Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Reminds Us Sexism Goes Both Ways


All this talk about the Victoria's Secret fashion show and the annual argument about whether V.S. objectifies women reminded me of a book I read a long time ago: Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man, by Norah Vincent.

The book follows lesbian journalist Norah Vincent, who for a year and a half, lived disguised as a man. The study was prompted by a night in drag with a lesbian friend. Vincent was shocked at how differently she was treated by both men and women as she went about her night out. Curiosity drove her to adopt the persona of Ned.

The book is divided into sections. As Ned, she explored many different aspects of male culture. First she joined a male bowling league. As a man who was convincing, though still effeminate, she was very out of place among the tough, middle-aged, blue collar workers on her team. However, she quickly was amazed at the differences between men in women in how they compete (and don't compete with each other). Vincent marvelled at the significance attached to something as simple as a handshake, which she remarked was, "worlds away from the 'fake and cold' air kisses and limp handshakes exchanged by women"

Her next experiences were in the realm of dating and working as a man. She visited strip clubs as a man, which she found, even for men, to be a generally sad and detestable experience. She tried to pick up women at a bar, as a man and was baffled and hurt by the constant stream of rejection so many man are accustomed to. And she took on a testosterone-fueled door-to-door sales job.  

She also attended male-therapy session (they were in-style in the 90's when the reporting took place) where men, bereaved by divorce and unable to fit into a modern world that rejects most forms of masculinity, strove to find themselves again. After this experience she has an actual mental breakdown.

Most interestingly, she spent several months as a Catholic monk within a cloister. Yes, she lived in a monastery, for months, posing effectively as a man. 

As a feminist who was taught in gender studies classes (which she noted were all populated and taught by militant feminists) that men were evil and misogynistic, the experience was eye-opening for her. Her life as a man challenged every fact she had believed while growing up, and gave her a much clearer perspective not only on the qualities and shortcomings of the feminist movement, but the effect of a modern society on men.

The book is a play-by-play account of an extremely fascinated observer. Ned's world is so wildly different than Norah's that the culture shock alone almost destroyed her mental health. By the end of the book, Norah finds herself questioning everything and feeling profound sorrow for men. It takes her a long, long time to recover from the ensuing depression. On the surface, the book appears to be like just another hate-filled diatribe against men, yet it's filled with sympathy for them. Her recovery period is also detailed in the book.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has even the vaguest interest in gender studies, or is preparing to debate the relationships between men and women in today's society. Vincent is a true journalist who walks into the situation with preconceptions, but an open mind, and finds her worldview totally turned upside down.

She is sympathetic to the plights of men, but also does not switch sides completely. She opts instead not to take a side at all and gives one of the fairest accounts of men and women's roles in society and their relationships ever put to print. From the simple things, to how men and women talk differently, to complex social issues like the impacts of divorce, and the expectations men and women have of each other, Vincent explores every aspect of gendered life.

Norah Vincent wrote a follow up book titled Voluntary Madness: Lost and Found in the Mental Healthcare System. After her experiences as a man, her depression got so dire that she felt she was a danger to herself, and per recommendation by her psychologist, she had her self committed into an institution. Vincent spent time at an expensive private hospital, a small-town institution, and a public, ill-funded, urban ward. The book not only details her recovery process, but also goes in depth into the deficiencies and strength of the country's mental health system. 

Vincent is a journalist who is committed to bringing stigmatized subjects like sexism and mental illness into the pubic debate. So, when we are reminded of these issues, like when the V.S. show airs, we should look to the experts for guidance.