If there’s one thing university drilled into my head relentlessly, it’s that ideas of manhood and womanhood are all kind of inherently bullshit, just structures we’ve imposed onto society to perpetuate gender and sexuality divides – while we’re hung up on clarifying these man/woman, gay/straight paradigms, we’re not questioning the sexism and homophobia behind them that ultimately keeps the focus on difference and offers no real solutions for the inequalities that continue to exist. What it means to be a “man” or “woman” or much of anything nowadays is more complicated a question than it’s probably ever been, and if humanity’s tendency to evolve socially at a crawl hadn’t forced us to continually re-evaluate the question for millennia, we probably would have given up on it long ago.
But I don’t really want to write about why we keep asking the question (the answer: power, probably, and greed for it). Rather, I’d like to tackle it as someone who’s more interested in what separates a boy from a man. I’m 32, and if I’m not a man already, I’m certainly pushing my luck age wise, if you consider the boy/man designation a matter of crossing some intangible boundary akin to the lines found in the stumps of fallen trees. My concept of a man has always related directly to male figures of the previous generation – my father has never been a boy as long as I’ve known him. And it’s not necessarily because he’s held down a 40-year career and raised a family and paid into several houses, which I suppose would be the assumed traits. It’s more that my mother more than likely never, ever called him a boy, not even back when they first met, when he was 28 and she was 19.
Maybe I’m wrong. I’ll have to ask her. In the meantime, I’m of the opinion that the boy/man divide has become prolonged in this day and age, with boyhood lasting well into a male’s 20s and 30s – fewer young men getting married, starting careers, having children. Sarah Barmak, whom I attended grad school with, wrote an article on it for the Toronto Star last year, and I get the feeling there’s a few more out there. I haven’t had many recent conversations with friends, female or otherwise, in which males weren’t referred to as boys (“guys,” maybe, but never “men”). We hesitate to so much as allow the word “man” into our vernacular. A “man” has wrinkles and wears tweed and can grow a mustache that doesn’t make him look like he parks an IROC outside of a high school at 3 o’clock most weekdays.
But quite a few of my friends are younger than I am. Most of my friends who are my age went into “manhood” far quicker than I did, doing the marriage and house thing in their mid-20s, having kids a bit later. Over the past couple of years I’ve slowly started developing my own mannish tendencies. The 25-year-old boy version of me, for example, wouldn’t have bought a brand new couch, like the 28-year-old freshly graduated, newly employed version of me did when I moved into my first apartment alone. I treated that couch as a really hilarious joke that nobody else thought was all that funny. (“Don’t you get it? I went to a STORE and SHOPPED for a COUCH! Isn’t that RIDICULOUS?”)
I’m realizing that the “buying furnishings” fascination is only part of the manhood transition. It’s also that I kind of take pride in the stuff I’ve picked out. When I moved out of my parents’ place at 18 I was happy to drag whatever I could with me and stick it willy-nilly into the apartment I shared with two other people, concocting a musty melange of second- and third-hand atrocities. I will never, ever put a lava lamp in an apartment I live in again. That’s a decision a man makes. In one apartment I lived in back in Ottawa, I took the battery out of the smoke detector because it kept going off when I’d make dinner and left it out for nearly the entire time I spent living there. Also something boyish I’d never do again.
Maybe it’s a case-by-case thing, a collection of decisions that adds up to all things discernibly manly. What got me on this topic was Mindy Kaling’s new book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” which I’ve been reading over the last few days and is very funny. In it, she presents her own boy/man quality square-off:
“Men know what they want. Men make concrete plans. Men own alarm clocks. Men sleep on a mattress that isn’t on the floor. Men tip generously. Men buy new shampoo instead of adding water to a nearly empty bottle of shampoo. Men go to the dentist. Men make reservations. Men go in for a kiss without giving you some long preamble about how they’re thinking of kissing you. (Ed.’s Note: This is something I’ve become proficient at.) Men wear clothes that have never been worn by anyone else before. Men know what they want and they don’t let you in on their inner monologue, and that is scary.”
I’ll get back to that final quality in a second. Here’s the boys list:
“Boys are adorable. Boys trail off their sentences in an appealing way. Boys bring a knapsack to work. Boys get haircuts from their roommate, who ‘totally knows how to cut hair.’ Boys can pack up their whole life in a duffel bag and move to Brooklyn for a gig if they need to. Boys have ‘gigs.’ Boys are broke. And when they do have money, they spend it on a trip to Colorado to see a music festival. Boys don’t know how to adjust their conversation when they’re talking to your friends or to their parents. They put parents on the same level as their peers and roll their eyes when your dad makes a terrible pun. Boys let your parents pay for dinner when you all go out. It’s assumed. Boys are wonderful in a lot of ways. They make amazing, memorable, homemade gifts. They’re impulsive. Boys can talk for hours with you in a diner at three in the morning because they don’t have regular work hours. But they suck to date when you turn thirty.”
Let’s agree that these lists are obviously tongue in cheek – Kaling’s a comedy writer, after all, and she’s writing to entertain. And it’s impossible to paint the sexes with brushes that big. It’s along the lines of Louis CK’s joke about the differences between girls and women. But it’s the kernel of truth that’s interesting – according to Kaling, I’m a composite of some manly qualities (I’m a ludicrously generous tipper and as of grad school I am religiously done with floor beds) and boyish qualities (my hours are as irregular as they get, although they’re now more career-ish, and the romance of 3 a.m. diner trips still generally appeals to me). The results reflect this feeling I’ve had recently that I’m somewhere on the verge of manhood, even if all “manhood” means is a predilection for making reservations ahead of time.
I said I’d come back to the inner monologue bit. Despite the library of online blogs young men have filled with whiny rants about life, I’m atypical of most men in the way I use writing to iron out confusion. It’s what I’ve always done, and the Internet being what it is, a lot of it gets published. It doesn’t take much to find evidence of my inner monologue, and I sometimes wonder if that makes me less attractive. (My sneaking suspicion is that it does, although it has afforded me a lot of opportunities to meet women. Truthfully, I don’t know where my love life would be without my willingness to humiliate myself online.) I don’t envision that the basic act of expressing myself will fundamentally change by the time I’m 80. But I also know that my inner monologue really isn’t all that scary compared to a lot of weirdo men out there who are so entrenched in their idea of masculinity that they find stereotypically “feminine” qualities such as sensitivity generally impossible to deal with. And hell, I’m sure some of the sensitive men just aren’t writers. It’s not their fault.
The Mindy Kaling Awesome Guy Challenge
There’s another part of Kaling’s book that I quite enjoyed – what she calls an “incredibly presumptuous guide to being an awesome guy, inside and out.” It’s a list of 12 tips for guy (not relegated to man or boy) improvement, for the guys who are inexplicably reading her book. (“Why are you even reading this book at all? Shouldn’t you be hiking the Appalachian Trail or something?” Maybe next year, Mindy. I think the Swiss Alps will see me through until at least next summer.) I thought it would be a neat project to see if I could adhere to the tips and post updates on my progress, so I’ll be doing that over the next little while. Definitions of “manhood” aside, the goal is to be more awesome by 2012. Stay tuned.