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meganbaxter

meganbaxter

I'm a grad student, an avid reader, a huge nerd, fervent roleplayer, wife, cat lover, tea snob, and obsessive keeper of lists.
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again - Norah Vincent In Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich makes it very clear early in the book that she is not claiming that she is speaking for the working class. She states that she cannot entirely know what their lives are like, and what she is presenting is her own experience, and stories she was told by others. But just because she works the low-paying jobs, that does not give her a monopoly on what life is like for those who do the same.

This specificity benefits that book greatly, as it is almost always from her own experience, and stories told by her coworkers, backed up by literature on the subject. But she is always careful not to claim too much authority, not to claim that what she experienced gives her ownership over the minimum wage experience.

Norah Vincent, unfortunately, does no such thing. And that is the irritating thing about this book. When she is specific, talking specifically about what she experienced and the stories she is told by the men she interacted with, it's pretty darn good. But then, every time, she extrapolates from that to tell us about how what she experienced is what all men experience. Keep it small and personal, and let your readers draw their own conclusions. Because many of those grand philosophical statements were based on pretty shaky anecdotes.

Vincent passes for a man for over a year (on and off), and writes about her experience. Fair enough, participant journalism, all that jazz. But over and over, she'll say something along the lines of "I, as a woman in drag, experienced this reaction, and therefore, all men have this reaction." There's a whole set of assumptions in that that may or may not be founded, but the sheer uncriticalness of that stance drove me crazy.

I would be very interested to hear what male readers make of this book, what she makes of their experiences, how she says men feel. I'm guessing some of it is on point, some of it is not.

(I was, with eyebrows raised, telling my husband about her revelation that when she was dressed as a man waiting for a date, she felt very small and insignificant, and then drew the conclusion that not only do all men feel that way in all circumstances relating to dating, but that that was why R. Crumb drew large women, to show how women make men feel insignificant. My husband looked back at me, eyebrows equally raised, and informed me that R. Crumb drew large women because he had a sexual fetish for them.)

But here's my real issue. And it's certainly not one that is hers alone, it's a fairly common one. (You'll have to bear with me, I'm in the middle of writing a chapter of my dissertation on masculinity in the 19th century.) It's the idea that there is One. True. Masculinity. And that it is ahistorical.

This is not an uncommon notion. It's actually fairly prevalent. It's also bullshit. There are always competing masculinities, some with more cultural recognition than others. Some are class-based. Some are sexuality-based. Some are race-based. Some, like the men I study, are based on religion and associational culture. But what they all have in common is that they are used to see if others measure up to the standards they set, and that they are not static. And they are not singular.

In this case, she uses the term "Real Men" quite a lot. And what she means by that is a fairly traditional idea of working-class white American masculinity. But by conflating class and gender, she entirely ignores class as part of a masculine identity. This is not new. (I'm trying not to be pedantic here, I'll try to move on, but if you're at all interested, Gail Bederman's [b:Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917|5679|Manliness and Civilization A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917|Gail Bederman|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328874344s/5679.jpg|9087] is a really good look at how working-class and black masculinities have historically been fetishized and sometimes held up as the only masculinity worth aspiring to.)

So there's that, and that's one of my pet peeves, this One Masculinity crap. As is the idea that what masculinity is is eternal and doesn't change of time. Bullshit.

The other problem is her sample sizes. Again, if she'd been more specific, this would have been fine. If she'd told these stories, and let them stay right there, that would have been very powerful. But no. She keeps using these fairly small sample sizes to make grand universal ahistorical proclamations. She uses a bowling league to tell us about how all men interact with each other in all social situations. She uses men who go regularly to strip clubs to tell us about how all men experience their sexuality in regards to women. She uses door-to-door salesmen to tell us how all men experience work.

Keep it smaller, keep it simpler, and this would be a very good book. As it is now, there are some really good stories, some really good hints of something more, but they are overshadowed by this desire to make a definitive statement on masculinity.

It's frustrating, because I don't disagree with her basic premise - that all is not sweetness and light for men, that gender boundaries and policing can be be restrictive and difficult for men to negotiate too. But she argues more than she is able to support, and falls into that trap of believing there is one true masculinity, and she's experienced it.

Crossposted to Smorgasbook