Men vs. Guys

I recently stumbled on one of the New York Times’ latests attempts to dialogue about gender and masculinity – this time in the form of Cathleen Calbert’s piece entitled, “Forget the Men. Pick a Guy.

The article is quite provocative, with lines that prickle the skin of gender studies’ folks everywhere:

“Guys [will] rub your belly…They’ll like your cute dog. A guy is never going to shoot Old Yeller in the woods.”

“Then again, guys don’t remember to tell you the doctor’s office called. They don’t check your tires before your big trip. They don’t say, ‘Call me when you get there.’ They say, ‘Love you, have fun,’ because they can’t imagine anything bad happening to you. Which is good, and somehow bad. Guys don’t tell you what to do. This also is both good and, oddly, bad.”

“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.”

It’s easy to try and point out snippets of her piece that unfairly represent (groups of) men. But I think that Calbert is instead providing an interesting articulation of the rules, or rather, the ethics of two kinds of genders that exist among certain men, and how some women (or many of us, for that matter) struggle to understand what our relationship is to the people that ascribe to these kinds of behavioral value systems.

According to Calbert, our expectations of men and guys are as follows: Guys are round characters, and men are flat. Guys are thinkers, and men are do-ers. Guys are feeling, can experience feelings of inadequacy, and experience self-doubt; men mow lawns, follow rules, and don’t cry.

We all know that both men and guys – all men and people out there – can experience all these emotions and behaviors. But what’s weird – and probably done purposely – is that Calbert doesn’t once make mention of the saliency of all of this; this piece in many ways tells a story of how Calbert experiences men in her life as categories. As with the mention of her disturbing sexual assault by male teenagers, these categories are how she has tried to understand her experiences with men – including the most horrifying – in order to make sense of what she has gone through. How can a woman rationalize being with a man after being assaulted by them? Answer: Don’t be with a man. Be with a guy.

While I think that Calbert’s rationalization of masculinity is ultimately unfair and essentialist in nature, I think her story is one that reflects the importance of these gendered categories for many people. For some, creating easily recognizable images of different kinds of men is a mechanism to be stable and comfortable. For others, I suggest a different kind of answer: Be with a person who respects you first, more than any social code of ethics that might instruct them to behave otherwise.

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