For more than a year, journalist Norah Vincent experienced life in a man’s loafers. To make sure she would “pass” as a fellow she named Ned, she cut her hair in a flattop, applied stubble to simulate a five o’clock shadow, squeezed into an extra-small sports bra to conceal her breasts, wore a male appendage she nicknamed “Sloppy Joe” inside a jock strap, and studied with a Julliard tutor to acquire a man’s voice and phrasing. With the help of horn-rimmed glasses and Ivy League attire, she indeed became a Self-Made Man, the title of her new book describing a journey into manhood and back that nearly became a descent into madness.
Through five states in three regions of the country (all unnamed), Ned Vincent embedded himself in the male landscape: he made buddies, joined a men’s bowling team, went to strip clubs, dated women, joined a monastery, attended a male therapy group and even experienced the brutal realities of a high-pressure sales job.
Contrary to what many might expect, Vincent found that a man’s lot is no easier—and is in many ways more emotionally draining—than that of a woman.
“I suspect people will go into this thinking oh, it’s written by a lesbian, she’s going to be male-bashing all the way down the line,” Vincent says by phone from Manhattan. “But my experience was one that made me feel very vulnerable and made me feel a lot of pain and difficulty. While all of us in the post-feminist movement are convinced that women have always had it worse and men have always had it better, it took me stepping into their shoes to realize that that’s not true at all.”
Vincent had grown progressively weary of writing op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times, where she’d become known, and routinely pummeled, as “the libertarian lesbian.” When a friend convinced her to dress in drag for an evening in the East Village, she took the dare and stumbled onto an adventure in immersion journalism that proved irresistible.
“You find yourself suddenly in a situation where all the social rules are different,” Vincent says by phone from Manhattan. “I likened it to suddenly hearing sounds that only dogs can hear.” Case in point: when Norah would walk through her neighborhood, the guys hanging outside the bodegas would ogle her; when Ned walked by, they would completely ignore him.
“It was really astounding the difference when I walked by those same places as a man and nobody would look me in the eye; it was a concerted looking-away. Even if you were a good-looking guy, women would check you out in a very surreptitious way that isn’t confrontational. There was a relief in that invisibility,” she says.
Rather than organize her observations chronologically or geographically, Vincent sorts her chapters by topic: Friendship, Love, Sex, Work, etc. In “Friendship,” Ned bowls weekly (and weakly) with three blue-collar Joes who accept him despite his peculiarities (he doesn’t smoke or drink). In “Sex,” Ned endures the mechanical loneliness of a strip club. In “Love,” he dates women for whom Ned is more Mr. Close than Mr. Right.
The rejection that Ned experiences in the dating scene had a powerful impact on Norah. “It’s awful. I think most women don’t have any idea how much guts it takes, how much emotional energy and confidence it takes to approach a woman,” she says. “Men need ego because they don’t get to show weakness and they don’t get to show need, they have to compensate for it by a sense of, I can do this, I’m entitled, because that’s all they have.”
While guys may appear brutish, undemonstrative and unfeeling on the surface, Vincent found that inside they’re as victimized as women by their gender socialization, the “straitjacket of the male role.” What’s more, although it won’t please many feminists, Vincent concludes that women, not men, actually call the shots, at least where hooking up is concerned.
“When you see it from a guy’s point of view, you really realize that, if nothing else, at the most basic sexual level, women can really take it or leave it most of the time,” she says. “Just that aspect alone already gives us a leg up because we get to choose; we get to say, I’ll take you but I won’t take you. That’s a lot of power.”
Unlike John Howard Griffin, who dyed his skin to pass as an African American in Black Like Me, Vincent never felt in physical danger while disguised as Ned. Even when she revealed her true identity, as she ultimately did with many of the men she met as Ned, most were comfortable continuing their friendship.
But the daily commute between man and woman eventually took its psychological toll on Vincent, and it took her months to recover from the ordeal.
“That was hard. I had learned to present myself in a more male way mentally—not just in how I looked—and I needed to step away from that, to slowly undo that. I had to reclaim myself.”
Vincent admits she didn’t particularly care for Ned: “I wish I’d been a cooler guy, which maybe was a great thing because it was a typical male experience. I felt a little bit geeky and inadequate. I wish I’d been more of a stud.”
That said, did she hold on to any part of Ned’s character?
“Yeah. I don’t know if you can print this, but I certainly held on to a piece of his balls (laughs). As Hamlet would say, probably the strongest remaining male advantage is ‘thinking makes it so.’ It’s that feeling that, when I’m feeling afraid of something I have to do or I’m feeling unequal to it, I say to myself, just do it. Don’t think about it, just get up and do it. There is a way in which that is a gift that men have that compensates for all the things they don’t have.”
Jay MacDonald writes professionally from Oxford, Mississippi.