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Review of Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again, by Norah Vincent

originally published in Bitch

Norah Vincent has made a career of pandering to straight fears of queers. She got her start writing sensational articles about the degeneracy of gay men for New York Press (she’s a lesbian, so she can’t be homophobic!), then was recruited by the Village Voice, which apparently wanted a taste of her particular brand of backlash. The Norah Vincent treasure I remember best was an opinion piece in national gay newsmagazinethe Advocate, where she implied that Matthew Shepard deserved to die because he flirted with straight men. More recently, Vincent landed a job writing a weekly op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times, a job she left when she obtained a (presumably) lucrative book deal to go undercover as a man for 18 months. Vincent infiltrated traditionally male spaces, including a bowling league, a monastery, and a men’s movement self-help group. Disguised as “Ned,” she also dated women, worked as a door-to-door salesman and went to strip clubs to investigate the privileges, pitfalls and pains of manhood.

Anyone assuming that Vincent is intent on eviscerating gender norms will be sorely disappointed when, at the very beginning of the book, she declares, “Gender identity, it seems, is in the genes as surely as sex and sexuality are.” Vincent presents this “fact” as if she is unaware that such reasoning has been contested for decades by queers, feminists, radicals, academics, children and various other thoughtful individuals who have argued that gender and sexual identities are at least as much socially constructed as biologically determined. While banking on the increased visibility of trans men, Vincent is keen never to acknowledge trans cultures, except to assure the reader that she is absolutely not a “transsexual” or “transvestite.” This is as sophisticated as her gender vocabulary gets.

To encapsulate Vincent’s approach, one need only scan a brief excerpt toward the end of the book, where she invokes the specter of Brandon Teena, who lived, dated and loved as a man until he was brutally raped and murdered (Hilary Swank won an Academy award for portraying him, remember?). Vincent says, “Look what happened to Teena Brandon. She passed as a guy in rural Nebraska, and then her so-called friends found out...” By choosing Brandon Teena’s birth name and using female pronouns to refer to him, Vincent acts as if she’s just shooting the breeze, instead of making a calculated blow to render trans identities invisible while simultaneously using the story of Brandon Teena to inform the reader of the kind of wrath Vincent herself might incur if exposed.

In the tradition of fellow gay neoconservatives like Camille Paglia, Vincent casts herself as the lonely hero subverting paradigms in order to prove them; in this case, her goal is undoubtedly to normalize and strengthen the gender binary. Entering the bowling alley for the first time as Ned, Vincent states, “I was surrounded by men who had cement dust in their hair and sawdust under their fingernails.…[I]t’s at times like these when the term ‘real man’ really hits home with you, and you understand in some elemental way that the male animal is definitely not a social construct.” After living as Ned for 18 months, Vincent declares, “There is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects.”

Late in the book, Vincent seems on the verge of developing a critique of masculinity, or at least a critique of the strictures of “manhood,” which she describes as "a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire."  But, even here, Vincent turns it all around to talk about the pain of being a “double majority” (white and male, and presumably straight). “When certain men shook Ned’s hand and called him buddy it felt as if they were recognizing him as one of their own in much the same way that gay people, when we meet each other, often give each other some sign of inclusion that says: ‘You’re one of my people.’” Once again, Vincent chooses to remain vague in order to make sweeping statements. Who are these “certain men”? Are they the men at the bowling alley, the owners of strip clubs or the monks at the monastery? Are all of these men part of the same double-majority subculture?

In the end, after a year-and-a-half undercover as a man (and a supposed breakdown due to the impossibility of keeping “my male and female personae intact simultaneously”), Vincent concludes, “Manhood is a leaden mythology written on the shoulders of every man.” Vincent remains unwilling to grasp the flaw in her logic -- after all, if manhood is a mythology, then what on earth is a man?

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