Lord of illusion

Author and former Advocate columnist Norah Vincent on Self-made Man, her engrossing new book about passing as male for 18 months

BY Regina Marler

January 30 2006 12:00 AM ET

One night in New
York City, writer Norah Vincent went out in drag as a
prank and discovered that she could pass as a man. Walking
around the East Village, bracing herself for the usual
catcalls and penetrating stares of the men in front of
the bodegas, she found that as soon as they registered
it was a man walking by, they looked away. For men, she
realized, as she recounts in her debut book, Self-made
Man,
“to look away is to accept the status
quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the
small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and
keeps him.” If she could learn “such an
important secret” about the unspoken codes of
masculine behavior in that one night, what could she
uncover if she passed as a man for a longer period of
time?

So she
supplemented her naturally deep voice and willowy 5-foot-10
frame, adding fake beard stubble, undergoing a
bodybuilding regimen, and getting a flattop—and
Norah became Ned. For a year and a half Ned interacted in
five different U.S. cities as a man: joining a bowling
league, dating, going to strip clubs, attending a
men’s therapy group, spending time in a
monastery, and interviewing for (and getting)
high-testosterone sales jobs.

Self-made Man is the fascinating and oddly
poignant story of that journey into masculinity, which ended
up revealing as much about women as about men.
Vincent, a former Advocate columnist, and her wife,
Lisa McNulty, agreed that she would have to date as
Ned if she really intended to live an average
guy’s life. Though it’s not recounted in the
book, Ned dated a gay man briefly (“This guy
lost interest utterly when he found I didn’t
have the right equipment”), yet he seemed to learn
more from his experiences with women. “I
wasn’t at all prepared for how different a date
would feel when I did it as a man,” Vincent tells
The Advocate. “On some fundamental social
level women ‘get’ each other. We
understand and act on the same socialized signals.
Like men who, I found, do this with each other as well, we
speak the same private language.” As she puts
it in Self-made Man, “it’s a wonder
that men and women ever get together.”

The bitterness
and self-absorption of many of the women she
dated—and a taste of the power they
wield—gave her a sharp sense of sympathy for men:
“I suddenly understood from the inside why R. Crumb
draws his women so big, and his diminutive self
begging at their heels or riding them around the
room,” she writes.

Over the course
of the experiment, Ned learned to perfect his male cues.
Once, at a department store, he rubbed the insides of his
wrists together after applying cologne at the
men’s fragrance counter, then noticed that
“the woman behind the counter narrowed her eyes at me
and then looked away as if she’d seen something
indecent.” But being Ned was not all a matter
of costume and pose. “I learned that gender identity
runs very deep in all of us, very near the center of
our sense of self,” Vincent explains to The
Advocate,
“and messing with it can have
dire consequences.”

In Ned’s
case, this meant a nervous breakdown. “All the guilt
about being an imposter, the anxiety of getting caught
at it, and the by then extreme discomfort of
contravening my own gender identity came rushing in,”
Vincent writes. Still, being Ned has changed her. “I
have a lot more sympathy for men,” she says.
“I understand that they too are victims of the
so-called patriarchy, that their roles have been as toxic as
ours, and that they haven’t yet been liberated
from them. Men often project a sometimes overbearing
egotism and entitlement because that’s what you
have to do when you’re not allowed to show weakness
and need.”

Does she ever
miss Ned? “No, not at all. I was looking forward to
killing him off as soon as I finished the project. But
because his adventures seem to be sparking so much
conversation, I see that he is probably going to be
with me in some form or another for quite a long
time.”

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