Self-Made Man (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
From a very early age, Norah Vincent was a tomboy nicknamed Ned who detested girly things, and since then the issues surrounding gender have always fascinated her. As a journalist, this ongoing curiosity about the world of males prompted her to put on a disguise and delve for a year and a half into a world where few women have ever been before. Taking her old nickname Ned, she dons men’s clothes, “grows” a beard, wears a prosthetic penis, increases her body mass, and deepens her voice. Vincent, a former Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist, is a lesbian but makes it clear from the beginning that she is not a transvestite, a transsexual, or a cross-dresser. She stresses that she strongly prefers being female, does not feel trapped inside a female body, and was very happy when her male alter ego Ned departed permanently.
Ned’s disguise consists of a beard of chopped up wool crepe painted on meticulously with an adhesive called stoppelpaste, an increased upper body wrought from large amounts of protein and lifting weights, breasts strapped into extra tight sports bras, a flaccid prosthetic penis fit into a jock strap, voice lessons from a Julliard coach, and a spiffy new wardrobe of the latest male fashions. In an effort to provide Ned with discrete experiences, she devises a plan that will ultimately posit “him” in such diverse settings as a bowling alley, strip clubs, bars, and offices and such all-male environments as a monastery and a men’s movement group. Throughout she experiences intense guilt associated with deception but justifies her actions by claiming that she paid a high psychological price for her circumstantial deceptions.
Ned’s first venue as a male is a bowling alley where he plans to bowl in a league for nine months. Naturally he is nervous but soon blends in “with the guys” and is surprised to find that the men welcome him warmly despite his lousy bowling ability. In time Ned learns many lie to their wives about porn viewing and visits to strip clubs, but invariably they have high regard for their families. After becoming friends with a few, Ned finds it difficult to curtail sharing his own emotions and really surprises them with his confession about his true gender. After the bowling alley, Ned takes it upon himself to frequent strip clubs in the company of a heterosexual male buddy. The author’s account of such places is fascinating, but chillingvery dark. The denizens of such places, both males and females, she posits, are caught in a trap fomented by male sexuality.
Then Vincent decides that for Ned to fully experience life as a heterosexual male, he must approach women with the objective of getting them to notice him as a man. Ned realizes that all men experience rejection but finds it extremely painful to be dismissed. He also looks for love and to his surprise finds that women like him. After sending e-mails, he arranges to meet women to chat. He cannot believe how some women talk about the horrors of their single lives. Dating women is the hardest thing Ned ever has to do as a man, and surprisingly he finds himself angry at women for their arrogance and sympathetic toward men.
Vincent switches gears and attempts to find out the effects of celibacy on men by having Ned live in a Catholic monastery with thirty monks. The residents, many of whom entered the monastic life before the age of twenty, have stifled their sexual lives because, the author hypothesizes, they cannot stand the intimacy involved in living life with women and not necessarily because they are gay. Some are simply confirmed bachelors who choose not to live life alone and prefer domestic arrangements with men. Here Ned meets Brother Vergil, a coffin maker who has returned to the monastery after years of accumulating luxuries and lovers on the outside. The monks assume Ned is gay and in love with Brother Vergil because of his effeminate mannerisms. Ned finds this emotionally arid desert very difficult. Vergil distances himself from Ned on the advice of older monks who firmly believe emotional involvement of any sort should be stamped out, and Ned suffers the emotional iciness inherent in cloistered life. Ned finally confronts Vergil and confesses he is really a woman. Almost immediately the two are friends again because now Vergil, who is not sexually attracted to women, feels safe. Now he can confide in his new friend without worrying about homosexual overtones....
(The entire section is 1807 words.)
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