Seven years ago, on a dare from a friend, journalist Norah Vincent glued on a fake goatee, donned a baggy flannel shirt, and set out in New York City for her drag debut. She returned home a few hours later with this blazing insight: Men no longer checked her out. As Vincent writes in her amusing, bombastic, and highly unpersuasive book, Self-Made Man: ”Seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.”
So that’s why men eyeball women! Maybe only a philosophy major with a ”Schopenhauerian outlook on life” could leap to such a fraught conclusion about rubbernecking, one of the many improbable inferences — interspersed with blindingly obvious ”discoveries” and a few thought-provoking slivers of truth — that Vincent harvested in her 18-month undercover investigation.
Watching Vincent earnestly prepare for her project is half the fun. A lesbian and self-described ”masculine woman,” she sought out the most comfortable prosthetic penis and confining sports bra, visited a voice coach, and settled on a name — Ned — before she hit skanky strip clubs. Ned visited a monastery (”I wanted to know what celibacy does to a man”), took a sleazy door-to-door sales job with a male-dominated firm, and joined a blue-collar men’s bowling team. Here, over 7-Eleven hot dogs and dirty jokes, Ned bonded with Jim, an appliance repairman whose sturdy handshake inspires four feverish paragraphs. ”There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced,” Vincent purrs.
Vincent reads a lot into a handshake, but what she gleans from Jim and his pals is stunningly banal: Appearances to the contrary, men have feelings. ”So much of what happens emotionally between men isn’t spoken aloud,” she observes. ”So the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often overspoken), tends to assume that what isn’t said isn’t there. But it is there.” It took her months to dope out what any soccer mom could have told her over a latte.
In fact, Vincent’s overwrought commentary — whoppers like ”Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man” — pales compared with her tart and fleeting glimpses of women. Her depiction of vapid, stretch-marked strippers lording over the chumps who frequent the Lizard Lounge will eclipse forever the image of Natalie Portman in Closer. And when she steps into the loafers of ”the sad sack pick-up artist, the wooing barnacle that every woman is forever flicking off her sleeve,” Vincent finds that single American women can be bitter, angry, boring, and maddeningly smug about their emotional superiority. ”Dating women as a man…made me, of all things, into a momentary misogynist,” she writes. ”I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally.” Unlike that heart-warming handshake, this gets your attention.