Saturday, April 8, 2006

Butch It Up, Fella

Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times learns how to be manly — from a woman.

I have never been the manliest guy. As a kid I had all female friends, loved musicals, owned an Easy-Bake Oven, had a sticker collection and told people that my favorite character in Star Wars was C-3PO, a robot so gay they gave him a British voice. I was able to find the one gay thing about Star Wars. That’s like going to a strip club because you like dance music.

And it’s only gotten worse since I moved to L.A., where straight men wear shirts with prints on them and jeans with holes in suspicious places. After just three months of living in L.A., I had gotten Lasik, a creme brulee torch and a yellow Mini Cooper convertible.

To stem the tide, I had lunch with Norah Vincent, a former Los Angeles Times columnist who spent more than a year undercover as a man for her new book, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. One of the tips she failed to pick up from my gender was to not use so many words. Still, if anyone knew how to butch someone up, it was Vincent. So I took her to lunch in New York and asked for some advice.

Right away, Vincent, a 5-foot-10 lesbian, noticed that my handshake was neither strong nor assertive. Also, my eyes were too gentle. “That’s a sign of weakness. That will not get you women,” she said. “Make your eyes harder. When you look at people, think mean thoughts.” She was making the last part easy.

Vincent suggested that I take some vocal training to lower my voice, as she did for her book. “It’s not the timbre but the intonation. You’re a questioner. You don’t have the sense that you know what you’re talking about.” Apparently, I talk like a Canadian.

She’s right. A few months ago, I Googled an article on some blog about how my voice on the radio is the voice of a “neuter… educated and acculturated out of…any gender at all.”

Apparently, I’m not sure of myself, which makes me unmanly. Also, it causes me to Google myself a lot.

To fix this, Vincent suggested that I “project more authority. More ego. Less emotional accessibility. Don’t be available for elaboration. Give them a very terse answer. Become a little more autistic.” What I needed to do was bark orders. Like for the omelet with ratatouille and goat cheese I was ordering for lunch.

Even the way I sat was completely wrong. I kind of crossed my legs. This horrified her.

“Maybe Brad Pitt could sit like that,” she said. “But Brad Pitt could wear a pearl necklace and get away with it.” She suggested that I spread my legs as far apart as possible, which didn’t sound very manly until she explained it: “Take up more space than you should because you’re entitled to it.”

Feeling more than a little emasculated, especially after being accused of having something called “sweet boy sneakers,” I started to brag about wanting to cheat on my wife all the time. This didn’t work at all. “The fact that you’re able to identify and articulate your emotions puts you miles ahead of most guys,” she said.

After we shared some beignets and hot chocolate, Vincent looked me up and down and said that I might be a wuss, but I was definitely not gay. “A gay man would have put more thought into his ensemble.” It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me.

The truth is, I don’t mind being a little neutered. Gender is so primary in our society that we spend all this effort exaggerating our sex — hair, makeup, breast enhancement, weight-lifting. And now that technology and societal changes have created a sea of liminal characters in the way of transsexuals, cross-dressers and gays, the rest of us are even more desperate to assert the purity of our chromosomes.

But I don’t like myself when I fall into the easy, learned patterns of masculinity. I don’t like that I’ve learned not to cry, that I get real quiet during fights, that I always have to be in charge, that I judge women first by how they look. And if questioning all of that has made me undesirably sexless, I can live with that. Plus it will keep anyone from cheating with me.