Which was most encouraging?
     
  • If you could ask Vincent one question, what would it be?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
    webreader on LibraryThing 5 days ago
    I understand the impetus behind Ms. Vincent's experiment--when I was 20 I used to be really curious about what men said and did when women weren't around. But I got over it. I think because I found out that I liked them better when they were behaving in a civilized manner as functional adult people. This aspect of male behavior degenerates considerably in the absence of women.
    LynnB on LibraryThing 5 days ago
    Norah Vincent spends about 18 months disguised as a man and this book is an "immersion journalism" account of that experience. As "Ned", the author joins a bowling league, dates women, spends time in a monastery and in a men's self-help group. Her insights are not, for the most part, earth shattering, but this first-person account brings a deeper understanding at a personal level than academic studies could ever portray. Especially interesting, I thought, was the price Norah utimately played for living a lie -- a "nervous breakdown" requiring psychiatric care.Very honest book which provides a unique perspective on cultural expectations of both men and women.
    mikerr on LibraryThing 5 days ago
    Pretty astonishing. A "masculine" looking woman (the author) spends a year living as a man - during which she joins a bowling league, goes on dates (with women), visits a monastery, works in sales, and even goes on a weekend men's retreat (a la Robert Bly). Sometimes uncomfortable to read (those women she dates - is that ethical? and what about the men's group?), this is an amazing exploration of gender. For me, as a man, it was like reading about an anthropologist reporting back on the male tribe in 21st century North America. Fascinating.Opening sentence: "Seven years ago, I had my first tutorial in becoming a man."
    melsmarsh on LibraryThing 5 days ago
    The following review came out of a request for my opinion after I posted it to my yearly reading challenge... I am just copying and pasting from there.Self-Made Man was a pretty interesting book in many ways. Personally, my favourite chapter was the chapter where "Ned" joined the bowling team and learned how adult males interacted with each other as well as with kids (there was a boy that often came to the bowling alley with them.) I found that to be very informative.I'm a ftm who was additionally raised, effectively, without a Dad or any other male role models. I missed out on a lot of male-bonding, etc and have always felt like an outsider. I have spent the past several years trying to figure out why men did certain things. Recently, I had this experience with an older gentleman who really got me upset, but I still didn't know why he acted like that to me. The next day I started that book. When I read that friendship chapter, his attitude made sense. It wasn't his fault that he was being "mean" to me because he wasn't. It was my lack of appropriate male socialization in childhood and he was trying to treat me like a son. Norah never lets you forget that she identifies as a woman and that this is just a social experiment. I still think this is a very worthwhile book to consider reading especially if you know someone who might identify as gender-queer or ftm.
    austinbarnes on LibraryThing 5 days ago
    I read this one after the book about mental institutions, even though this one was written first and its research, I think, was the motivator for the depression that lead to the psychiatry book. Certainly a lot of very male stereotypes are discussed in this book. I like to think of myself as at least a decently intuitive person, and just don't see those qualities in most of the guys I know. At least not to such a degree anyway. Though I guess this is the authors primary point :) -- that men behave differently around women than other men. Nonetheless, the book did make me think, especially about which of my behaviors are heavily influenced by being female. Made me want to act so damn acquiescent and flexible a heck of a lot less, for one. :)
    maxbuehler on LibraryThing 3 months ago
    Very enlightening. Seems like a passe premise, but has a lot of new and interesting things to say about social realities of men and women.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    joln_is_bookcrazee More than 1 year ago
    The subject of this book is very compelling and could be compared to the work of other authors going "undercover" (e.g. Black Like Me). Vincent jumps full-force into a world she isn't always sure of and gives us thought-provoking information and insights that most women would not even think of, let alone understand, from a man's perspective. From something as simple as what a stare means to men, to their inner thoughts about sex, dating, and being a husband/man, Vincent lets us into men's secret world. As she (with some difficulty) sets aside her beliefs on men (which I think most women carry with them!), Vincent gives us a clear and balanced view of the "other side". Women, skip Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and buy this book. Men should enjoy it too as it gives them a woman's perspective of their world, and may be surprised the opinion is much different than they may think!
    psabena More than 1 year ago
    I saw someone reading this in the airport and immediately bought it. As an experienced woman of the world, I learned more about men (touching, heart-wrenching, surprising and affirming) from this book than I have from two marriages, a lot of dating in between, two sons, three daughters and their husbands, and the workshop 'Women, Sex and Power' of the '80s, That the author is a lesbian made the findings both more real and more enlightening. In particular, I was struck by the varied societies in which she played her part out to the hilt. Read this book, and give it to your daughters and sons. Men deserve to be understood and loved more deeply in this post-feminist world.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The idea for the novel is an amazing concept. It is enticing, and I loved the novel. I learned a lot about male relationships, and in no way regret reading this book. But... I do think it was a bit drawn out near the end. I had to force myself to read the last 40 or so pages. Besides that, it is an enticing read.
    kokonutz_rox More than 1 year ago
    I read this book as a class assignment, and I loved it. It was very well written. Usually I dont like non fiction books, but this one I was engrossed the whole time. Her ability to draw the reader in is amazing. Great read, especially for women. It will help to illuminate the male mind for greater understanding.