My first internet date was with a right-wing lesbian — evidence that for grad students, the Princeton dating scene is indeed wretched.
Norah Vincent, my date, used to write wickedly combative columns for the LA Times and the Village Voice. Tweaking the doctrinaire left on issues like abortion, affirmative action and Israel, she offered interesting and unpredictable, if sometimes short-sighted, right-of-center positions. From the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein, she, along with Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia undeservedly, received the nasty title “homocon”. Vincent was definitely her own libertarian person, but not among the ranks of those mean-spirited conservatives, i.e. DeLay, Rove, Ralph Reed, Anne Coulter, destined for Hell. Vincent was instead destined for the bestseller’s list.
First things first. So a few years ago I decided to try internet dating and put up a profile on a hip singles site. Later I got smart and gave myself a New York City zip code. However, for the first few months, I was open for dating business in Princeton, New Jersey. But, alas, like SaladWorks, no customers. Then, wonder of wonders, I receive a bite – from a tall, dark, handsome… woman. After some on-line repartee, she emails me, and I google her email address, and then google her name. Then I realize I’m flirting, on-line, with Norah Vincent. Maybe she’s a hasbian? That’s my usual dating type. I mention I read her columns, but instead of the jig being up, it is not clear what the “jig” is and we decide to meet after the Peter Singer event at Wilson College. At the event, I recognize her immediately. She’s an attractive woman, about 5’ 11’’, fit, short-cropped black hair, serious eyes, and so, after introducing her around, we go out for coffee.
For three hours or so, we had a great conversation about dating, philosophy, gender, and politics. She was thoroughly open-minded, honest, charming, and very interesting. It turns out, she tells me, she’s writing a book about gender and dating. She has been going on dates with straight women dressed as a man. Her male alter ego, funnily enough, is named Ned. However, not wanting to limit herself, she has also been going out on dates with straight men as Norah. Fascinating! I confess to her all my dating woes, the usual lament of the “nice guy”, the tensions between advocating feminism and trying to hook up, my thoughts on Michel Foucault, the usual first meet-up topics. At one point, I still wasn’t sure if it was part of the experiment or really a date; it got very meta, but nothing more than cerebral.
After our date, our busy schedules only allowed for another dinner, this time with her partner of many years. I grilled them on their dating lives, how they met, and so forth. Then they moved to New York, and, well, a few weeks ago, I read Self-Made Man.
The book she was writing at the time is now a bestseller, and it belongs to an important genre, along with Katie Rophie’s The Morning After and Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today, flawed but earnest works that buck leftist conventional wisdom in ways that the left has often scoffed at or ignored. If Rophie pointed out embarrassing excesses of the campus feminist movement, and Manji speaks openly about the illiberalism of established Islam, Vincent’s book argues for considering men victims of their gender roles. She asks her readers to give them a break and for once not fight out against “the Man.”
Here’s why she does it. Vincent took on the persona of Ned, and like Barbara Ehrenreich’s working class classic Nickel and Dimed, she goes undercover into the world of the other. By infiltrating male- only spaces (e.g. a bowling league, a monastery, strip clubs, etc.) – Vincent as Ned goes through the rabbit hole of male micropractices, rituals and customs invisible to women. The characters she meets are memorable: Jim, the bowling captain who opens up to Ned and Norah alike; the closeted Catholic priests in the monastery afraid of any emotional or physical contact; Ivan, the hot-shot salesman on the prowl; Paul, the men’s movement leader, and Ned himself – a character, like Norah, reserved, serious and thoughtful.
Peppered throughout Vincent’s book are acknowledgements of the truths (or truisms) of late-20th century feminism: that women have unhealthy body image issues; that women are victims of violence and exploitation; that women are always under the gaze of men who objectify them. She affirms these truths, but troubles them with the dilemmas of dudehood. Her sympathies with the hurt of men qua men are refreshing, interesting, and charitable.
That which makes us most uncomfortable about her new male friends, their homophobia, their verbal misogyny, and naked-girl nihilism, is where Vincent finds the deepest insights. If we leftists have turned from these practices in disgust, looking at them full frontal might have led to some new diagnoses about the male practices we disparage. Vincent’s greatest virtue is the patience she has in seeing more than the misogyny and homophobia among working-class men. She herself expected more violence, racism, and simplicity but ends up putting the trash talk in a sympathetic context. The bowling guys endure hardship and tragedy at home, showing genuine care for their wives, but ill-equipped to connect emotionally. The strip club patrons are shown to be victims of loneliness, inner pain, and shame of the “satyr inside.” It is not clear if loneliness, libido, or lust are the symptoms or root illness of the strip club irrationality, but her adventures make curious food for thought. The monks are shown to be interpersonal cripples – the expectations of celibate straight masculinity turn out to be authentic conversation stoppers.
In the end, an exhausted and confused Vincent laments that American masculinity has become a “coached jumble of stoic poses.” In all contexts, even in the monastery, she finds pervasive “obsessions with fucking and competing and hazing the weak guy.” “White manhood” is, she concludes, “just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.” For those familiar with the new studies of Whiteness and Masculinity, this may not be a surprising thesis, but for Vincent’s intended audience – more mainstream, less academic – this may come as a revelation.
The book is far from clear about its own policy recommendations. Vincent equivocates between biological-based gender traits and socially construed gendered norms of behavior. If men are wired in to be a certain way, is emotional constipation not one of those ways? Obviously not.
Absent from her consideration are the forms of American manhood where this sort of stereotype is indeed upended. There are many of us, not just metrosexuals, Cornel West, Promise Keeper evangelicals and nice Jewish boys, who are healthily in touch with our huggy-touchy side. I suspect one might find that men in academia, the arts, Jewish culture, and elsewhere have a more complex constellation of gendered traits. Certainly men, white or otherwise, learn the subtle interpersonal grammar of competition, position and privilege. Given Vincent’s valuable empirical observations, unknown to the naked eye, I’m not sure if these practices can be consciously undone. Stuart Smalley psychology maybe, but who wants to go there? Still, the American man has more options for being a man than at any time in history. If once John Wayne or Mohammed Ali defined the true man, Rick Warren, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama offer a varied, if imperfect spin on male role-modeling types. Certainly the hostile world of men exists, but men also are capable of interpersonal complexity.
Self-Made Man is no “men are from Mars” essentialist tract. Vincent, who studied philosophy at Williams, has a serious and subtle eye for the profundity underneath the brash generalizations she sometimes makes. There is existential wrestling going on here. Her book is a keen contribution to the pop anthropology of gender – certainly, it should instigate productive conversations among the non-academic population, more practically so than our usual sneering deconstructionist complaints.