Being a man for eighteen months

19-11-2009

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay titled "What is it like to be a bat?", where he argued that, even if we understand a bat's brain, we can never know what it’s like to be one. We can't experience the subjective aspect of a bat's consciousness. Similarly, journalist Norah Vincent thus decided that theory is not enough to understand the male world. She decided to pass as a man for 18 months, and Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again is the impressive account of her venture.

The result is not simply about the male world, though: first and foremost it’s about human relations. Wait, you might ask – isn't there already an abundance of gender-related books on the market? Well, yes, but this one is different! It's neither a feminist manifesto, nor a repetition of those incredibly worn out 'men-are-this, women-are-that' clichés. Vincent chose several themes and devised specific projects to explore them. For example, she joined an all-male bowling team (friendship), lived in a monastery (life) and dated women (love). The little stories that result are at times funny, weird, enlightening and frightening, but most of all enthralling.

Vincent reflects on others’ behaviour towards her as well as on her own actions. For example, she notes that while her disguise might have been excellent – she even arranged for fake stubble – but little details she had not thought of, like the posture she adopted when trying out male perfume in a drug store, seriously disconcerted other people. On another occasion, however, she notes that once she was accepted by a male peer group, the disguise barely mattered any more, and no-one questioned her identity. It seems to be a human desire to categorise everybody we encounter as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, and we are troubled when we are unable to do so.

Vincent is aware that her experiences are very personal and thus subjective; the situations she chooses are at times extreme and non-representative. For this reason, she avoids getting to preachy or developing kitchen-psychological theories about people. Yet, her sensitive observations draw an insightful overall picture. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it shows how much we are influenced by gender even in areas where it plays no obvious role – and even if we'd prefer not to be.

How conscious are you of the role you play in daily life? I would recommend Self-Made Man to everyone – whether you're male or female, it's a step towards understanding yourself and the rest of humanity a little bit better.

 

Tim Aretz

In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent

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