"I've never liked men. I like guys." So begins the latest "Modern Love":
The essay, by Cathleen Calbert, starts out cute.
John Wayne was a man. The young Marlon Brando was a guy - didn't you see the hurt and indecision in his eyes in "On the Waterfront"? Rock Hudson was a man. James Dean was a guy...On the other hand, I want the E.M.T.'s who show up when I've collapsed to be men, not guys. I don't want someone responsible for saving my life to be torn up about the death of his dog or how some chick hurt his feelings.
You get the idea: "men" are competent and 1950s-repressed. "Guys" are arrested and boyish, but in touch with their feelings. She likes guys.
After I was molested in a deserted schoolyard, my father explained to me the difference between boys and men. "If it's a man," he told me, "you don't scream. With a boy, you scream." The logic being, I suppose, that a man would do whatever it took to make you stop screaming whereas boys still have fear in them; a boy would run away.
Her dad goes after the teenage molestors and scares them. "That's what a man does. He takes revenge...My father didn't speak to me again about that day. That's also what a man does." Then it becomes all about her dad, distant and mid-century-repressed and unable to give the author more than this harsh guardianship. He dies when she's young, and she thinks that's okay because "I suspect we would not be on speaking terms had he lived."
It's a good, personal essay. But what I found kind of ironic about it is that she's let her dad's harshness color her perception of the world as starkly as he did. "Men" and "guys." "Her dad" and "people she likes." Of course, everyone does this to a degree, but I think the binary she outlines isn't uncommon: we've got the repressed masculinity of a Don Draper and modern guys, and as a culture we've never reconciled the two at all. Even now, the dudes we see on ads or TV tend to be goobers or douches, with not much in-between. Men have to be harmless or they're...not, just as her dad viewed every boy the author dated as a potential molester. We cut "guys" slack. We hold them to a lower standard. Even growing up with a loving, sensitive dad, I fall into this: I've talked about dating "grownups," the men in suits who take you on real dates - as opposed to the vaguely-careered sensitive types who don't seem to have earned the "man" appellation. Time was, this limbo didn't exist.
And that can't be easy. It's easy to blame the Boomers here, but hell, we're adults in a post-existentialist world, with a degree of buck-stopping autonomy nowadays. We know well that stark gendered expectations are constricting, and surely "guy" and "man" is as damaging as "girl" and "woman?" And the truth is, we can like both, because people can be both - but only if we let them, right?