Self-Made Man was a book begging to be written. In the reality TV age, with a literary legacy of books such as Black Like Me and Nickel and Dimed, with questions of nature and nurture lurking behind the politics of gay marriage and gender identity, author Norah Vincent has finally done the inevitable: She went undercover as a gender spy, pretending to be a man for over a year for the sole purpose of finding out how different boys and girls really are.
In the guise of "Ned," her alter ego, she infiltrates such male-only territories as bowling leagues, support groups, strip clubs, and even a monastery. Vincent is a candid and sympathetic narrator, and she is the first to point out when her own sexist or classist biases are revealed.
Vincent is at her best when examining the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, like when she compares the instant camaraderie ("brotherhood") she shares with her bowling buddies with the more complex relationships of her female friends. Her dating experiences also prove fascinating, as she attempts to identify the qualities women really want in a man (what they don't want, she learns, is a woman in a man's body).
Though the point of the experiment is obviously to get a female perspective on how men act when there are no women around, much of the book ends up being about Vincent's own learning process. In addition to the physical changes she must make (fake stubble, binding her breasts, and bulking up), she finds that there is psychological work to be done as well—so much so that when she is fully inhabiting Ned's character, her disguise becomes almost unnecessary so long as she projects the right "masculine" attributes.
While many of her observations about maleness seem banal, the book ultimately becomes about Vincent's own journey, one that ends in a minor nervous breakdown as she snaps under the strain of her double life. Vincent's surprising conclusion, then, isn't about the secret inner workings of male privilege—but rather how, as an empowered, intelligent woman, she is both unable and unwilling to submit to the pressures that society places on men. ALISON HALLETT