Book Report: “Self-Made Man” by Norah Vincent
I recently finished reading “Self-Made Man” by Norah Vincent, during which the observations, thoughts and results of a woman going undercover as a man in several different situations and scenarios are explored. After explaining her process for transforming from Norah into “Ned” and what she hoped to achieve by this exploration, she set off as Ned in a variety of different settings where she was “one of the guys”.
In one chapter, she joined a bowling league with a group of lower-income, “salt-of-the-Earth” mens’ men types. In another, she explores what it means to be an active part of a strip club (probably one of the most depressing chapters, actually). In additional chapters, she was part of a mens’ therapy group and a serial dater. Her interest in not just simply recording, observing and thoughtfully regurgitating but, instead, pondering the thought processes and reasons behind her interactions with others, even the seemingly mundane, was what took it from a cursory interesting read to a book that got the wheels turning in my own head.
I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but the importance of gender roles are nearly non-existent in myself and my peers. I am gay, a solid amount of my friends also are, and one of the major differences I’ve noticed between myself, my peers and older generations of gay people is the significance still placed on gender roles. I’ve never paid much attention to them myself; luckily I have a quite progressive family and things like pink clothing, dolls (although I did play with them but due to my own volition) and cooking lessons were never shoved down my throat. I was never told that girls were supposed to do certain things or that boys were more inclined to act certain ways. For that, I’m incredibly thankful because it’s those small lessons from early on in life that shape the way we think as well as the way we see the world.
I find it so incredibly interesting that the older generations of gay people still place importance on gender roles, even though the relationships consist of two women or two men. Terms like “butch and femme”, “top and bottom” and even the more suggestive “pitcher and catcher” are very rarely used, if ever, among myself and my peers. Sure, there are the lesbians that feel more comfortable in mens’ clothing, the women my age who proudly declare their tomboyishness and tend to take on the more masculine role in relationships, however, my peers (and I certainly don’t speak for an entire generation, this is simply observations I’ve deemed interesting or noteworthy in my own experiences) very much shy away from, and even tend to abhor, labels. I’ve never been one, myself, to classify things, put them in a neat little box and move on – Everything is shades of gray to me. I’ve met masculine women who enjoy being coddled and taken care of, I’ve met feminine women who are “femme in the streets, butch in the sheets” and about every variation in between.
At the end of the day, I think the reason that women are so damn attractive is because they have that innate ability to own every facet of their sexuality. They, along with myself, enjoy taking care of their partner, they, along with myself, enjoy being taken care of by their partner, they can “top” you one night, leaving you completely breathless, and be against the mattress the next, leaving you totally in charge.
I’ve always thought the question “So, who is the man in your relationship?” to be not just irritating, but also incredibly insulting. Of course there’s no man in my relationship – Last I checked, and I can tell you with extreme confidence, we are both women and we both take turns with the “caretaker”, “being taken care of” roles. Both of those roles stem from antiquated, old-fashioned gender roles between men and women, but it’s impossible to try and transfer those into lesbian relationships because the basic requirements for those roles – A man and a woman – are not present. I’ve always wondered if other generations of gay people felt it more necessary to try and normalize their relationships, since they were far more likely to be less accepted then than now, by using these labels and taking on the classic “male/female” roles. I don’t know because, of course, I can’t really know what it was like to be gay in past decades or how police officers, politicians and others were able to justify the crimes they committed against my sisters and brothers; I can only speculate. We are different, but the same.
While you’ll always have a huge, wildly diverse population, even more so by the slow acceptance of homosexuality in this country allowing more and more young people the comfort to “come out” without *as* much fear of poor judgment, the lines are fluid among my peers and I. There are no butches, no femmes, no staunch pitchers or catchers – There are only women who love other women and find themselves attracted to the person rather than the label they’ve been bestowed.
Norah’s exploration of the world through someone else’s eyes – Ned’s – was incredibly interesting to me and she did a brilliant job at effectively conveying her own thought processes as she learned from the people she met and interacted with. Her prompting thoughts brought up questions in my own mind, which bred further thoughts – And isn’t that what some writers should do? I thought the experience that Norah had as Ned was invaluable as a functioning member of society – To be able to view women from “inside” as a man and vice versa, to note the genuine differences in how women’s and men’s brains tended to be wired, to make one a little more understandable to the other and to blur the lines a bit. Again, different, but the same. While risking sounding redundant, this was a truly interesting, thought-provoking read and I would certainly recommend it to anyone whose thoughts tend to run a mile a minute (much like my own) and who enjoy sociology and the great, big world outside.