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From the January/February, 2007
issue of Touchstone

 

Guy Spy by S. M. Hutchens

Guy Spy

Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again
by Norah Vincent
Viking, 2006
(304 pages, $24.95, hardcover)

reviewed by S. M. Hutchens

Self-Made Man is written by a—not feminine, but very female—lesbian whose observations on the interplay of the sexes made her curious about whether being a man was all it was cracked up to be in the mainstream of respectable modern women’s opinion. To find out, she disguised herself as a man—this comes off as a rather weird and fairly amusing operation—and jumped headfirst into what she thought might be some of the most distinctively male modes.

She became a member of a men’s bowling league, a strip-club patron, a single guy looking for dates, a prospective novice in a monastery, a salesman working for a sell-or-die agency, and a member of a men’s group seeking to recover Ur-maleness in a world hostile to it. She writes about all these experiences with close observation and winsome empathy.

There is much left unsaid in this book, particularly about the author’s life and thought when undisguised, but the reader must be satisfied with as much as she is willing to tell. As far as it goes, it is an interesting story.

A Difficult World

By and large she finds the male world difficult, discouraging, and something she is glad to escape back to womanhood, however disadvantageous it is represented to be in feminism’s conventional wisdom. What seems to disturb her most about that environment as she experiences it is the feeling of isolation that male reticence to express emotion engenders—something that she as a woman finds almost impossible to tolerate, and for the bearing of which she comes to both pity and admire the men she meets.

I would remark that while the form and intensity this reticence takes has a great deal to do with culture, men across cultures share a reserve that makes it more likely that they, for a complex of reasons, will formalize relations between themselves in all but a few well-defined situations. Preeminently this means with the brother (in any form he takes)—frequently not the wife, despite what she typically thinks her due in emotional intimacy.

Men simply do not communicate intuitively with either the volubility or alacrity of women. They are built that way, think it’s fine, and see good reasons for it. A man, Ms. Vincent discovered, may do no more than grunt at his friends twice in a social evening, and they take that as an acceptable level of communication.

They leave his space uninvaded if that’s the way he wants it, and let him talk only when and if he wants to. That’s how they operate when they are not being badgered by someone to act like women, or attempting on their own initiative to make themselves fit for female company.

What drove Ms. Vincent to distraction about this very typical maleness is that it is universally regarded by men as part of being a grownup of their sex. It is why she was so disappointed with the monks, from whom she expected markedly higher levels of empathy than are customary among men, when they turned out to be a pretty typical bunch of guys, nervous about all the hugging she (as a “he”) wanted them to do because some of them were—as some guys always are—fighting homosexual impulses. The monks, while not identifying “Ned” as a woman, thought he was a homosexual.

Sexual Reality

My guess is that a number of men she encountered would have seen through her disguise had they come from environs where sexual identity is more ambiguous than in the man’s world she visited—in places where it is a distinct possibility that the person appearing as of one sex may be of the other.

But the vast majority of men and women do not dress as each other, and in normal society there would be no greater insult to a man than to suggest he might in fact be a woman. The train of thought that would bring a man to this conclusion about another man is naturally repugnant to him, and fraught with inutility and danger. He keeps it so far from his consciousness that the likes of Ned will be considered a defective man until it is impossible to avoid the fact that “he” is not a man at all.

The most personally disturbing, and certainly most revealing, conundrum Ms. Vincent faces is her conventionally modern dislike of the artificiality of sex roles on one hand, and on the other the ineffable mystery of the fundamental ontological, inescapably biological and psychological difference of the sexes from which these roles arise.

She is forced by her honesty (for which, along with her extraordinary pluck, one comes to admire her) to conclude the reality of the difference, but does not take us here into a more nuanced and critical understanding of roles as being founded in the inescapably real, with “artificiality” therefore to be judged only on the basis of a prior understanding, or at least reasonable intuition, of what is proper to maleness and femaleness. That, perhaps, is her next book, and if she writes it, I will read it.


S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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