Saturday, September 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - Norah Vincent - Self-Made Man

This book is a rare find, a book written by a woman, that empathises with and tries to get underneath the car bonnet of the masculine predicament. Often discussions in this area are so reductive and lazy, relying on upholding existing feminist shibboleths or respecting PC no go areas. It invariably becomes hedge bound by a generalised view of man as brute oppressor and woman as the innocent oppressed victim. This pattern, has always felt to me, as a man, to be an infuriatingly incomplete outline, largely ignoring how both sexes are subject to social self limiting constraints. The way things are between the sexes is co-produced and co-conditioned. Each sex living in states of dependence upon, and recrimination towards, the other. The prevailing view of relationships between men and women, is that men as the holders of power are advantaged by this, making them the primary cause of the disfunctionality within society. Whilst this may be true in the general picture it paints, its executed with rather a broad brush stroke. Its similar to describing water as being only wet, when its manifestations can be so different depending on context and circumstance.

Norah Vincent, decided, as research for a future book, to explore the different contexts, circumstances and manifestations of masculinity by spending a year disguised as a man. She worked out how to bluff externally being a man, and then set about bravely joining bowling clubs, getting a job in sales, going to lap dancing clubs, monasteries and men's groups. Though externally male, internally her feminine perspective and an acute sensitivity are brought to bare on her experience. Firstly, she notices how mens gaze differs, she's used to being an object of desire, but was now being assessed as a potential threat. When trying to pick up a women, she recounts the teasing defensive games women play with men, the mocking and often derisory behaviour, and then gives you the male experience of it, the ever present fear of being humiliated or rejected. Though initially finding her prejudices strongly reinforced, she remained open to what she was actually experiencing, and noticing when this diverged from her first view. The way men actually think, speak and behave, when not taken literally on face value, begins to confound, contradict, or simply fail to fit the stereotype. A man who frequents strip clubs could simply be seen as sexually powerful, voracious, exploitative, amoral even, but why then do those same males extol the virtues and love of their wives, and faithfully follow their partners injunctions. What is going on here has a lot more too it than the masculine libido?

I found myself resonating with her descriptions of the contemporary masculine predicament. The games and poses men are expected to hold, to simultaneously be stoical, stable and strong, whilst, these days, also being expected to be broadly expressive of our feelings and emotionally sensitive. It's little wonder if some of us don't know which to do for the best. Most of the time we get it wrong. Its clear some of the men she meets are confused, fucked up and sometimes angry and pissed off. The language may sometimes be crude unsophisticated in vocabulary, but these men are all suffering. They can't truly be themselves because they are afraid, afraid that other men, women, or society will in some way no longer find them acceptable. Most gay men, like all men, learn to pretend, put on an acceptable mask. we skate along the edge of a precipice, knowing we'll never quite fit the conventional male stereotype, this can be nerve wracking. Being a woman, dressed as a man, is the ultimate mask. What would happen if anyone found out? In some, but not all, of the places she goes, she does reveal herself to the men she's deceived, and this process proves almost more revealing about masculinity than the deception. By the end she realises that the dominant response of the men to her deception, wasn't anger - but embarrassment.

Norah Vincent makes numerous thought provoking observations, but none more telling than one concerning the gender differences over expressing emotions. Women have the social ability to express and converse about a huge range of feelings and emotions, all except anger, anger is not considered acceptable for a woman to express, and has to be repressed. For men, the situation is almost entirely reversed, anger is the only emotion a man can freely express and no one will think any the worse of him, he might even be admired for it. The expression of a broader range of feelings and emotions is unacceptable masculine behaviour, and is therefore repressed,you might be thought worse of for expressing them. There was the ever present fear of being thought gay, but mostly it was the ever present fear of just not being thought a man. The emotions don't go away, they come to a boil just beneath the surface, emerging often in socially unacceptable or perverted ways.

Her visit to the monastery was quite poignant. These monks, in a situation where they could be more intimate with each other, were still bound by the same masculine conventions, if not more so, because of the chastity. It wasn't easy to encourage intimacy to take place; during their social evenings, the abbot had experimented with introducing a period of hugging. This hadn't lasted long, because most of them were so deeply alienated from emotions they'd either ignored or repressed, that hugging itself became a deeply emotional trauma. This was not the first time whilst reading 'Self Made Man' that I experienced, not the ridiculous or pitiful state of contemporary manhood, but how profoundly sad it was.

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