Reading guide for Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent

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Self-Made Man

One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man

By Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2006,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2006,
    304 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The true story of Norah Vincent's audacious gender-bending experiment, Self-Made Man is a fascinating account of a year and a half spent discovering how the other half lives. Remaking herself as a man named Ned, Vincent exposes the truth by experiencing it; the men she meets, as well as the man she becomes, not only alter her perceptions of the opposite sex forever, but, in doing so, deeply affect her understanding of women and herself.

Vincent, fearless from the first, begins by tackling the stereotypes of male competition, aggression, and sexual swagger. To her chagrin, she discovers truth in the clichés. Within the bastions of high-pressure, low-wage sales jobs, her assumptions about male hierarchies and power displays are confirmed; in visits to strip clubs, the combined objectification and resentment of women are indeed on display. Vincent, the intrepid social scientist, does not simply observe but gets into the mud and participates. She talks the talk, she walks the walk; she competes for sales and ogles women. She doesn't reject the rituals but instead begins to understand the form of male culture as well as the functioning behind it.

Sympathetic but never simpering, Vincent's humor and heart strike a balance throughout Self-Made Man. Joining a bowling league, a men's therapy group, even a monastery, she insinuates herself into the secret world of male intimacy and forms lasting friendships. She learns the codes of conduct when men are alone, not only what they speak about but how they do it—the meaning behind silence, the subtle nuance of physical gestures, the difficulty of living within the ideals of masculinity. In her disguise, Vincent delves into the pressure of social expectations and peers behind the curtain of manliness, exploring what it means to be a son, father, partner, or breadwinner. Never limiting her focus to simply being male, she also peers through the looking glass at her own gender and exposes some unpleasant truths about women's contributions to sexual inequality. She is as unrelenting an analyst of herself as she is of society.

Candid, compassionate, and witty, Vincent has written for the Washington Post, Village Voice, and Los Angeles Times, and she brings the full force of her experience to bear on the battle between the sexes. Her sharp intellect, emotional honesty, and keen perception combine to create a book that is difficult to sum up and impossible to put down. Self-Made Man both confirms and explodes stereotypes, ultimately presenting manhood as a complicated and contradictory experience that deserves greater attention from both sexes. Whether male or female, readers will find Self-Made Man a compelling, illuminating read and one that is certain to spark conversation. This, Vincent would agree, is the first step toward better understanding between the sexes.



 Discussion Questions
  1. If you could switch genders for a day, what would you do? Why? What sort of man or woman do you think you would be? 
  2. Nora Vincent is candid in admitting the assumptions she made about men. What assumptions do you make about the opposite sex? Your own? Who or what shaped these ideas? 
  3. Have you ever relied on sexual stereotypes for your own benefit? Have you ever challenged sexual convention? What prompted these behaviors? How were they received? 
  4. In her introduction, Vincent refers to her experiment as "meddling" (p. 18)—why do you think she labels it as such? Do you agree? 
  5. Discuss the two quotations at the beginning of the book. What does each one mean? What is their combined effect? 
  6. Self-Made Man is organized around experiences of friendship, sex, love, life, work, and self. Why do you think Vincent structured the book this way? How does each section relate to the others? 
  7. Of all the men Vincent befriended, who was the most intriguing? Did you see any similarities to the men you know in her acquaintances? 
  8. Compare and contrast the author's relationships with Jim and Paul. How does each man reflect the success of Vincent's experience? 
  9. Think back to your expectations of the book before you read it. Which of Vincent's revelations shocked you the most? Which was most encouraging? 
  10. If you could ask Vincent one question, what would it be?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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