Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: Self-Made Man

Previously, I have considered the experience of scientist Ben Barres, a transgender man who has written of how others treat him differently as a man than they did as a woman. Writer Norah Vincent, who is not transgender, decided to disguise herself as a man in order to document some such differences in treatment.

In her account, Self-Made Man, she tells of her experience presenting as a man, whom she calls "Ned," in various social venues such as on a bowling team, in the hetero dating world, in a monastery, in the workplace, and in a men's group. To those who follow feminism or gender studies, Vincent's insights are not all that startling. Basically, she comes to realize that maleness comes with privileges but also that society's strict imposition of the male gender role also harms men. Yet, it's an interesting account, nonetheless.

1. Essentialism and Gender Presentation

Throughout her account, Vincent flirts with the ideas of gender essentialism versus gender as presentation. Indeed, while she makes several claims about Inherent Traits of Men, one wonders how exactly Vincent is able to separate the traits of masculine that men are taught versus the ones they are allegedly born with because they are men. She doesn't claim to be writing a treatise on sex and gender, but this conflation between essentialism and presentation becomes confusing at times.

In the beginning of her experiment, she was very worried about her disguise being passable enough. Although she identifies as a butch lesbian, in disguise she at first feels like a "petunia" next to a "real man," suggesting that men and women are almost too biologically different to make transgender-ing realistic (24). Yet, the longer she wears her disguise, she "began to project a masculine image more naturally" so much so that even when she stopped wearing her disguise, people accepted her as a man. She recounts, "people accept what you convey to them, if you convey it convincingly enough" (12). Thus, gender seems to come from within, psychologically while also being something that one can project.

The inextricability between biology and social construction becomes more evident the more Vincent recounts. She claims, for instance, that she "rarely if ever interacted in any significant way with anyone (even store clerks) who didn't treat [her] and the people around [her] in a gender-coded way" (223). While many feminists readily concede that there are some biological differences between men and women, such pervasive gendered treatment that we receive in every social interaction is incredibly likely to exaggerate and reinforce any inherent differences and also to "add" to these differences.

Ultimately, by the end of her year and a half living as a man, Vincent had enough. Indeed, she had a breakdown, finding that the cognitive dissonance between living as "Ned," whom others perceive as a man, but being Norah, a woman, was too much, an experience she tellingly echoes from many transgender people who "come out" after no longer being able to hide their true genders from the world. Vincent became "passively suicidal," drained by the energy it took to "inhabit a persona of someone who doesn't exist" (268-269). In her account, I found much to suggest that much of gender, although perhaps not all, is what other people give us via how they relate to us.

2. Male Privilege

The first time she presented as a man in public, Vincent seemed to be in awe of how other men reacted to her. Of walking down the same street she had walked down for years, she writes:

"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 pussy to be in its place.... If you were female and you lived there, you got used to be stared down because it happened every day and there wasn't anything you could about it" (2).

And, as a woman, many women have become so accustomed to this reality, that we fail to notice it. Yet, as a man, her experience was much different:

"We walked 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 purposefully not staring" (3).

She describes her experience as "Ned," wearing a suit, a symbol of male power, at his sales job:

"You see [the suit], not [the man], and you bow to it.... I felt male privilege descend on me like an insulating cape" (187).

"Ned" became assertive, stopped saying "sorry" all the time, he became direct, because that's how guys are and they don't have to explain or apologize for it.

3. Male Pain

Vincent mostly glosses over the male privilege aspects of masculinity, instead spending quite a bit of time recounting the pain many men are in as a result of performing masculinity. Time and time again, after she revealed herself to men who had initially believed her to be a man, they opened up emotionally. As Norah, they told her things they "never would have told a guy" (52), and many of them liked Norah better than "Ned" because they could open up to her in a way they couldn't with other men (as did some of the straight women she later came out to, and who wanted to continue dating her anyway).

In the monastery, she lived among "socialized men" who nonetheless didn't know how to talk to each other "about much of anything, let alone their feelings" (153). This was partly the result of men who were desperately and "actively trying to squelch any creeping womanly tendencies in themselves and their brothers" because they feared being intimate, even just emotionally, with other men (177-178). Vincent went to the monastery seeming to expect to find spiritual solace or peace, but instead found an all-male environment that was "steeped in commonplace masculine angst," that was "observable in a concentrated state" (181). By eradicating women and femininity from their lives, these men lived together "in silence under a hurt they could barely acknowledge, let alone address (Ibid.).

At the men's group she attends as "Ned," she listens to story after story of men saying they didn't know how to recognize their own feelings and aside from anger, certainly didn't know how to express them, especially in the presence of other men. They talked of living in constant fear of other men- fear of losing status, fear of losing their women to other men, and fear of opening up to other men- much of it rooted in literal homophobia and fear of looking weak (248). One man said he "felt trapped" by people assuming that, because of his large masculine build, that he was a dangerous, insensitive "ape" (256).

Unfortunately, many men's rights types blame feminists or women for the plight of men under patriarchy. And here, I am reminded of Hugo Schwyzer observation:

"The dreadful straitjacket of masculinity is put on by other men, by fathers and teachers and coaches and bosses and frat brothers and drill sergeants and peers. While some young women are taught to eroticize the young men who wear that straitjacket with apparent effortlessness, it’s a huge mistake to assume that female desire or expectation is anything more than an ancillary factor in the adoption of the masculine code. As Michael Kimmel and others have pointed out, what drives American men is the craving for 'homosocial approval' — the longing for the approbation of, older, more powerful males."

In a monastery, this craving for male approval is quite obvious. Men perform masculinity to win favor from men of high social standing. And yet, throughout Vincent's account, men play the "masculinity" game in nearly every social situation that they are in. Whether it's making rape jokes or bragging about which women they're going to stick their enormous dicks in next, when men are "doing masculinity" they are often actually using women to gain status among other men.

4. Women Suck (and So Do Men)

Almost immediately, Vincent begins comparing male and female social behavior. She is pleased that the men on the male bowling team she joined accepted her as one of the guys, no questions asked. She lauded how they tried to help "Ned's" sucky bowling technique because, "as men they felt compelled to fix [her] ineptitude rather than be secretly happy about it and try to abet it under the table," which she claims is what women would do (44). Taking a cue from evolutionary psychologists, she speculates that men are hardwired to help other men succeed, because back in caveman days "the tribe's survival depended on it" (Ibid.). Again, we see Vincent attribute to biology what could aptly be explained by social conditioning (assuming that men are more likely to help each other and women more likely to undercut the "tribe's" success in the first place).

Yet, Vincent's account of men is also at times extremely unflattering. Although she mostly excuses her male companions' jokes as "never mean-spirited," she recounts the men on her bowling team regularly telling gay, sexist, and rape jokes, and regularly branding the player with the lowest score "fag" (33). As a reader, I hope I wasn't the only one letting her bowling buds off so easily. When she visited strip clubs with her male friends, they recounted bachelor parties and father/son trips- rites of passage in the commodification of women's bodies. As a man, she "observed the painful compulsions of male sexuality," where a "girl's" face "didn't matter" because that isn't the part of her that's important (63-64). "Ned's" buddy "Phil" forthrightly told "Ned" that with respect to what men are really looking for in a woman is:

"A guy is looking for a woman to fuck him. We want someone we can stick or dicks into all the time. That's ninety-five percent of looking for a woman. And there's no explaining that to anyone" (66).

Again, the assumption here is that this male "sexual compulsion" is biologically-driven, assuming it's a legit framing of the male human experience, rather than the result of socially-conditioned male sexual entitlement to women. And, the argument within this Inherent Male Hyper-Sexuality narrative is that it is social pressures such as marriage that force men to "repress" their sexual urges. The narrative continues when Vincent further recounts her male co-workers boasting to each other about the 74 women they've supposedly had sex with, their 9-inch penises, and their 180 IQs, all "lines" that men let other men get away with (199). These men obsessively talked about scoring with women and trying to score with their female co-workers, whom they invented sexual nicknames for. Where men were encouraged to be aggressive in their sales' positions, the women, not surprisingly, were encouraged to use sexual allure to make sales. But again, hard to say if this socially-conditioned machismo talking or biology, or both.

Because men are sexual wildebeasts, Vincent then claims that men believe women hold all the power when it comes to sex. Whenever I hear men say this, the implication always seems to be that this is bad thing, as though it's some horrible injustice against men that they don't have more power to make women have sex with them whenever men demand it.

Nonetheless, Vincent sympathizes, saying "it didn't feel good to be on the receiving end of [women's] suspicion" and that some men did want more than sex so it wasn't fair that the majority of men ruined things for the Nice Guys (97). Perhaps not. But I've always believed that this Nice Guy's dilemma is men's fault. Not women's, who have every right to be defensive about male sexual predators, especially if Vincent's account is indicative of what men are really like. Unfortunately, Vincent seems to turn quite quickly into a Bitter Rejected Man, a "momentary misogynist," who understands why some men are so resentful of women, who are categorically bitches who "guard the gate" (127, 99). Thus, based in part on this female "power" over men coupled with the newfangled feminist expectation that men treat women equally, Vincent has to go and say this:

"I had operated in my real life under the burden of being a doubly oppressed minority- a woman and a lesbian- and I had encountered the deprivations of that status, as a man, I operated under what I felt in these times to be the equally heavy burden of being a double majority, a white man" (112

Like many feminists, I'm quite willing to recognize that patriarchy and the enforcement of gender roles hurts men too. But I cannot accept the false equivalence that men and women are "victims" of patriarchy in an "equally" burdensome way. Suggesting that men suffer just as much as women do under patriarchy and gender role policing is one of the primary arguments mens' rights activists use to conclude that feminism is unnecessary and unfair to men. Men and women experience patriarchy differently. Period. And the "white" man bit? Nowhere does Vincent give us any sort of racial analysis demonstrating how white dudes have things so very hard.

To be a man in our society means adhering to a stifling gender code, but it also means automatic dominance over women. Men who adhere to the code are "one of the guys," innocent until proven guilty, especially when they are obsessively sexualizing women. While some believe women have "all the power" when it comes to heterosexual sex, one begins to doubt the "power" that women have given that the other half of humanity frames them primarily in sexual terms, seemingly incapable of genuinely interacting with women as regular human beings. If Vincent's account is reflective of the average hetero man, and such men are truly as obsessed with "scoring" as they let on, her narrative demonstrates that male dominance over women is, literally and figuratively, sexual dominance.

While sympathizing with men, Vincent nonetheless describes how, after inhabiting the male connections between "violence and sex and women and self-worth," she is "more afraid than ever of male minds" and feels "more powerless than ever walking in the world among them" (128).

I guess, in light of Vincent's false equivalence between male and female suffering under patriarchy and this ending note, I'm reminded of the feminist quote that men's biggest fear is that women will reject them, women's is that men will kill us. Different experiences under gender roles. Not equal.

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