Wednesday 7 June 2006

Self Made Man - My Year Disguised as a Man

Norah Vincent

After the film Transamerica, here comes another take on gender from the United States. New York City-based freelance journalist Norah Vincent goes into the company of men to see how men behave and what makes them tick, especially when women aren’t around. Is this merely a Some Like It Hot romp in the men’s locker room, or does our intrepid heroine unearth any genuine insights?

First, it’s important to realise what Vincent’s book is not about. She isn’t a transvestite or a transsexual, and this book isn’t an account of the year that the latter would normally spend in their chosen gender-role before qualifying for ‘the op’. It’s a series of episodic investigations, a sort of gender-studies equivalent of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Vincent – a lesbian who has ‘always lived as my truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine’ – has no desire to change sex, but wants to find out more about the ramifications of gender identity. So, with the help of a drag-king, on goes the false stubble and out steps Vincent – as Ned – into the male world.

And it’s one that’s taken almost straight from central casting. Vincent meets blue-collar bowling alley working-class men who are generally honest, no-nonsense types and who don’t beat her up when she eventually reveals her secret. She hangs out in scuzzy lap-dancing clubs whose clientele and workers are equally dehumanised. She gets to work with ill-paid door-to-door salesmen whose battle-cry is JUICE (‘Join Us In Creating Excitement’) and who could have come from the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis novel when the brat pack writer was in low-rent mode (there are some excellent vignettes of the banalities of office life and corporate platitudes here). She goes on an ‘Iron John’ weekend with men supposedly celebrating their masculinity but who could do with sorting out their Inner Adult rather than pursuing their Inner Child (Tom Wolfe could have much fun with this theme). In short, these are standard scenarios. Americans aren’t big on eccentricity, but were there no quiet or unconventional men with whom she could have interacted (including male-only gay groups)? The nearest she gets is a monastery, where the lapsed (or semi-lapsed?) catholic Vincent poses as a would-be novice. The monks have various problems regarding emotional intimacy, but appear the most mixed – and rounded – of the lot. Granted, America is the land of the John Wayne swagger as a male role-model, but surely she could have done a bit better than this.

Vincent’s findings – as Ned – are varied and contradictory. At the bowling alley, she discovers men who are upfront and have emotions but who don’t need to parade them constantly. The monks are good men but they’re careful to restrain their emotions for fear of any taint of gay relationships which could harm the equilibrium of monastic life. About other men, such as the JUICE salesmen, the less said, the better. So far, so unsurprising – it would be unlikely to find uniform emotions everywhere. But then come the contradictions. Vincent makes much of female whinging, competitiveness and bitchiness in a manner that few male authors would dare to make – and this is before she’s experienced the problems of dating women from a male perspective. – but then goes on to make the standard assertions that men are ‘in pain’ and need their own liberating equivalent of the women’s movement (though how women would react is not something she considers in great depth). Is she merely observing the conventions of American therapy-speak – the equivalent of the Hollywood happy ending – or is this a sort of Danegeld which she’s decided to pay to placate female critics who might otherwise feel that she’s let the side down? (Incidentally, what’s happened to the 1970s feminism which asserted that the only fixed differences between the sexes were physical, and upon which equal rights legislation was based?)

But all is not lost, for the book’s failures are, in a way, its strengths. Vincent’s year concludes with a form of nervous breakdown, brought-on by the fact that she can no longer act as an impostor. This is interesting because it shows that – contrary to what some commentators might think – masculine lesbians don’t have the same mind-set as men. Indeed, being gay and being transsexual are not necessarily synonymous. But has she come to any definite conclusions on gender? She says that the sexes are ‘different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature’ and that men and women ‘are separate as sects’. Yet earlier she tells us that the ‘concept of either/or isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to understand men and women’. She seems unwilling to make a firm decision about whether gender has grey areas or is either starkly pink or blue. The suspicion comes to mind that she has to maintain a certain bipolarity between the sexes in order to give the book its selling-point. Too many similarities would bore some readers and disturb others. Given the fact that she’s avoided easy targets like the Church or blue-collar workers – as well as the unsubtle humour that can easily creep into gender studies of this kind – that makes her failure here all the more noticeable. And – now that commentators are asking whether women can ‘have it all’ – she might also have considered whether feminism has ‘masculinised’ women who have entered traditional male roles in politics and business, and what effects have resulted for women from this.

Literature on gender issues is a mixed bag. This book is one of its better offerings. Despite its shortcomings it makes us think about the perennial topic of sexual difference, even if not in ways necessarily intended by its author.



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