Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man, Norah Vincent (Atlantic, 2006; £7.99)
Self-Made Man – Norah Vincent’s memoir of living as a man for 18 months – is billed as affectionate and tender towards men according to the blurbs, but all I could think of while reading it was Germaine Greer’s dictum: “women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” I don’t see this hatred borne out for the most part in my daily life, but reading Vincent’s odyssey through bowling groups, the dating scene, strip clubs, a monastery, sales work and men’s consciousness-raising groups in the person of Ned (a creation of fake stubble, a flat top, chest binding and vocal control), I started to reconsider.
The men Vincent meets are, as far it’s possible to tell, normal. And they find women disgusting. They joke about finding the smell of women’s genitals repulsive, but they want access to these genitals more than anything: women are the gatekeepers of these hated, wanted parts, and when access is denied, men take revenge by paying to get access to women they can despise without hypocrisy, or form communities from which women are constitutionally excluded. The paranoid thought formed that maybe I’m deluded by the fact that I only see men with women. Maybe men in the company of men are far more vicious creatures, and maybe that is men as they truly are.
Vincent, to her credit, never believes this disturbing bluster to be the the authentic voice of manhood. For her, it’s part of the masculinity parade: a man shows his manliness by the negation of femininity, and the negging of females. One thing Vincent discovers is that her masculine self-presentation is never challenged, but when Ned is read as a man behaving in a feminine way, he is mercilessly hazed for his errors. One is not born, but rather becomes, a man; and this process is accomplished by other men schematically punishing all infractions of the man code, until self-loathing can do the enforcement without outside assistance.
So Vincent discovers that gender is taught, but she also comes away believing that it is innate. These contradictory beliefs are offered within a half-page distance of each other time and time again. “Through gender I learned the hard way that gender has roots in my brain, possibly biochemical ones, living very close to the core of my self-image. Inseparably close,” writes Vincent on p. 270. Then on p. 272:
[…] for these men, living in their man’s box wasn’t a particularly good fit either, and learning this in spades may have been Ned’s best lesson in the toxicity of gender roles. These roles proved to be ungainly, suffocating, torpor-inducing or even nearly fatal to a lot more people than I’d thought, and for the simple reason that, man or woman, they didn’t let you be yourself. [p. 271]
There’s an infuriating refusal to bring the live contacts of thought together here, doubly infuriating because it seems fairly obvious how it should be resolved. The “gender is taught” theory doesn’t prevent gender from being “inseparably close” to our self-image: we are, after all, trained to be a man or woman from the start of our lives, socialised by gender even before we can be a part of society, as parents decorate the nursery blue or pink and buy in the toys to tutor their boy or girl in the appropriately active or passive role.
But if gender were not social and plastic, Vincent’s experiment could never have worked. She showed that gender is an act – an act we learn so well we forget that we were ever fed the lines, but an act all the same – yet she comes out believing that it has a substance so profound she places it in the realm of the physical. Vincent’s con is impressive, but it’s the con of gender itself that comes out as the preeminent grift in this memoir.