By Jane Martin
Nora Vincent went out in drag one day with a friend in New York City. Men didn’t leer, catcall, or even stare. She felt freed by this, and a bit curious. And then she did the next natural thing: quit her job as a nationally syndicated opinion columnist and became ‘Ned,’ the lesbian in drag for a year and a half.
Nora Vincent as ‘Ned’ spent time in several male venues to try to find out what life is like for a man. She bowls with the guys for a few months, frequents strip clubs and gets lap dances (while watching other men get more), dates a babe or two – none of whom are all that upset when they find out Ned’s a Norah – says vespers with the monks, sells books of coupons to housewives alongside macho ex-athletes, screams in the woods with the male victims of patriarchy. In “Self-Made Man,” Vincent lets us in on her observations along the way.
Unfortunately, Vincent tends to fast-forward through the good stuff. In the opening chapter, for example, she spends a good bit of time on the logistics – how she transformed herself into a convincing male – but spends almost no time explaining what she wants to accomplish by living as a man for a year and a half. We garner some of this as we read her thoughts throughout the book, but it’s never explicit enough. The transition to becoming Ned to living as Ned out in the field is abrupt: one page she’s Norah, learning from Ryan the theater person about how to construct a fake beard, next page she’s Ned, burping with the bowling dudes. We’re not privy to what the fascinating transformation felt like for her.
As well, Vincent often pulls away into broader generalizations about the sexes just when you want to know more: when, for example, she’s about to tell someone that she’s really a woman. I found myself speeding up at these moments, eager to find out how the duped was going to react, and how Vincent was going to respond to that reaction. But too often, she summarizes the phenomenon with a “and then I revealed myself,” and starts right in on her philosophizing. Sure, the philosophizing will happen when the purpose of your project is to explore the validity of gender essentialism, but still, as they like to say in writing workshops, all that exposition has to be earned. It would have been a more effective one-two punch if we’d been able to stay in the moment a bit longer with more action, with the sight, smell, sound, and feel of things; her lengthy reflections would have felt more tied to what had just occurred if she’d shown us more of what, in fact, had just occurred.
Yet, even after this confusing beginning, and occasional over-intellectualism, I was a very willing reader: her project is simply cool and intriguing, and enough compelling tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book to let you begin to decide for yourself whether there’s such a thing as gendered behavior. The promise of the book is so great, in fact, that I was even able to get past Vincent’s oddly self-deprecating comment in chapter one: “Nothing I say here will have any value except as one person’s observations about her own experience.” Hooray for humility, but this made me want to first give Norah a hug and then scream, What are you talking about? This is huge!
It took serious ovaries to do what Nora Vincent did. She put herself in some pretty scary situations where, if found out, she might have been harmed. The daily transformation for a year and a half took its toll. I’m not going to give away exactly how, because when friends force “L Word” spoilers on me I want to hurt them, but it’s profound enough to make you think.