Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Self-Made Eh

I just finished Norah Vincent's book Self-Made Man, wherein she: learns to walk like a man, talk like a man, and make a convincing stubble out of wig hair; infiltrates all-male circles as a man; cracks up; has revelations about masculinity; and recognizes the privilege of being born female. Until its touchy-feely and, I hate to say it, utterly girly ending, this was a great, great book. Part Jane Goodall, part Sex and the City, part Martian-to-Venutian dictionary, every chapter until the end notes was a more exciting foray into secluded boys clubs I hadn't even realized I was curious about until Vincent pointed out I couldn't penetrate them. (Ha.)

She started by tackling an all-male bowling league as her alter-ego Ned. From there she worked her way through strip clubs, internet dating, a Catholic monastery, the corporate sales world, and one of those all-male wilderness retreats designed to put a man in touch with his inner grizzly bear. It was like a high-stakes version of Capture the Flag with a sociological spin; as Ned pushed further and further into each male world searching for enlightenment, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the someone to grab her flag and end the game. Less a flag in this case, though, and more a used feminine hygiene product or suspect sports bra. Did no one in the monastery notice the suspicious tenor in the choir?

But then the ending. After all the monkeying around with her identity did a number on her sanity, Vincent spent a few days in a hospital and a few months in the care of a psychiatrist trying to reorient herself in her previous (and preferred) gender. It's not the fact that she lost her shit that made the end of the book feel so chintzy in comparison to the rest, but the flowery aphorisms and lame therapy-speak that strove to make everyone sympathetic. Men have it hard too, they're crying out for affection from each other that they can't get, society expects men to be at once sensitive and as solid as a rock. Yeah. I know. You just spent two hundred and fifty pages detailing the difficulties of the American male experience in a much more nuanced way. To reduce it to the kind of stuff you would hear as the credits roll on a daytime talk show, and to put it in the language in which Carrie might speak to Miranda about a particularly obtuse date, felt cheap. And sadly inevitable.

The fact that Vincent chose to end her book with an uber-feminine (and I don't mean pink and lacy, I mean overly emotive, sympathetic, intuitive, and tender) analysis seems to me to undermine her whole experience of masculine life. If returning to an emotional way of thinking felt like a homecoming--enough so that there was no other way to write her ending--it seems like the kind of thing that is hardwired into the female way of perceiving the world. Studies have shown that the brains of men and women process information differently. Intentionally thwarting the way her brain was programmed to understand the world was enough to land her in the loony bin. Couldn't those same physiological differences be enough to make our perceptions of our gender and gendered experience unknowable to the opposite sex?

By which I mean: she was a woman inside the costume of a man. Though she was able to pass, she was still interpreting male interaction in a woman's mind. All of the emotional absence and terseness and competition that she perceived as so hostile as Ned--couldn't it be that the way a man's brain interprets those same cues differently? And, if she wrote the book from an inescapably female brain (one that, when encouraged by therapy to fully embrace its femininity made terribly sappy conclusions about the plight of modern man) couldn't all of those secrets she learned and hidden wells of pain she tapped also be just the product of female-wired experience of life as a man?

I dunno. The first seven chapters are really good, though.


Anonymous Stupidboy said...

I have to say that's a really good point Kathy. I think a lot of people miss the very subtle, or playfully violent, ways men show affection. Or maybe we're just emotionally crippled dorks?

2:08 PM  
Anonymous thespindleshay said...

i would have been a bit miffed at that ending too.

i dunno, but i'm glad you enjoyed the first 7 chapters.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

Thanks for the review, or whatever this is. I've been hearing a ton about this book, and had many reservations along the very lines that you describe. I'm glad to hear that the majority of the book was good, though... Maybe I'll look into it after all.

3:43 PM  

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