Creating men

Posted: Mar 28, 2006 4:05 PM
Periodically, our culture re-discovers that the male of the species also has problems and needs. For example, a recent Newsweek cover story was about “the trouble with boys.”

But no one has gone as far to understand the needs and feelings of men as Norah Vincent.

Vincent’s new book, Self-Made Man, is about her search for what she calls the “unspoken codes of male experience.” Specifically, she wanted to know how men spoke and acted when women were not around.

So, she lifted weights; took voice lessons; got a flat-top haircut; and learned to apply fake stubble to her face. The result of this preparation was a male alter ego called “Ned.”

For the next eighteen months, Norah passed herself off as Ned. She joined a men’s bowling league and played on a team whose other members included a construction worker, a repairman, and a plumber. She attended “men’s movement” retreats, where she beat on drums and did tribal dances, and spent time at a monastery.

And of course, she explored what passes for male sexuality in contemporary culture. She went to strip clubs with the “other guys.” And she went on “dates” with women.

The experience took its toll on Vincent: She eventually had a psychological breakdown that required hospitalization. But she came away with an increased appreciation of, and even sympathy toward, men. Some of her “discoveries” were unintentionally hilarious, like her realization that her bowling buddies weren’t sexist bigots—they were generous men who adored their wives and daughters.

On a more substantive note, Vincent, who is a lesbian, calls the expectations placed on men by women “maddening.” Men carry an unspoken “presumption of guilt” in the eyes of many women. Even if they overcome this presumption of guilt, they still have to deal with what Vincent calls the “warrior/minstrel complex”—the idea that they are to be rugged as a Viking raider and as sensitive as a medieval troubadour.

In the end, Vincent sees men as “victims of the patriarchy” who are being poisoned by the “toxicity of gender roles.” And she’s left rephrasing Professor Higgins’s question in My Fair Lady—Why can’t a man be more like a woman?—which is, of course, the ultimate goal of gender-blurring.

The answer is that the differences between men and women transcend psychology and gender roles. While Vincent’s efforts taught what it’s like to be treated as a man, she’s still has no idea what it’s like to be a man.

For instance, her experiences gave her a new appreciation for fatherhood. What they couldn’t do was make her a father. All her preparation left her clueless about the most important part of what it means to be a man.

To her credit, Vincent senses that there’s something missing from her account. She wonders if there’s a “preprogrammed and possibly inescapable grammar of gender burned on our brains.”

Well, yes. What Vincent calls an “inescapable grammar” is what Christians call “male and female created He them.” Since our denial of this “grammar” lies behind many of the problems that Vincent documents, the solution begins with something more profound than makeup and a haircut: It’s understanding that, ultimately, men are created, not made.

For further reading and information:

Peg Tyre, “The Trouble with Boys,” Newsweek, 30 January 2006.

Norah Vincent: The Woman behind ‘Self-Made Man’,” Talk of the Nation, NPR, 25 January 2006.

Read an excerpt of Self-Made Man from ABC News.

Kay S. Hymowitz, “Sex Ed,” a review of Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield and Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent, Commentary, March 2006.

James Bowman, “The Neutering of the American Male,” a review of Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield, New York Sun, 6 March 2006 (reprinted by Ethics and Public Policy Center).

Roberto Rivera, “What Makes a Man?” Boundless, 2 February 2006.

Roberto Rivera, “Patriarchy,” BreakPoint Online, 7 July 2003.