Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Self-Made Man - Norah Vincent

This is the non-fiction account of Ned, Norah Vincent's alter-ego. Vincent, a lesbian journalist, has always seen herself as a masculine woman. She decides to go undercover as a man to find out what life is like on the other side. In her 18-month experiment she tries a number of different all-male environments, from a men's bowling club to a monastic order of monks. She dates women and gets a job. All the while finding out that while her masculinity was emphasized as a woman, she is consistently viewed as an effeminate man - one that other men go to as a good listener, and also one that men viewe skeptically as possibly homosexual. Vincent is exhausted by the experiment, finding that she is not given the freedom to bask in all that is denied to her as a woman, but rather faced with constant pressure to prove her manliness. I felt Vincent failed to acknowledge that the difficulties she encountered were not necesarily shared by the men around her - simply because they had actually been socialized their entire lives to be men, and she had not. I also felt like she let the men off too easily at times, and failed to acknowledge how what she described as difficulties for men actually translated to much more burdensome situations for women. But, overall, I did find Vincent's transformation quite fascinating - especially the idea that so many people seemed to perceive that something was off, but not quite be able to put their finger on it - and that those she revealed herself to did not seem to have as much trouble with the situation as I would have imagined (though clearly, she was judicious about who she told). Clearly no social experiment like this is without its flaws, but Vincent has certainly given us something to think about in terms of how we perceive gender, and how we treat others and behave ourselves based on these perceptions and socially constructed expectations. As a result of this experiment, Vincent went into a deep depression and voluntarily committed herself to a mental institution. That experience forms the basis for her most recent book, Voluntary Madness, which I am definitely interested in checking out.

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