In which I curse like a sailor: “Self-Made Man,” Norah Vincent, and missing the point.

On a whim I snagged a book called Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back.

So many of my worst ideas start “on a whim.” The awesome ones (like the letter game) start that way too, but I nevertheless really regret this one. Especially since it’s a whim that cost me $10 (as I was online at the time, not at the library; I got it for my kindle. Impatience, you get me every time.)

Anyway, the author of this book spent about a year and a half passing for male in various situations to see what it was like, and I heard she had some interesting things to say on the construction of gender roles. Also, I have always wanted to pass as male just for a little while, just to see what it was like. I love being female, but sometimes I get sick and tired of being a woman. (The distinction, by the way, is that my body is female and that’s the way it is, but being a woman is what society makes me do based on the fact that my body is female. I wouldn’t give up my breasts or my vulva for a million dollars but I’d pay a million dollars to take a break from everybody’s expectations.)

Initially, Norah pretty much confirms my suspicions: it’s amazing to walk places, alone, even at night!, and have nobody look at you. If you accidentally make eye contact, they’ll look away right away. You can go to that bar, or that concert, or just your own front yard, and nobody will trespass into your personal space. I’d love to do that– to just be invisible to men.

However, then Norah decides “Ned” needs to actually get to know some men to make the experiment worthwhile, so “he” joins a men’s bowling team. (A note on pronouns: don’t worry, I’m not an asshole. Although she presented male, Norah never identified as male; I would never put “he” in scare quotes for someone who was actually trans, but Norah made her preferred pronouns clear in the introduction.)

And that’s when the stupid, stupid, stupid gender essentialism crops up. I read the entire second chapter but I just wanted to scream. So here I go:

Norah! You of all people should know that men are not from mars and women are not from venus! You’re even gay, for fuck’s sake– why the hell do you feel the need to talk about how catty and competitive women are? Seriously, it’s cool that you thought shaking hands with a man as a man was a sincere, emotional moment– but do you really have to spend three paragraphs talking about how the “supposed intimacy” between your “women friends” is fake and hides a competitive edge? I find it hard to believe that all women everywhere “hold something back” when they shake hands, or even when they hug their friends. And you know, I’d be pretty shocked if all men everywhere had genuine warmth and emotion in all their handshakes. And what’s with going on about how great it is that they try to teach you how to bowl “like a son”? I mean, I get it that at your preppy-rich-kids tennis camp you were the only one there who was interested in the tennis, but did you really have to tell the story about the girl who said “I’d rather look the way I do and serve the way I do, than serve the way she does and look the way she does” as if that’s every woman’s response to competition? I mean, I suck at every sport ever invented, including foosball, but when I’m sucking, people of both genders offer to help me– even people of both gender from the other teams. It’s not only men who are willing to help their opponents improve.

Also, what the hell was up with that introductory chapter about being a tomboy? I was a tomboy as a kid, and I’m a dyke now, but I sure as hell didn’t “instinctively” reject everything feminine, including female friends. Guess what: there’s nothing inherently feminine about dolls or dresses. I was a tomboy in floral prints and lacy socks, and I’m a dyke in pearls and panyhose. I mean, our society does a good job of blaring the message that “feminine” equals “less-than” but you don’t have to agree. And you definitely don’t have to go telling people that all tomboys want to be real boys, and that all dykes hate feminine things. There are already people who think lesbians just want to be men, and I believe you when you say you’re sure you’re a woman (hell, you’ve put it to the test better than most people I know) but I can help but thinking, what kind of lesbian hates everything associated with women?

I guess what my gripe comes down to is this: tell us your experience, sure, I’d love to hear it. I’m hoping to get tips so I can try passing myself some day. Tell us your theories and observations, that’s your right. But cut it would with the absolute, gender-essentialist statements. It’s a very, very bad sign when I can’t tell the difference between you and a troll. “Women are always in competition with each other,” my ass.

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2 Responses to In which I curse like a sailor: “Self-Made Man,” Norah Vincent, and missing the point.

  1. Melanie S. says:

    Hey–found your blog through Shakesville. 🙂 I had a similarly negative reaction to the book, mostly around her “ZOMG the patriarchy is bad for some men too!!1!1!!!” weirdness. I like your analysis of the general gender essential-ness of it, though.

  2. eloriane says:

    It’s just so bizarre! Why is a lesbian, sufficiently gender-bendy to spend over a year in drag, so aggressively defending the status quo? I guess I always knew intellectually that it was possible for a lesbian to be misogynistic, but it seemed like such a recipe for self-loathing (I mean, to not respect the gender you’re attracted to OR the gender you are?) that I was surprised to see someone actually be that way. It seems to be a mindset she brought with her, and it’s just confusing, and kind of ruins the book for me.

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