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    Friday, January 20, 2006

    Self-Made Man Reviewed

    You must read Andrew O'Hehir's impeccable review of Norah Vincent's Self Made Man. (The most overused title in gender studies memoirs.)

    Ned completely sucked as a bowler, and as Vincent ruefully admits, by the standards of this working-class environment, even the butchest woman in drag comes off as a girlie man.

    But Vincent finds herself continually surprised by her teammates. Ned is hardly ever ridiculed for his wretched technique, but instead becomes the object of fraternal-paternal education and concern. By showing up week after week, he's accepted as one of the guys, oddball that he is, and his modest accomplishments are celebrated. This is the upside of the often ruthless male competitive urge, and any boy who has struggled with his own lack of athletic talent can identify with it. (The day I got a legitimate Little League hit, after numerous coaching sessions -- OK, it was a fisted bloop down the right-field line, but it went for a triple! -- is one of my fondest childhood memories.)

    Ned's first meeting with his team captain, Jim, a pugnacious squirt in an oversize football jersey who likes to be the butt of his own jokes, is so good it deserves quotation. Vincent writes that they extend their arms toward each other in that ritual, dudelike sweeping motion. "Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. 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.

    "It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman," she continues. "To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I've seen a lot of women hug each other this way, too, sometimes even women who've known each other for a long time and think of one another as good friends. They're like two backward magnets pushed together by convention. Their arms and cheeks meet, and maybe the tops of their shoulders, but only briefly, the briefest time politeness will allow. It's done out of habit and for appearances, a hollow, even resentful, gesture bred into us and rarely felt." ...

    It is not uncommon to hear women, including myself, feeling sorry for men for the way that certain brands and tenets of masculinity curtail their show of emotion. I've heard many male friends over the years longing for the Waiting to Exhale, Sex and the City, or Steel Magnolias idea of friendship and bonding that is coded female; the idea being based on this ever-lasting promise to help you through the pain, to be "supportive".

    I had a conversation the other day with my partner, A, about this. I said that I abhor this notion that the best friendship is one in which two women (or, for some reason, often four women) are "supportive" of each other and "there for each other". That's a nice thing sometimes. But, for me, friendship is best when it is two things: 1. fun and 2. challenging. I feel that women are disallowed from the second of those; with many women, not accepting her side of the story, not simply listening and simpering and coddling, means you're not being a good friend.

    On the other hand, I hate that fakey "Hey, you son of a bitch, fuck you!" when you walk in the door that men do to combat that "me-and-my-girlfriends-forever" thing.

    I am lucky that all my close female friends (okay, meaning all my close friends) are feminist-identified and so don't just sit around crying about their relationships (though you wouldn't know that from my Tuesday night). I'm lucky that we do challenge each other. I'm lucky that, when we greet each other, we hug for real. But these are my good friends.

    I've said this with regard to street harassment and relations with men, in general. Men often seem to feel that they are allowed to act familiar with you, even if they just happened to glimpse you for the first time. But I just realized, reading this passage, that it's not just with men; women are expected not to have barriers to their inner selves. We're expected to be immediately intimate with anyone we meet.

    I'd love to walk into a room of people I didn't know and give and get that validating firm handshake. Validating because it is what it is. friendliness that doesn't pretend an intimacy that hasn't yet been acheived.

    On her own among America's most detested minority, working-class white men, Vincent discovers that these particular specimens are not especially racist or misogynist or homophobic. Sure, the talk is frank and raunchy, and considerable effort is devoted to planning clandestine trips to "titty bars." But Ned's teammates speak of their wives with tremendous respect and admiration, and when he finally spills his secret, they seem both impressed and relieved. "I gotta hand it to you, that takes balls -- or whatever," says one. Finally, Ned makes sense: This is why he's such a good listener, and such a crappy bowler. ...

    It's undoubtedly brave and noble that Vincent tried to cross class as well as gender boundaries, but as aware as she is of that issue on the bowling team, I think the former category is more important than she realizes. Beyond the agonizing dating chapter, she never tries to pass for the kind of straight man she might already know, an urban guy with bobo-style, liberal-arts values and inclinations. (For that matter, she also doesn't try to be a gay man.) In that context, I don't think being a man is half as hard as she thinks it is, and whatever one thinks about the biochemical basis of sex and gender, the performance of gender roles is a lot more fluid than she depicts.

    My personal experience as a man may have no more general applicability than Ned's, but, hey, I've been a guy much longer than he has. If the legacy of feminism has complicated certain things about being a heterosexual male, I'm pretty happy with that. Maybe men still don't "open up" as readily as women do, but the intense emotional self-censorship Vincent describes is not ubiquitous or unanimous. I've discussed my dad's death, for example, intimately with my male friends on numerous occasions, and was grateful when my oldest friend reciprocated after the death of his own dad (a man I also loved). ...

    I would love to see drag kings take on the hipsters. (But they've still got some good old-fashioned guy stereotypes to get through first, notably the frat guy.) I think that the variety within masculinities (not just based on class and race and sexual orientation, but also region, job, interests, etc) is one of the most interesting thing gets lost by books like this, when masculinity= working-class white bowlers. One of the most memorable people I've heard speak on the subject was a man by the name of Griffin Hansbury, who was on two different episodes of This American Life, called "What is This Thing?" and "Testosterone". I recommend listening to these first, because it's so rare that the media will allow any well-adjusted transperson to speak about their experiences, but more importantly, Hansbury is funny and articulate. There's this moment where he explains that, as a dyke, he was very hip; as a man, he's this little geeky dude. And it made me realize something pretty startling. While I'm not trans, I've had, as many women do I'm sure, fantasies of how great it would be to be a man. And I realized that I never once pictured myself as a man, but as a MAN, unrealistically masculine, unrealistically swaggering and macho and heterosexual. And that made me realize how much I still conceive of men as "other", unless I am personally close to them (which is rare).

    ... Vincent seems to suggest that only men experience sexual desire as an inconvenient burden, an ambiguous appetite to be sated or repressed, and I'm not buying it.

    You don't need a psychology degree to understand that if men have long been socialized to expend their excess erotic drives on sexual surrogates -- whether they're spending $5.95 on Miss January or $650 on one of Heidi Fleiss' working girls -- women have been trained to sublimate theirs into Manolo stilettos and Hermès scarves. Furthermore, it's no secret that the gender divide has narrowed sharply on these issues in recent decades, even if we don't agree on how or why it happened.

    Personally, I've never dated a woman who wasn't at least somewhat titillated by pornographic fantasy or curious about the kinds of nonvanilla, nonmainstream "bad girl" experiences that only men were once supposed to want. For women as well as men, desire is not always desirable. I briefly went out with a lawyer who abhorred porn, and who subscribed to the Catharine MacKinnon ideology that it was itself a form of sexual violence that should be outlawed. At least that was her story during the daylight hours -- until the pile of impressively filthy magazines under her bed came out late at night, after three or four vodkas. ...

    Ned seems as if he was a good guy. A little dippy, a little overly earnest, a little too eager to please. But his heart was in the right place, and we can always use more guys like that. Is it as tough to be a guy as it was for him? Well, it can be; manhood 2.0 offers all the old pitfalls and some new ones too. We're all trying to make it up as we go, mixing something from Category A with something from Category B: a dose of old-fashioned stoicism, some dudely 'tude, along with the ability to cry every now and then, or hug each other without grotesque embarrassment. A shot of bourbon and a glass of Chardonnay; it doesn't always work.

    Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about women. These days they're all trying to be the attorney general while wearing sexy lingerie and downloading killer cookie recipes on their BlackBerrys. It can be pretty awkward. Some, like Norah Vincent, are trying to find a form of femininity that borders on masculinity. It seems to me that it's pretty hard to be human, and that we might all be the same misfit, mask-wearing, role-playing species after all.

    The book couldn't possibly beat this well-written review. Too bad not one of those who wrote letters to Salon seems to have grasped any nuance.


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