The Powers of Gender

Posted in self help by Steph Auteri on February 22, 2008
Tags: ,

drag king.

Okay, you’re going to have to endure another of my self-help-via-memoir posts, as I’ve been reading a lot of those lately. Though this one wasn’t necessarily meant to be self-help. It just made me think…and I thought you might enjoy hearing about it.

So I just finished reading Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man (yes, I know, I saw her read over a year ago; better late than never). For the purposes of the book, Vincent drag king’d herself up and passed as a man for over a year in order to study the sociological effects of gender. During her time as a man, she infiltrated a men’s bowling league, a men’s therapy group, and a monastery, and scored multiple high-paced sales jobs, visited strip clubs, and went on dates with both men and woman. Throughout the course of this experience, she gained a deeper understanding of the male/female and male/male dynamics and, oddly enough, developed a deeper connection to her feminine side.

The book drew me in right away, opening as it did with Vincent’s first foray in men’s bowling leagues. Her description of her first night there was humorously reminiscent of the other week, when I went to the men’s league night where my dad and brother bowled in order to find respondents for the Dating Advice From…League Bowlers piece I was working on. I found it terrifying and alienating. As the only female there, it was starkly clear to me that I was an unwanted distraction. Rather, I wasn’t even a distraction. I was simply unwanted. I was deeply uncomfortable for the few hours I was there.

Vincent, however, is loaded down with the added fear that she will be found out as an impostor in a man’s world:

“Any smartly dressed woman who has ever walked the gauntlet of construction workers on lunch break or otherwise found herself suddenly alone in unfamiliar male company with her sex on her sleeve will understand a lot of how it felt to walk into that bowling alley for the first time on men’s league night. Those guys may not have known I was a woman, but the minute I opened the door and felt the air of that place waft over me, every part of me did.

I’d felt a milder version of this before…This palpable unbelonging that came of being the sole female in an all-male environment. And the feeling went right through my disguise and my nerve and told me that I wasn’t fooling anyone.

This was a men’s club, and men’s clubs have an aura about them, a mostly forbidding aura that hangs in the air. Females tend to respond to it viscerally, as they are meant to…

As a woman, you don’t belong. You’re not wanted. And every part of you knows it, and is just begging you to get up and leave.”

Despite these stressful beginnings, Vincent manages to pass quite easily as a man, mostly because no one has cause to question the gender she is presenting.

Through the course of we learn a lot about men: their tendency to be less judgmental, the constraints they feel in regard to emotional expression, the swagger that we mistake for power (and though it does give them power, the swagger itself is often a mask for other insecurities).

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has read this book, or even from those who haven’t but are interested in discussing gender further, either on this blog or elsewhere. A show of hands, please?


2 Responses to 'The Powers of Gender'

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  1. Diane said,

    The sociologist in me wants to read this book…. please share!

  2. stephanerd said,

    remind me! i’ll bring it in for you.

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