` What is man, that thou art mindful of him? — imaginary family values

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While reading Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent’s story of spending a year and a half passing for male, I came across an analysis of how men in a bowling league she joined would try to help her with her game. She recounted how, as a female athlete, she got back-stabbing and catty remarks from other women; by contrast, the men in “Ned”’s league, even the men from opposing teams, kept trying to give “him” practical advice.

...[T]hey seemed to have a competitive stake in my doing well and helping me to do well, as if beating a man who wasn’t at his best wasn’t satisfying. They wanted you to be good and then they wanted to beat you on their own merits.

When I first read that, I thought, Oh, that’s an interesting insight into the difference between men and women. But the next day, mulling over what I had read, I realized that it had no connection to my own experience as a man dealing with other men. OK, I’ve never belonged to an athletic league, but I’ve been a member of a writers’ workshop; I’ve volunteered for various political organizations; I was a gabbai and board member at a synagogue. When it comes to helping me be a more competent member of these organizations (or not), I don’t notice a difference between how my male and female co-volunteers have treated me. Certainly I don’t see the drastic contrast that Vincent saw between one group of working-class middle-aged men at a bowling alley and another group of upper-class teenage girls at a tennis camp. Maybe this attitude is confined to all-male sports teams—but I know I’m not the only guy who avoids team sports.

And that, in a nutshell, is my reaction to Self-Made Man. Based on her experience among men in some of the most stereotypically male environments (e.g., a bowling league, a Catholic monastery, and a Glengarry Glen Ross—style sales job), she has drawn sweeping conclusions about The Inner Lives of Men, many of whom don’t want to be in such environments. (League bowling is so unpopular these days that a book on the decline of American communities uses it as a case in point. The Catholic Church in America is having trouble finding young men willing to become parish priests, let alone monks. The sales job that Vincent took had such a high turnover that managers were constantly interviewing new candidates.)

One notable weakness of Vincent’s research is her lack of investigation into how men behave and feel as husbands. She observes them in all-male environments where they are taking a recess from their marriages, so to speak (such as the bowling league), or not married at all (such as the monastery). The closest she comes to a mixed environment is when she investigates the heterosexual dating scene. When she remarks on how reluctant men are to share their emotions, and speculates on how this may be wounding them psychologically, I want to shout at her through the page: “Well, duh! Men are reluctant to share their emotions with other men. They depend on the women they’re intimate with for emotional support. That’s why, for example, men are more likely than women to get depressed following a divorce!”

Given how often men and women see one another as members of an alien species, it’s nice to have books that help people of one gender understand the feelings of the other. But the information conveyed by this book only describes a part of the male population—how large a part, I don’t know—and I worry about female readers who apply it to the rest of the gender.

There. Now I’ve shared my feelings.

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