An ethnographic reading of ‘Self-made man: One woman’s year disguised as a man’

‘Self-made man: One woman’s year disguised as a man’

In the style of undercover journalism, Self-made man is Norah Vincent’s first novel about her 18-month experience passing off as a man, ala journalist John Howard Griffin‘s 1961 non-fiction book, Black Like Me documenting his six-week experience passing as a black man during racial segregation in the United States. Though not explicitly stated in her book, she mentions in an interview with abcnews that she “wanted to enter males’ spheres of interest and … see how men are with each other… make friends with men…. know how male friendships work from the inside out” (abcnews 2006).

Spread out over five separate states in three different regions of the United States, Vincent spent time in these places in chronological order: A bowling alley to learn about male friendship and socialization; the ‘Lizard Lounge’ strip club to observe men’s sexual advances; various bars to seek love and heterosexual interaction; a monastery to engage in homo-social group living; a door-to-door sales job to experience maleness in the workplace; and a male support group to discover ‘himself’. This is evident of a multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995), even though she does not make such claims, because Vincent’s research into the norms of masculinity cannot be confined within a single physical space.

Although not consciously intended to be an ethnographic text, Self-made man is an intersection of ethnographic novels, auto-ethnographies and feminist ethnographies.

Norah Vincent

A free-lance journalist based in New York City by profession, Norah Vincent writes for multiple columns including the Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and a quarterly politics and culture column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine, The Advocate. She does not identify herself as an anthropologist or an ethnographer. She is also a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after September 11 to study terrorism (The Independent Gay Forum, n.d.).

While not much of Vincent’s biography has been made public, I have reassembled portions of her background from her text. Vincent was born to a stage actress who played male roles occasionally, inciting her fascination with disguise (p.7) from a young age. Growing up with two older brothers, she loathed “girly toys” and identified herself as a “hard-core tomboy” (p.5) from birth. Bullies throughout her schooling experience further honed her interest in gender performativity through taunts: They made fun of her delayed puberty and nicknamed her “Ned” (p.7) with “no ass and no tits” (p.9). A self-professed “dyke” (she also refers to herself as a ‘lesbian’), Vincent clarifies that this study was “not a confessional memoir” of her desire to be a transgendered person (p.16). Instead, she intends to study the boundaries of gender that appear “both mysteriously fluid and rigid” (p.16). She adds that she has “always lived as [her] truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine” which makes this project “more immediate and meaningful” (p.16) to her.

Influences

This research was first enthused by Vincent’s experience in drag, in the name of fun with a few friends, for a few hours in 1999. In those moments successfully passing as a man, she began to observe how vastly distinct she was treated by other men, when perceived to be ‘one of them’. This was in contrast to her daily annoyance with construction workers visually consuming her body with fixated gazes and catcalls. She writes:

“We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring. That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement” (p.2-3).

Intrigued by such homo-social interaction and implicit norms among men, she decided in the winter of 2003 to embark on her research, attributing inspiration to a particular reality television show’s concept of having contestants dress up to pass as the opposite gender (p.4) for a cash prize. While the source of funding for this research is unknown, Vincent did mention that she left her job at the Los Angeles Times to conduct this research. It is thus speculated that she financially supported herself.

The ‘field’

Although indicated in the book that her yearlong research began in the winter of 2003, other interviews report that she spent 18 months disguised as Ned, her male alter ego (abcnews 2006). Vincent’s notion of being ‘in the field’ was problematized when she realized that “simply walking down the street as a man…didn’t give [her] enough substantive material to work with in the long term” (p.17). For “true immersion” (p.17), she decided to alter her physical appearance in order to allow Ned masculine interactions and experiences in different settings. Participant observation and interviews through informal conversations with groups of men were her main modes of data collection, and the narratives of these men became her primary data regarding the experiences of manhood and the culture/crisis of masculinity.

Becoming Ned

I especially enjoyed Vincent’s detailed documentation of Norah’s transformation into Ned that was truly reflective of an auto-ethnography. With the help of many friends in theatre (p.9), she listed comprehensive steps of her disguise including the application of facial hair (p.11), the use of glasses to “accentuate the angles” (p.11) of her face, the binding of her breasts (p.12), muscle-building through weight-lifting and protein intake (p.13), and even the use of a prosthetic penis “for verisimilitude as much as anything else…[and] a more realistic experience of ‘manhood’” (p.13). After gaining 15 pounds in six months, she engaged a voice coach at the Julliard School for the Performing Arts to pick up gender cues indicated via breath control, pitch and tone. She claims that the most crucial task was the psychological preparation of “getting into Ned’s head” (p.15) in order to successfully pass as a man.

An ethnographic novel

Vincent writes her book in the first person as a self-narrative, featuring much monologue and dialogue to express the subtleties of her emotions. However, she does not state if these conversations were recorded and transcribed or written from memory; neither does she mention if the book was written in parts during her 18-month long stint or retrospectively after the entire experiment. In an interview with an online forum, she does mention that she took “another few months” after the entire research process to complete the book (Onlinedatinginfo 2006). However, retrospective accounts of her close brushes with being found out suggest that despite the delayed writing, detailed notes were taken during the research:

“It was amazing how close Allen had come to my secret without knowing it. I’d have to remind the guys of times like this if I ever decided to tell them the truth about me. I wondered if they’d get a kick out of seeing all the signposts I retrospect, the ones I was always noticing along the way” (p.29).

It was easy to follow Vincent’s/Ned’s stream of consciousness. She recorded her firsthand experiences as a ‘man’ and her interpretations of Ned’s interactions with others, and addresses readers like “co-participants” (Ellis & Bouhner 2000) on this journey of discovery, where Ned’s informants become the objects of study. She also reveals multiple layers of this ‘self’ when interchanging her positionality between Norah and Ned to display different perspectives, often focusing on Ned’s “relationships with others…in order to gain further analytical perspective on a context.” (Blasco & Wardle 2007:5).

Perhaps unknowingly adopting Dorothy E. Smith’s standpoint theory, Vincent shows how one’s positionality (as a man or woman) determines one’s social boundaries and thus experiences with other individuals; this in turn results in different articulations of the same setting or situation. Necessarily reflexive for an auto- and feminist ethnography, Vincent does a great job connecting the personal to the socio-cultural, often mapping her new found cultural knowledge regarding masculinity to wider social norms, questioning unspoken societal pressures and stresses on manhood. This challenges Atkinson’s (2006) claim that auto-ethnographies document only experiences without analysis and are thus not scientifically rigorous.

The book appears to be an ‘ethnographic novel’ being a hybrid of both conventional ethnographic writing and novel writing. Vincent tells the story of Ned by recounting his experience in sequential narrative, always with details of the setting and other characters’ entry into and exit out of the scene or context. With the narrator as the main character of the story, certain segments documenting Ned/Vincent’s personal thoughts and experiences appear romanticized especially with emotive descriptions being her main stylistic repertoire. However, Vincent’s method of data collection still abided by the standards of conventional ethnography: she spent a long period of 18 months engaging in participation observation in six different settings and recorded her findings in detail.

Key points

Vincent chose to “confine each setting and cast of characters to one chapter, and let the significant themes emerge from there” (p.17). I have picked out and tabulated her main arguments with supporting evidence as follows:

Theme;

Details

Key issues Quotes
Friendship;

Participated in a bowling league every Monday night for six months.

Solidarity of sex among men.

Comedic expressions used to downplay and substitute emotional sensitivity due to repulsion towards revealing vulnerability.

Compulsion to mask the crisis of masculinity regarding job instability, low income and class disparity.

“There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.” (p.25)

“You know, none of this matters to me. It doesn’t affect me. You’re cool. I don’t care what you are. I really like bowling with you, man. Shit, you’re cooler than Bob.” (p.58-59)

Sex;

Visited ‘Lizard Lounge’ strip club.

Reversal of conventional power dynamics between both sexes.

Hostesses patronize men who in turn express a sense of shame for resorting to such sex pubs for intimacy.

“as I began to understand more about the shame that arose in men from the need to visit places like this…I though I began to understand something more about the kind of woman that becomes a sex object in the eyes of men.” (p.78)

“I found at least what I thought was a glimpse of the discomfort of being a man in a man’s world and what that did to women as well as men, and I felt something that I hadn’t expect to feel. Genuine sympathy.” (p.80)

“This place wasn’t just where men came to be beasts. It was also where women came to exercise some vestige of sexual power in the most unvarnished way possible. My pussy for your dollars. I say when, I say how, I say how much and I get paid for it.” (p.88)

Love;

Went on about 30 dates with women Ned met on personals websites.

Men rely on male-solidarity when facing rejection from women.

Women have expectations of the ‘ideal’ men; Ned was compared to “others” as having more verbal dexterity, move vulnerable and open, less commanding and strong.

“I found myself thinking about rejection and how small it made me feel, and how small most men must feel under the weight of what women expect from them.” (p.99)

“Dating women was the hardest thing I had to do as Ned, even when women liked me and I liked them. I have never felt more vulnerable to total strangers…I guess maybe that’s one of the secrets of manhood that no man tells if he can help it. Every man’s armor is borrowed and ten sizes to big, and beneath it, he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.” (p.130)

“as if, in the time-honored way of things, a man is supposed to be strong, to hold things together for his woman, to hold her up when she can’t do it herself.” (p.101)

Life;

Spent three weeks in a monastery.

There are unspoken norms about appropriate social distancing among men.

Male machismo is of utmost importance even in a homo-social environment with no sexuality/libido/heterosexual competition.

“seeming ignorance of masculine boundaries” (p.145)

“to know what celibacy does to a man” (p.134)

“They took refuge in machismo because they feared inappropriate intimacies between men. A feminized man is a gay man…a weak man” (p.177-178)

Work;

Door-to-door sales job at two companies.

The importance of attire to indicate masculinity to others.

Male socialization leads to competition regarding the number of women slept with, length of male appendage, IQ, and sales figures.

In the sales line, men are disadvantaged because women can use their sexuality/sympathy to sell.

Female bosses controlled male employees with sexual power to water down unconventional gender power reversal.

“A suit is an impenetrable signifier of maleness every bit as binding as the current signifiers of attractiveness in women: blond hair, heavy makeup, emaciated bodies and big tits.” (p.187)

“Guys in this environment expected you to swear and make sexist jokes. Women didn’t, of course.” (p.191)

“Being the best, beating the other guy, selling more, scoring higher, fucking better-looking women. Those were the only things that mattered to them in life, and they mattered a lot.” (p.197)

Self;

Male group therapy sessions of 25-30 persons in a rented rehearsal room in a community center.

Hugging as physical therapy to encourage physical affection, in order to reverse the socialization of shallow distancing among men.

A space for surrogate brotherly/fatherly love, small group discussions regarding the pressures of masculinity, societal expectations, and its detrimental effects on men.

The need to respect each other’s egos, anger and hostility.

“These men had been making do all their lives with traditional nods of silent understanding. But that wasn’t enough anymore.” (p.233)

“As one of the guys said, it was a feat for him to realize that he even had feelings. Learning to identify and express them, especially in the presence of other men, was asking a lot.” (p.254)

“Here he was, the outwardly powerful masculine ideal, an outcast in his own life, excruciatingly insecure in his position, compelled to make a brave show of it on the outside, forbidden to show weakness, yet plagued by it nonetheless.” (p.253)

Subversive auto-ethnography

As a study of her experience in the culture of masculinity, Self-made man is an interesting auto-ethnography because Vincent is in fact an outsider (woman; Norah) passing as an insider (man; Ned) and documenting this involvement in the first-person’s perspective. This allowed her access to rich data otherwise not revealed to outsiders, an etic view of the everyday. As an active participant, she claims she took “a good six months” to “really get back into being a woman” (p.1), implying her sense of total immersion “in situations and environments in order to write about them” (p.5). Hayano (1979) argues that one criteria of auto-ethnographies is the researcher’s ability to be accepted or pass as a native member (ibid:77), and Vincent seems to have successfully done this judging from several responses from her male friends upon ‘the big reveal’: Almost all of them commented that although they suspected Ned was gay (with references to his emotive nature, his attention to detail and his lack of social boundaries), they never doubted that he was a man.

However, as an insider Ned would have been assumed to have the cultural competence and knowledge of manhood in his interactions with other men, and Vincent might thus have missed out on certain elements of performed masculinity not overtly displayed to her. While it is contentious to argue that Ned’s experiences necessarily parallel those of the average man, Vincent does offer us a slice of social reality: A woman’s perspective of the culture of masculinity from the inside.

Delamont (2006) argues against auto-ethnographies, claiming that they “cannot fight familiarity” (p.1), however, as Ned, Vincent is inserted into new places with new experiences daily, and it is precisely this fresh knowledge that is the subject of her book. Thus, Self-made man is an interesting auto-ethnography for challenging many conventions and expanding boundaries

A feminist ethnography on men

As a female voice/perspective on the experience of being ‘male’, Self-made man is a feminist ethnography that allows Vincent a woman’s look on ‘how men represent themselves’. As mentioned in the introduction, it was her experience in drag that revealed the contrast in which men’s and women’s bodies were visually consumed and treated by other men, thus forming the basis of this research. This is an interesting role reversal in an area of study where men traditionally write authoritatively about women’s experiences, and a variant of conventional feminist ethnographies where women usually share the experiences of their own gender.

Vincent also expresses the need for consciousness-raising pertaining to the stresses of societal pressures on masculine performativity and conformity. In an interview with abcnews, she says “…men are suffering. They have different problems than women have, but they don’t have it better… They need our sympathy. They need our love, and maybe they need each other more than anything else. They need to be together” (abcnews 2006).

As Ned, conventional power dynamics between the researcher and the researched are inverted when Vincent finds herself trying to infiltrate into social groups to learn about the culture of masculinity. Upon establishing a friendship, she obtains information from them through informal conversations and participant observation, forming a relatively egalitarian relationship between herself and her informants (Enslin 1994:543-544).

The book is self-reflexive given Vincent’s everyday negotiation of Ned’s self-presentation, and the need to ‘pass’ and have his performance on masculinity approved by a public audience. Evident throughout the text are confessional reflections such as this:

“I couldn’t be myself, and after a while, this really got me down. I spent so much time worrying about being found out, even after I knew that nobody would question the drag, that I began to feel as stiff and scripted as a sandwich board. And it wasn’t being found out as a woman that I was really worried about. It was being found out as less than a real man, and I suspect that this is something a lot of men endure their whole lives, this constant scrutiny and self-scrutiny. Somebody is always evaluating your manhood.” (p.276)

Critique

Hammersley (1990) encourages readers of ethnographies to question authors’ claims of their case studies being “typical of some type or population of cases” (p.29), and I found three omissions in Vincent’s text that were not accounted for. Firstly, despite her ‘random sample’, all the men Ned interacted with were white, heterosexual, and mostly belong to the working class; the sample is skewed though she makes no account for this nor admits the lack of diversity in her study.

Secondly, the fact that every single man whom Ned met was suffering crises of masculinity at that exact point in time makes one wonder if this ‘coincidence’ was factual or consciously constructed/subconsciously (mis)interpreted by Vincent in order to prove her point. This questions the internal validity of her findings because one is not sure if the “treatment administered actually caused the predicted outcome” (ibid:54).

Similarly, the external validity of Vincent’s work is contentious given that her findings cannot be generalized to other cases (ibid:54). She overstates the experiences of these few men to represent the male population in at large; she does not specify that the narratives she collected are only indicative about the few men Ned had access to, thus essentializing the experiences of masculinity.

The centrality of ethical concerns in the writing and reading of text was another major issue. While Vincent may have changed the names of characters, places of business, institutions, and omitted specific references to location, she admits that she deceived a lot of people in order to write this book. These were men (especially those in the bowling alley and in the monastery) who shared with her their personal life stories at their most vulnerable moments, now made into a best seller available internationally. Her compensating rational, however, was that deception is part and parcel of imposture, and imposture was necessary in this experiment in order for people to treat Ned like they would to any other man. She also claims that in each of her ‘big reveals’ to the different groups of men, the general reaction was surprise towards her convincing passing as Ned, rather than anger at having been misled, or the fear of having shared their intimate stories for public consumption.

Another ethical concern was the immense psychological toil these 18 months were to Vincent. She says “with relative surety that in the end [she] paid a higher emotional price for [her] circumstantial deceptions than any of [her] subjects did” (p.19), and had to check herself into a medical facility for mental patients after breaking down from managing her dual alter egos. She also implores with readers at the very beginning to understand that that is “penalty enough for meddling” (p.19).

Thus, while not intended to be a monograph or ethnographic text, Norah Vincent’s self-made man has (unknowingly) adopted and adapted, challenged and questioned the boundaries of ethnographic convention, including the construction of ethnographic novels, writing a subversive auto-ethnography and writing a feminist ethnography about men.

References

Atkinson, P. A. (2006). ‘Rescuing autoethnography.’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35(4): 400-404.

Blasco, Gay Y. & Paloma Gay Y. Huon Wardle. (2007). How to Read Ethnography. London and New York: Routledge.

Delamont, Sara. (2006). ‘Advances in Qualitative Research Practice.’ Qualitative Researcher 4:2.

Ellis, C. & Bochner, A. (2000). ‘Authoethography, personal narrative, reflexivity.’ In Denzin, N. & Y. Lincoln (eds.) Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage (2nd edition)

Enslin, Elizabeth. (1994). ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography.’ Cultural Anthropology 9(4):537-568.

Hammersley, Martyn. (1990). Reading Ethnographic Research: A Critical Guide. London and New York: Longman.

Hayano, David M. (1979). ‘Autho-Ethnography: Paradigms, Problems and Prospects.’ Human Organization 38:113-120.

Marcus, George. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-sited Ethnography.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 24:95-117.

Smith, Dorothy E. (1990). The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Vincent, Norah. (2006). Self-made man: One woman’s year disguised as a man. New York: Penguin Group.

Online references

‘A Self-Made Man: Woman Goes Undercover to Experience Life as a Man.’ (2006). Abcnews. Retrieved April 16, 2011 from <http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Entertainment/story?id=1526982&gt;

‘The only time Norah Vincent was ever accused of being too feminine was when people thought she wa… Macho to do about writing.’ (2006). Online Dating Info. Retrieved April 16, 2011 from <http://www.onlinedatinginfo.com/node/32&gt;

‘Independent Gay Forum Authors.’ (2006). Independent Gay Forum. Retrieved April 16, 2011 from <http://web.archive.org/web/20070927231255/http://www.indegayforum.org/authors/show/125.html&gt;

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