It’s Not Easy Being A Man

Norah Vincent passed as a man for a year and a half. She wrote a book about the experience, Self-Made Man, which was published in 2006. When one gender visits the world of another it can be eye-opening, so let’s take a peek at one part of the woman-turned-man experience.

Turns out, it’s not easy being a man.

Norah had thought she’d love joining the privileged man-club that, until her transition, she had only glimpsed from the outside. Instead, she felt strangely inadequate.

For instance, as a lesbian, she’d expected to have great fun dating women. But it was arduous. In her new man-role she felt an expectation to lead, take charge. This made her feel small in her costume.

I felt this especially keenly on one of my earliest dates, waiting for a woman at a fancy restaurant I’d chosen. I was sitting alone in one of those cavernous red leather booths that you see at old-world steak houses, and I was holding the menu, which also happened to be red and enormous, and I felt absolutely ridiculous, like the painful geek in a teen movie who is trying to score with an older woman. I felt tiny and insignificant.

Living with pressure to always show strength, never let down your guard, and yet never measuring up, she observed:

I guess maybe that’s one of the secrets of manhood that no man tells if he can help it. Every man’s armor is borrowed and 10 sizes too big, and beneath it, he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.

Michael Kimmel, a leading researcher on men and masculinity, agrees, including that quote in a book he wrote called Guyland.

Men have to prove they are men. Women don’t have to prove they are women.

Yes, gender-ranking strikes again. Men are bestowed higher rank in society, and so men feel they must earn that high status. But it’s hard because ranking men over women is not natural.

So men are under constant pressure to show strength, lead, walk like a man, talk like a man, sit like a man… or as Jackson Katz put it, wear a tough guise: look tough, talk tough, and be tough guys.

Some harm themselves or others proving their fearlessness through dangerous drinking or dangerous driving or avoiding doctors. Some work to turn “weak” feelings like sadness and depression into “strong” feelings like anger. But then wives get beaten and women get raped, and some boys are bullied to build others up. Or guys cave to peer pressure just to dodge being called gay, wuss, fag… or girl.

But most times they’re just trying to live up to the high expectations of manhood that demand strength, power, confidence, invulnerability, leadership and success, which may become benefit or burden — or both.

On her time being a guy, Vincent declares:

I know that a lot of my discomfort came precisely from being a woman all along, remaining one even in my disguise. But I also know that another respectable portion of my distress came, as it did to the men I met in (my men’s group) and elsewhere, from the way the world greeted me in that disguise, a disguise that was almost as much of a put-on for my men friends as it was for me. That, maybe, was the last twist of my adventure. I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball. Only in my men’s group did I see these masks removed and scrutinized. Only then did I know that my disguise was the one thing I had in common with every guy in the room.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on June 18, 2012, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Super interesting topic, thanks for posting! Ideas/perceptions/assumptions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are something I think about frequently, and I can see the effects of those perceptions and ideas up close with my own personal family dynamics as well as with my friends. I find it interesting, frustrating, saddening, maddening to see so many people – but particularly men – holding in emotions, and not expressing real feelings. I think that our repression of emotions is damaging on so many levels; it affects how we feel, can make us depressed, affects our relationships with others, and I believe can even make us physically sick. It is quite incredible that our society and the norms that have been created are so completely influential in our lives. Our mentalities and perceptions are so deeply rooted (like you discuss in your post – boys are taught from such a young age to be that tough guy who doesn’t ever feel sadness or fear or love, and girls to be that delicate, fearful, can’t take care of myself idea). How were these concepts so deeply entrenched? Why did we buy in to them so unquestioningly? Was it all just through media avenues? Why are these perceptions so dang difficult to shift?


  3. you’re welcome

  4. ok ok I did shed some tears for the stuart scott video there at the end ha..
    It’s so ingrained in men. I hate admitting that stuff, because guys don’t like “sticking out” as in being the emotional one out of the other guys, though I’m sure those guys have had moments too, that they hide as well. As usual social conformity at work. Nobody likes to seem “different” from the pack…

    • Thanks for the links. And thanks for sharing your experience, too. Hope you don’t mind if I use it in my blog sometime.

      • the Stuart Scott jimmy v foundation speech was good huh? I don’t usually get moved too much from speeches, but it was really heartfelt and inspiring and one can’t help but to get some emotional response out of that, especially the genuine ending of the clip with him hugging his daughter and saying he needs it.

      • Really good. Thanks so much for sending it.

  5. Yeah as a man, I think guy’s have more emotion and empathy and sensitivity than they show, much more. Yeah guys, like me, rarely shed tears for a sad movie or love story movie. But like real life heart warming or hear wrenching stuff, while maybe not physically showing tears. I think guy’s do get the “sniffles” I call them. I’ve done that sometimes, ha. Reaction like you just smelled onions, feel like tears are coming, blink eyes fast a few times and like sniff and then hold it off and then back to normal ha. What I mean is for example, there were two particular things recently that made me do that and fight off tears for a sec. You should watch it if you haven’t, sad, but inspiring and moving. Look at this clips here. The whole thing got me, but particularly the ending was where I almost lost it. The love for his daughters and just I don’t know, obviosly so relateable for men as fathers, or brothers, uncles and having a daugther, sister, niece they love so much, more than words can describe and the fear of them not being around for them anymore.

    This one is a quick clip but moving too

    Same guy and daughter and quite moving what the cheerleaders did to honor his daugher of the opposing team and his obvious reaction to it.

  6. Adorina Betgorgiz

    This was an interesting text. I have a friend who constantly tries to prove his manhood. About an hour ago, I called him “rabbit” and he got so defensive and corrected me right away by telling me he’s a wolf. Just ten minutes after I left, he sent me picture of wolf saying that he’s a man and according to his rules he can not be anything but wolf!!! He would constantly make fun of our (girls) driving or emotional sensitivity by teasing us and saying “oh oh don’t cry now.” I honestly don’t feel bad by his words because I feel like he is under too much pressure to prove us or even himself that he’s a man and powerful.
    I have a group of friends which are mostly guys. These guys treat me and my other friend ( the only two girls in the group) as a guy. They forget we are girls (not like how society would treat girls as they are fragile). It’s to a point that I have bruises all over one arm because I punched them and they punched me back just like if I was a guy. In this group, I would admit, as much as I enjoy being treated as a guy and as a stronger girl than others, I sometimes feel like I have to prove my womanhood! I would sometimes dress up in a cute way or put on pink nail polish or do gender to remind them I am a girl.

  7. I think people in general should look and judge people by their character not by what they look like. In a white mans world where you are ranked by the color of your skin and the gender that you belong to. Woman I work with in a law firm, they remind me of the writer of this book. They wore masks that were very visible and it becomes like a chess game, you know what the other person is doing and vise versa and it doesn’t matter what the other person looks like. All it matters are those moves to play the game. It is based on opportunity, if participation is granted in a company, the company benefits from it. Wearing these masks lets you participate and it is interesting to see woman compete and when you play a game, people loose. I saw females surpass men and it was good for the whole law firm to have its best players in their positions. Some men didn’t like that but they were the minority and that shows you where we are headed as a society, or where we are now (California state of mine). I strongly believe that when it comes to masks woman have the upper hand. Women are beautiful by nature, and have advantages like kindness; sweetness and verbally they can go further than a man, because they are more open than men. A woman would more easily admit to a wrong than a man. In my personal experiences woman make better mentors like teachers, doctors and nurses. A mother’s touch that some men are incapable of is critical. If a woman surpasses men in some positions, maybe then we can become better men by learning from womem. Lets not ignore that our grandmothers, Mothers, Sisters, wives and daughters are women. Lets learn from them and become better men.

  8. Really good experiement. This is proably the most insightful way to know what it’s like to be the opposite gender. I couldn’t pull it off because I look unambiguously like a guy.

    I tell myself to “be a man” sometimes to make it so my behavior doesn’t come off as a weak person. So I myself put on a mask as well.

    I’ve dated women and it seems like they only want me to be submissive when having sex but not much else. They wanted me to be dominant when it comes to what we do on dates. THat’s how it often goes in general so my personal experience matched Norah Vincent’s.

    Men carry a much more violent gender and men compete with other men. Two thirds of murder victims are men killed by other men. THis can be explained by not just gender roles but men wanting to be the apha male.

    It’s easier to be a woman than a man, even though womens’ gender is often under-appreciated. THat partly explains why men get sex change operations to become women more often than women get sex changes to become men.

    Men could learn a thing or two about the the female gender. It’s roles are better in the sense that women are much less violent. If women were as violent as men and received gender-neutral sentences if convicted of violent crims, we would need about ten times as may prisons. Prisons are already overcrowded in America as it is, by the way.

  9. I would love to see the idea John had of a gender bending day on campus. At the very least at least make it something that classes where doing such would provide a day of interesting discussion (I could see why a math teacher might think it a useless idea for them to dress opposite gender, when the discussion of the square root of some number has no relevance to the gender of who is solving it). But for plenty of other subjects and classes, it would open up a ton of discussion.

    As to what Norah had to say, I agree, I don’t think it’s particularly easy being either gender, but a lot of men are stereotyped as having it easy, and in a lot of aspects, we do have it much easier. But a lot of men are forced to work for it by requiring that they HAVE to be “manly”. Growing up as a kid, I didn’t do normal young boy’s sports, hated baseball, golf, football, loved gymnastics. I obviously got a lot of crap for doing a “girl sport”. But then the annual physical fitness testing came, and I dominated the entirety of the school, except for my sister, who was older and a gymnast as well. As much as I wanted this to earn me respect so people would stop bullying, it actually only made things worse. No football or basketball athlete wanted to be beat by the 4’10” little boy 2 grades below them when it came to doing pull ups. I was accused of cheating, despite these people WATCHING me do pull ups or sit ups. The fact that someone doing a strange sport and beating the traditional “manly” sport athletes turned out to be horrible.

    But, despite all the ridicule, I was never physically bullied, after that test, I noticed I would be picked almost immediately for sports, everyone WANTED me on their teams at school, but nobody ever really wanted to admit it was because I was good at the sports. Nobody particularly cared to admit that I was just as good, if not better at athletics than some of the other more “jock” type kids. So while I may not have been “accepted” by people, it seemed that I had somehow at least earned a very misconstrued respect from them.

    Of course, it makes me wonder, I mean, men have to put on our masks of manliness, and I’m certain that women put on masks of their own, but is there a particular “mask” type that makes someone more “womanly”? What exactly would a woman do to try to accentuate the fact that she’s a woman, in our culture it seems like that would be very hard to do, when being a woman is such a broad thing, and only getting broader as stuff slowly evens out. Worse yet, it’s different for so many various little groups, that being more “womanly” for one group, would have the opposite reaction for another. Maybe people need to start pushing out on the borders of what being manly is, till both sides flatten out and maybe even overlap some. Make the definition of what it is to be a man, or manly broader, and maybe we’ll see better changes as well.

    • Maybe women’s masks come in the form of make-up or PLASTIC surgery, since her looks so often determine her worth but then cover over who she is.

      • As much as it pains me, I have to agree with that (I actually really just didn’t want to say it in my first post), for a lot, too many even, of people that seems to be their answer. But I think that only in very extreme cases is that actually the most viable option. I’ll always treasure the person who accentuates their natural gifts over someone who feels the need to create fake ones. Work with what you have, and I suppose if all else fails, or if you truly need it to feel happy with yourself, go to the extremes. Or at the very least, don’t make any permanent changes, you may not always be happy with it later.

  10. Peter Fiekowsky

    Great post, Georgia. ” Only then did I know that my disguise was the one thing I had in common with every guy in the room.” leading to “I feel compassion for both men and women.”. I experience joy just being the sometimes jerk and sometimes mensch that I am. And similarly with Nora, appreciating women as the joy and contribution they are in the moment…Rather than “why am I better than them”. Inspiring piece. Thank you.

  11. Daisy Valenzuela

    “Men have to prove they are men. Women don’t have to prove they are women.” I never thought about this, to me it always seemed that men had it easy. In a way I figuered that men had to only show their masculine sides, but I never thought it was more of a disguise then how they really are. I mean women always have to “prove” that they are beautiful by taking care of their skin and putting on the right make-up and clothes, but they rarely put on a mask of personality to show that they are truly a woman. With this article I think woman are more real because they choose to be there own person by not caring what other may think of them.

    • Thanks for your comment. Don’t know that it’s good to play the “who’s better/who has it better” game. Women and men each face their own challenges that society sets up for them. We both have to make out way through a difficult sort of circumstances.

      I feel compassion for both men and women.

  12. Cheers to Norah for doing this. I’m not too surprised that it wasn’t as easy as first thought. Norah was not the first nor will she be the last to ‘gender bend’ expecting to find that undiscovered country. I guess its normal to feel like the grass is always greener somewhere else. Dressing up as the other gender has been going on for centuries. In literature, movies and arts, even history. From Joan of Arc to Tootsie and beyond. Wouldn’t it be great if our heritage month could have a gender bender day for all faculty staff and students? I’ve suggested it a few times but it never gets any real traction. People have pointed out to me that Halloween in the Castro is designed for that, but I was hoping for something more than just costume. That by wearing clothes resembling the opposite sex, and providing open forums to discuss the difference and the likeness, we could make the climate on campus a bit more accepting of non-traditional roles; especially when it comes to what one wears or looks like. Maybe one day it’ll happen day. Until then, “trick-or-treat”.

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