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  • “Anonymous Hell”

    Posted by Shannon Love on January 21st, 2006 (All posts by )

    Instapundit is very interested in Norah Vincent’s “Self-Made Man”, a “Black Like Me” examination of lives of contemporary males. He links to a New York Times review. I found one section of the review rather revealing.

    “As a woman,” she writes, “you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren’t pretty.” But in her makeshift man drag, she found that the same stoop-sitters and bodega loiterers didn’t stare at her. “On the contrary,” she says, “when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.”

    I find it very revealing that Norah Vincent interprets being ignored as a token of respect.


    I can see how an attractive woman used to being scoped out continuously in public would find the sudden lack of such attention pleasant, but I don’t think males enjoys the very common experience of being socially invisible. It is difficult to think of any other context in which being ignored is considered a sign of respect.

    I think that in public situations heterosexual males rapidly evaluate each other to see if the other possesses any kind of “threat” (usually status based in this day and age), and if no threat is perceived the other male just drops off the radar and gets ignored. With women, the situation is only slightly different. Whereas men play a numbers game and express at least some interest in any female, women play a quality game will ignore any male who doesn’t pass their minimal standards. The combination of these effects means that low-status males are simply ignored by the vast number of people they pass casually by.

    A psychologist friend of mine once described this as “anonymous hell.” He pointed out that if you are a single man, older than 25, not too good looking and with no money, most women don’t look at you and most men just reflexively ignore you. He said that some of these guys might go for weeks or even months without physically touching another human being.

    I think a lot of aggressive behavior springs from just a basic need to attract some attention. A quick way to attract attention is to behave aggressively, either by actual acts or by dressing and adopting the affect of someone perceived as aggressive. Being looked at as a potential source of trouble is better than not being looked at all.

    I have a feeling that Vincent’s work will be more revealing of the attitudes and biases of Vincent’s intellectual subculture than of the experiences of modern men.

     

    25 Responses to ““Anonymous Hell””

    1. Ginny Says:

      Yes, we want to be noticed. And the great discussion of that is The Invisible Man. The power of that book comes from the anger that builds, as Shannon says, from “not being noticed.” In a good actor’s autobio, Kirk Douglas analyzes his role as the Ragman’s Son; surrounded by women, he wanted his violent and distant father to see him. He describes throwing peas across the table just to evoke an anger to match his, but most of all to prompt recognition that he did, indeed, exist.

      I enjoy some of the women I know, warm, thoughtful, gracious, who note names, ask about illness, show others that they are in their thoughts. Their exchanges with others brighten the areas through which they walk. (Both are my age; sexiness is important but I think Shannon is talking about recognition of the other that is more universal & at least as pervasive as the sexual.)

      Nonetheless, isn’t there a chance that Vincent’s “manliness” was recognized as in some way an act by these men, who are working on a more physical and instinctive level than men at a wine drinking/cheese party? At one quite important level both are looking at child-bearing, a potential indicated by health & strength & youth which we find beautiful. But the cocktail party male is so interested in financial & social status–appearances layered on “sexiness” and defined by other clues–they miss the major ones.
      (This is, after all, the group less likely to reproduce itself.)

      For the working class men, I’d say the “looking away” may be politeness for what they perceived as plainness, but may have been prompted by an instinctive unease.

      Which is not to say that as the years have gone by and the pounds piled up, I haven’t found my opinions are less listened to by certain men (and even women). Getting their ear is more difficult. Dealing with their problems with their mothers is another.

      I am most aware of my post-menopausal, no longer sexy status most among artsy types. Bread Loaf was a great example. We 50ish women (this was about 8 years ago) talked about our “invisibility”; when we handed in pieces of quite different writing, our “mentors” merged student’s names by ages more than by style or subject.

      That year, most invited professionals read pieces from the point of view of abused children. The sense of identification with victims by well-to-do Manhattanites was bizarre; the works seemed to be not just about but by people stuck in adolescence. Mature & conscious men and women were not just invisible to the mentors but within the works as well.

    2. Russell Wardlow Says:

      Shannon nailed it: this is more an anthropological investigation into Vincent’s worldview than that of males.

      That excerpted portion is particularly telling. Men avert each other’s gaze because to stare is generally considered (mostly unconsciously for upper class males but consciously for lower class males) an invitation to fight.

      Vincent reveals herself as particularly clueless in that she seems to have no awareness of a fact for which one does not need to be male to understand.

    3. James R. Rummel Says:

      Russell nailed it dead bang so far as I’m concerned.

      James

    4. Ginny Says:

      I went off on a tangent about women above, which probably shows an unhealthy self-involvement & a pretty chaotic weekend.

      Nonetheless, Ellison & Kirk Douglas & Faulkner all demonstrate (in fiction & memory) that we feel isolated and powerless when others don’t look at us. This is why the advice to ignore a child who is being obnoxious is half good advice; if that is the only time they are noticed, their behavior – even with punishment – is reinforced. But if a child’s good behavior is rewarded with attention, that ignoring of the child will work. (One theme in The Invisible Man: bad behavior is rewarded with attention & money; good behavior is ignored. One makes the power structure feel superior, the other makes it feel uneasy. This is not behavior that has changed as much as we might hope.)

      That this sense of invisibility occurs more often to men than women is an interesting and I suspect not untrue observation.

      And I’m a bit suspicious of whether politely accepting someone as the sex in which they dress is the same as feeling at gut level they are of that sex.

    5. Robert schwartz Says:

      Ladies: Do you really want to be ignored? If so, what do you do to get ignored? Low cut jeans and blouses don’t count.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      At least she performed an experiment, however imperfect. A lot of people in her position wouldn’t have let evidence get in the way of ideology.

      Still, for the reasons that others have mentioned, her analysis is hard to accept at face value.

    7. Jim Bennett Says:

      All she had to do was watch Taxi Driver!

      “You lookin’ at me?”

    8. Tyouth Says:

      I don’t know if y’all are like me (I know I’m a litle on the paranoid and prickly side), but I think “run silent run deep” is a good motto. Out on the street, the more invisible I am the better.

    9. Moira Breen Says:

      That excerpted portion is particularly telling. Men avert each other’s gaze because to stare is generally considered (mostly unconsciously for upper class males but consciously for lower class males) an invitation to fight.

      Well, uh, yeah. And to acknowledge that someone is a threat is the primordial basis of…respect. Vincent is doubtless interpreting behavior through the filter of her own experience as a woman, but I think y’all are off the mark in attributing a complete cluelessness here. The supposition is that Vincent’s experience as a woman in getting attention on the street consisted merely of innocuous responses to her sexuality. But any young woman who’s had to navigate city streets knows perfectly well that there’s often a great deal more going on than gallant, if sometimes annoying, admiration of her sex appeal. There’s also hostility, aggression, and threat. A woman on the street being harrassed by louts doesn’t avert her eyes and “ignore” them for an entirely different set of basic, instinctual reasons than a man declining to make eye contact. To do otherwise is to invite trouble. And the louts wouldn’t be behaving as they do if they “respected” the woman – that is, if she were capable of posing a threat.

      I think Ginny has a good point in suggestng that Vincent’s interpretation may be suspect to the extent that people were reacting, conciously or not, to an ambiguous “maleness”. It’s interesting to note, however, that men who have gone the other way – in drag or as male-to-female transsexuals – have been known to lament that the biggest downside to having gone female is the “loss of public respect”. And since “respect” at its primitive roots does rest on “I can hurt you if you mess with me”, I can’t discredit Vincent’s take on the face of it.

    10. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Low cut jeans and blouses don’t count.

      You can usually tell the marital status of a woman by how she dresses when she’s out without a male companion. Women know how to dress to attract the attention of the men around them. This is not to be confused with how a woman will dress when she IS with her boyfriend/husband. If she’s dressed sexily then, it’s for him and him alone.

      I remember being twelve-ish and and one of my father’s younger brothers stopping by our house with his then-girlfriend (soon to be wife). She was in her early twenties, with long brown hair, nice build, pretty face. I had met her once before briefly. While my father and uncle talked she ended up standing and waiting in front of the chair I was sitting in.

      “Why are you dressed up?” I asked. “We’re going out tonight.” she said. I was staring at her and didn’t quite understand why I found this, to me, much older woman so alluring. She looked at me knowingly, smiling. I wasn’t used to that look from older women.

      “Like it?” she asked, looking down at herself and her clothes. “I dunno.” I said, “Turn around for me, let me see it.”

      Why I said that I’ll never know. I must’ve seen it in a movie. Seemed like the right thing to say at the time. She was delighted by the remark. I didn’t understand why she seemed to think it was so funny. She spun around slowly, her arms up, hair sliding through air, a little pirrouette in my living room just for me.

      I thought she was beautiful. I flushed. I clearly remember feeling hot, like I was going to start sweating, and wondering why. I felt nailed to my chair, like I couldn’t move, like I could barely breathe. She stopped, facing me. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled. She gave me that knowing look again.

      My uncle came back in then and they got ready to leave. On the way out the door she looked at me sweetly and said, “Byyyyeeee.” She put her hand out and stroked the side of my face softly as she left, her eyes twinkling.

      My father saw this and watched me watch her leave. He broke into a smile. “Like her?” he asked when they’d left. “Yes.” I said. “A lot!” He thought that was funny. Why does everyone find me so amusing tonight?, I remember wondering.

      I also think Ginny’s on to something with her instinctual-level analysis idea. Women walk differently than men. My mother told me as a child she could always tell the drag queens who came into the women’s clothes store where she worked. At the time, being 10 or so, I didn’t understand how she could do this. Being in my 40′s now, it’s obvious to me. As humans, we tune into cues that we’re not even aware of. The “style” of walking, how the hips move, is just one.

      I find it very revealing that Norah Vincent interprets being ignored as a token of respect.

      I agree. As a lesbian, she doesn’t want the attention of males and feels relieved when she doesn’t get it. She wants to be accepted as a male, to be among them in a sense, and wants the attention of women instead.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      Moira Breen,

      …the louts wouldn’t be behaving as they do if they “respected” the woman.

      Yes, but there is a big difference between how one men express respect for women and how they express respect to one another and it is here that Vincent falls short. She interprets men ignoring another man as a token of respect because men ignoring or at least being circumspect in their attentions towards a women can be sign of respect. She doesn’t seem to realize that when men ignore each other it is more likely an expression of contempt.

      In short, she appears to think (according to review at least) that she has discovered something about the male perspective when in fact she has revealed something about the limitations of own.

    12. nash Says:

      Read the book, people. She addresses all your criticisms at length. The snippet from the NYT was at the beginning of her experiment. Vincent is keenly aware of her own intellectual and emotional biases and deals with them in the book. At one point she calls them pseudointellectual, which IMO is an apt description of many of the comments posted here.

    13. Moira Breen Says:

      Yes, but there is a big difference between how one men express respect for women and how they express respect to one another and it is here that Vincent falls short. She interprets men ignoring another man as a token of respect because men ignoring or at least being circumspect in their attentions towards a women can be sign of respect. She doesn’t seem to realize that when men ignore each other it is more likely an expression of contempt.

      Well, actually we don’t know if she was falling short or not, based on that brief description. Everybody seems to be reading a great deal into her comment that can’t really be taken out of it, since we weren’t the ones walking by those stoops. You say men ignoring one another is more often an expression of contempt, and insist she must therefore be wrong about what was going on. Could be, but how do you know that was the case here? Other readers insist that she’s a moron for not recognizing that this sample of “ignoring” is acknowlegement, and avoidance, of threat. As I tried to point out, they’re blanking out on a pretty basic aspect of animal behavior – that threat and respect are heavily overlapping categories – and that their explanations don’t really undercut her interpretation at all.

      On a related point it’s one thing to say that there are differences “between how men express respect for women and how they express respect to one another” and quite another to say they’re mutually exclusive behaviors without any overlap. Sometimes they are quite distinct, but sometimes, as in the case of the lady and the louts vis a vis the averted gazes of the two men, the dynamics of threat and appeasement arise from the same behavioral repertoire. Most of the time we have to be there to pick up the “vibes” of an interaction. So I’m not sure why everyone is so adamant that Vincent is full of it on this point. For all I know she butches up as one scary mofo. I kinda doubt that, but actually have to read the book to come to an informed conclusion about her experiences.

      You could all be right about the meaning of the behaviors in question, depending on the cirucmstances, just as Ginny may very well be correct in suggesting that the reaction she got was really all about “Man, that’s one homely chick. I’ll politely refrain from staring.”

      Just noticed nash’s comment when I previewed thus. Read the book before commenting? Feh. That’s like reading the instructions before operating new toys. Killjoy.

    14. Jonathan Says:

      Did anyone, during Vincent’s long masquerade, figure out that she was a woman? The book’s cover photos, and the photo of her dressed like a man and sprawled in a chair, to me convey a strong sense of androgeneity. The figure in the suit, with its apparent wide hips, narrow shoulders and splayed elbows, is feminine. Did no one wonder?

      Yo, Nash. We are making inferences from limited data here. If you think we’re off the mark, why don’t you share some of what you learned from the book that you think is relevant? Dismissing our arguments isn’t very helpful. I enjoy this discussion and find it useful because I want more information but am not yet ready to spend the time needed to read the book. I hope that you or someone else who has read the book can contribute.

    15. nash Says:

      Jonathan,

      I can’t write as well as Vincent nor do I have the book in front of me. She basically comes to the same conclusions that Shannon described about “anonymous hell.” Vincent probably fit into that category as a man, which probably helped her in passing off as one.

      Vincent wrote about the physical steps she took for her transformation, from the fake 5-o’clock shadow, voice coaching lessons, and adding 15 pounds of upper body bulk through weight training. She’s not a voluptuous woman so hiding her breasts was not a problem. She layered her clothing to hide her figure. Think of a girl wearing baggy jeans and a sweat shirt. Their figure basically becomes rectangular.

      Personally, I don’t think she looks any more effeminate as a man than Tucker Carlson or George Stephanopolous when he was younger. At any rate, she passed her first test as a man bowling in a men’s league for nine months. None of the guys guessed on their own.

      Vincent was on 20/20 last Friday. I tivoed the show but haven’t watched it yet.

    16. Jonathan Says:

      Thanks, Nash. Maybe my “feminine” interpretation results from hindsight bias. I still wonder if any of her companions ever thought to themselves: “Hmm. . .” In my experience a lot of men, if they meet someone who seems a bit strange, go out of their way not to ask intrusive questions.

    17. Anonymous Says:

      I was at the weekend mens retreat she attended and had no clue she was a woman.

    18. Richard Aubrey Says:

      Ref ignoring.

      The situation makes a difference. On a city street, the glance and look away is described correctly.

      Walking on a country road, a vehicle comes by, you make eye contact and wave or nod. Both driver and walker do.

      You do not ignore another walker. You look and greet.

      Far-fetched theory: When isolated in the country, the instinct is that threats are non-human and the first step to making up a team is normal. In a crowded situation, there are no sabre-tooth cats, no giant baboons. Just other people and other people are the most likely threat. Ignore, do not engage, and by ignoring, be ignored.

    19. Tomi Says:

      I really hope people take the time to read the book. Most of the knee-jerk reactions to excerpts from her book are obviously from people who haven’t read it. In context you’ll find that she addresses most angles you’ll come up with.

    20. lindenen Says:

      “That excerpted portion is particularly telling. Men avert each other’s gaze because to stare is generally considered (mostly unconsciously for upper class males but consciously for lower class males) an invitation to fight.”

      “Vincent reveals herself as particularly clueless in that she seems to have no awareness of a fact for which one does not need to be male to understand. “

      Vincent isn’t clueless. The review is poorly written. If you read the Salon.com interview which is much better, she mentions the whole “invitation to fight” issue regarding meeting someone’s gaze. It’s just a crap review.

      http://www.salon.com/books/review/2006/01/20/vincent/index_np.html

    21. lindenen Says:

      I meant review, not interview.

    22. pst314 Says:

      “Ignore, do not engage, and by ignoring, be ignored.”

      In the big city, if you do not to some degree use your body language to project a barrier, you will find yourself frequently bothered by unpleasant people who perceive you as a vulnerable target.

    23. Jonathan Says:

      Anonymous, thanks for the report.

    24. Old Dad Says:

      All,

      Read the book. She gets a lot right. Especially provocative is her conclusion that men and women may be irremediably different. I’m paraphrasing, but she describes it as being on different planes, almost separate realities. My old man used to tell me that women were really a different species–wonderful, irreplaceable, but definitely the other.

    25. Fred Says:

      Uh.

      It’s not so much respect, I should think, as basically not caring.

      As a guy I walk around and basically treat other pedestrians as slow moving street furniture unless they have something that recommends them for further attention: Erratic behaviour, eccentric clothing, carrying a bloody chainsaw, etc… otherwise a quick appraisal glance is all you’ll get. Problem/Not Problem.

      I even walk right by friends because I my mind is not on people, per se. Then again, I find New Yorkers are deadly slow walkers, so I’m probably not typical.