Review: "Self-Made Man" by Norah Vincent

July 10, 2006

I bought this book in January when Vincent appeared on the Colbert Report, but didn’t read it until now for book club. At the time I was intrigued: Vincent, a lesbian, dressed up like a man and infiltrated all-male groups to write about it.

While I got all the laughs I expected — like the scene when Vincent’s male alter ego “Ned” tried to pick up girls at the bar — Vincent’s book loses its luster when she strays from storytelling into summing up her experiences. Instead, she falls into hasty generalizations such as all men are like Ned and his friends — God help us all if they were! — and “angry feminists” don’t want to hear how hard it is to be a guy. Whatever.

Vincent’s narration read too much like the concocted “boy crisis.” A segment of the male population — not surprisingly, poor and disenfranchised men — are down on their luck, therefore this is a crisis for all men, which has future negative implications on our society. Not surprisingly, Vincent’s book received the endorsements of “feminist” scholar Camille Paglia — remember her essay on the myth of date rape? — and Christina Hoff Summers of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

Don’t get me wrong: Self-Made Man is a great book club pick because it will stir discussion. I can’t wait for my book club meeting tonight. But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to its hasty generalizations and superficial research. (Who are the women who put up with these guys? I feel for them.)

The first circle Vincent infiltrates is an all-male bowling league. These blue-collar white workers occasionally leave their wives home to go bowling or frequent strip clubs. One of the guys even leaves his cancer-stricken wife home with the kids to go bowling every week and, occasionally, a strip club with Ned. Vincent showers this man with much needed and appropriate sympathy — even justifying his drinking at the strip joint because he truly loves his wife. Call me a heartless, angry feminist, but I would be hella pissed if I were on my deathbed with cancer and my husband went to a strip club.
The guys — like many of the men Vincent befriended — love to tell gay jokes. I found myself shaking my head at this, considering how she out of all people let this roll off her back. But hey, they are nice, fun-loving guys!

I agree with Vincent that poor white men are often stereotyped as a bunch of mean misogynist racists. From my experiences as a brown girl in an all white town in New Hampshire, poor white men were the only guys open-minded enough to enter an interracial relationship. My prom date was a 21-year-old gas station attendant. Meanwhile, I never had luck with even the middle class white guys who’d swear up and down in social studies class that they weren’t racist, although they opposed affirmative action, the NAACP and dated only equally white bread girlfriends.

But again, Vincent’s pitfall is that she takes these misunderstood men — and to her credit, blue collar, white bowlers are a significant portion of the U.S. male population — and passes them off as the Universal Male Experience. My husband and his friends all have college educations, white-collar jobs, are equally involved in child-rearing, well-adjusted emotionally — and would never utter a homophobic comment. Also, contrary to what Vincent says in her book, my hubby does give warm bear hugs, even to his gay male friends, and says whatever is on his mind (as you all know). Yet, financially secure gay men and forward-thinking straight guys like my husband are not represented at all in this book.

Other freaks Vincent cohabits with — no wonder she had to see a shrink at the end of her book! — are monks, uneducated and struggling door-to-door salesmen, and members of the “men’s movement.” Prior to this book, I never heard of this underground movement, but I was creeped out by it. Many of these guys were abused by their mothers or had cheating girlfriends and used their therapeutic sessions to lay blame on women for their woes. In their group sessions they spewed a lot of anger, including fantasies about mutilating women and “conquering pussy” whenever possible. Again, Vincent assures us that these men are not crazy. Just misunderstood.

I do want to give Vincent props for disguising herself for a whole 18 months. If I am allowed a tired and inappropriate cliché, that takes balls. She also brings up some good points that men — I would distinguish poor men — are often in tough environments that discourage the expression of emotion and communication of feelings. Even worst, they are most likely to have grown up without a father. How are you supposed to develop good study habits and communication skills — I want to point out that stereotypically these are “female” traits — when there are no men around to model them?

Sitting quietly in class to succeed in school, showing empathy and emotion, and developing good communication skills — these are the lessons women gained from the feminist movement. Disenfranchised men will climb out of the gutter when they embrace these lessons as well.