I’m currently reading ‘Self-Made Man’ by Norah Vincent. It’s about her experience, when using some clever make-up and body-building techniques, she figures out how to disguise herself as a man, ‘Ned’, and goes undercover in various contexts to try to understand the world from a male perspective. I’m about half-way through the book now, and it’s been a very thought-provoking read thus far, in large part because of s0me of the connections with hers and my stories.
Norah took the name for her alter ego from her childhood nickname, as she was always, from a very young age, somewhat of a tomboy. In later life, she is a lesbian and muses upon how the signs of this were there at an early stage. Her desire to write the book was not, apparently, about being a transvestite or transsexual, but follows an experience of going out in New York in drag one night with a friend for a laugh, and noticing the very different reactions she got from men when they thought she was a man.
When I was young, I was always very much a tomboy. Apparently, when my uncle tried to give me a ‘very nice’ doll to play with when I was about three, I threw it back at him in disgust. I never wanted to do the girly stuff at school, and would much rather have been playing football with the boys. I did frequently pinch my ickle brother’s toys, and would never have been into dressing up and make up and that sort of thing. In fact, as long as I’ve remember, I’ve hated ‘girly’, ‘frilly’ things and thought of myself in a very male way, if you see what I mean.
As an adult, I’ve become aware of my sexual orientation and am very comfortable with it. It was odd yesterday, though, bumping into my old form teacher and head of year from high school, now a married couple, in the middle of M&S (only in Durham!) and thinking about my teenage self. With those kind of conversations, it’s like being in an odd time-wrap. I was aware of my orientation back then, but social conditioning and fear of being bullied and of parental disapproval meant I did my best to bury it, so successfully at times that I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fancy boys. It’s one of the reasons I ended up going out with a man although I never fancied him, certainly never felt the kind of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ I do when I look at TractorGirl. I did love him in a way, but I was honestly never ‘in love’.
I guess the point of all these musings is to wonder about the extent to which sexual orientation and gender are a given and how much is to do with social conditioning. I posted a little while ago about liking to wear shirts and ties. I always have been attracted to dressing in a male way and actually used to do this both as a child when it was ‘cute’ and as a teenager in secret in case anyone found out and thought I was weird. Since it’s become an everyday part of my waredrobe it no longer has an overtly sexual dimension, but it does feel very natural, expressing something of who I am. Simultaneously, aspects of my femininity, such as my hair, are also important to me, and so doing ‘feminine butch’ seems a good way of capturing both parts. I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body, but more like a mixture of a man and a woman jostling for expression.
Reading Norah Vincent’s experiences of taking ‘Ned’ to a men-only bowling league, on dates with various women and to strip clubs has been intriguing. There is clearly a sense in which what is considered ‘appropriate’ behaviour for men (and by extension women) is socially defined and passed on from one generation to another. The father-and-son in the bowling alley show this only too well. The sense of needing to hide deep pain and make a joke of it, only being able to express feelings to a limited depth to another man, was there in Jim’s story, with his much-loved wife dying of cancer. Once he knew Ned was Norah, he felt able to open up in a way he couldn’t to a man. A fear of being thought homosexual was quite strong, and there was a sense that the sexual needs of a man can never be fully met within marriage, that ‘baser’ desires that don’t fit with the model of civilised man and therefore would be shameful to tell one’s partner about, need to be satisfied in strip clubs, with much physical but absolutely no emotional intimacy at all, as if physical satisfaction is everything.
That chapter was by far the saddest, as I realised that it is not only the women who are degraded by all this, but very much the men too. The chapter on dating pulled me up short. Ned encountered a lot of hostility from women who lumped all the faults of their exes onto him just for being a man, and the women often wanted someone both sensitive and delicate and also macho and ‘traditionally’ strong, something that seemed to require multiple personalities… It made me think about the extent to which I have been unfair to men as a result of the way my ex was, and also what my expectations are of a partner. It’s so easy to not communicate these properly, or to be unaware that our expectations maybe can’t be met by the other and that we need to deal with past pains.
I have always felt things very deeply and been an extremely emotional person, for whom that emotional depth and its expression, particularly by touch and sexuality as a way of articulating that which is too deep for words, is very important. I know I haven’t always expressed this very well to TractorGirl and sometimes it can be a lonely place to be. It’s this thing of being with a crowd of friends or even in bed with a partner you love and being so close, yet feeling totally alone. This can be hard as a woman, with expression of emotion being more ‘acceptable’; how much harder must it be for men? I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book to see how it pans out for ‘Ned’ and those he encounters.