TV & Radio
Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006
Making a Man of Her
A woman puts on stubble and pants and spends a year living, bowling and dating as a guy
By LEV GROSSMAN
God gave Norah Vincent A gift: huge feet. She wears a size 11 1/2. Men's 11 1/2. That is not something she has necessarily always felt grateful for. "A lot of times I have to buy men's shoes," she says. But those big dogs wound up coming in handy when she spent 18 months dressing, talking, working and dating as a man.
Vincent didn't cross the great gender divide for the sheer fun of it. In fact, she found the experience extremely painful. "Looking back on it now," she says, "I never would have done it if I had known what it really was. I had no idea that it would take this big a toll." She did it in order to write a book, Self-Made Man (Viking; 290 pages), about how the other half lives. Kind of like Maureen Dowd but with research.
In person, Vincent is affable and articulate. She is neither an avenging feminist valkyrie nor a Coulteresque apologist for the patriarchy. She's more like a neutral anthropologist, genuinely curious about what on earth could possibly make men act the way they do. Vincent doesn't look especially masculine, although she is on the tall side--5 ft. 10 in. and lanky--and her voice is somewhat south of the alto range. (And there's the feet.) So she created an alter ego whom she named Ned.
Ned looked a lot like Norah but with accessories: a sports bra to keep her breasts under wraps, a manly new flat-top haircut, a weight-lifting routine to bulk out Norah's girly shoulders, and a prosthetic penis to fill out his/her crotch. And Vincent hired a voice coach to teach her to talk like a guy--slowly, with as little expression as humanly possible, keeping those emotions under wraps and the hand gestures to a minimum.
Ned also came with a dusting of fake stubble for Vincent's smooth, pink, ladylike cheeks--"I was always thinking, Is it coming off? I always had this little hanky. I'm sure people thought it was really affected. I was always going to the bathroom to check it." Plus, Ned had a brand-new manly attitude. "One of the things I picked up as a man was projecting a certain confidence and authority and entitlement," Vincent says. "As a woman, you're often apologizing for things."
For Vincent, putting on Ned's costume almost every morning was like descending into the ocean in a bathysphere or hacking her way into the interior of the Amazon jungle, only that jungle is all around us every day. Ned took her places most women don't go, or can't, or wouldn't if you paid them. She joined an all-male bowling league. She ordered lap dances at strip clubs. She went on an Iron John--style men's retreat. She even spent three weeks in a Catholic monastery, in which she found that the ancient question "Ginger or Mary Ann?" was still being debated.
Of course, the chapter you flip to first is the one about dating. Vincent speed-dated. She hit on chicks in singles bars. (Vincent is gay, so it's not so big a stretch as you may think.) She went on dozens of Internet dates. Looking out from behind Ned's stubble, she was surprised at how much sexual power women have over men, even when women may feel disempowered in other ways, and how icily they wield it. She was also surprised how tough it was to keep up the façade of bluff, jocular arrogance that both sexes demand from men at all times. "Every man's armor is borrowed and 10 sizes too big," she writes in Self-Made Man, "and beneath it, he's naked and insecure and hoping you won't see."
If you're picking up on an undertone of empathy with the hairier sex, you're right. This isn't a we-are-the-world book in which Vincent rejoices in our common humanity. It's too subtle for that, too smart and too honest. If anything, she found the gender gap to be even more unleapable than she had expected. But she did come to believe that some feminist sniping at men is just too easy, that if women tried harder to understand men, they'd realize that men too are trapped by patriarchal prejudices in their own way. "I think men have been sort of forced to learn women's language, through the feminist movement," she says, "but women haven't seemed to evince a curiosity in learning men's language. Men have ways of communicating that women don't understand. And we think, because it's not our way, that nothing is being said." Ned would probably agree. Even though he's way too manly to say so.
'Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again,' by Norah Vincent