Friday, October 07, 2011

Of boys, men, and know-it-alls

Nick Troester writes: "Not sure I'm on board with the Mindy Kaling-written contention that spending one's 20s in grad school (if male) makes one a boy and not a man."

As this combined two of my interests - like every woman of my demographics, whatever they are, I'm signed up for the Mindy Kaling fan club, and, well, grad school - I had to see what Kaling had to say. And I don't think what Kaling means - although Nick may have meant this tongue-in-cheek - is that men who plan on going into academia and are thus in doctoral programs for much of their 20s are "boys." I mean, it almost sounds as if the yoga hotties were discussing James Franco, in which case whether we're calling him a boy, a man, or a dining room table, I'm not sure what the problem is.

But the "boy" thing rings true. And it's a stage most young men grow out of, but because the shift occurs for some at 19, others at 40, there's no telling initially what some 25-year-old man will be like in that regard. I suppose what it comes down to, even if Kaling insists that this isn't what it's about, is that some men are prepared to get married in the not-so-distant future, others not. This becomes an issue for women around 30, as Kaling would not be the first to tell the audience reading Glamour, a magazine I still think of as the one that indirectly sent Estelle Costanza to the hospital.

I remember in college that there were some guys who thought the way to a woman's heart was through borrowing a friend-of-a-friend's car and paying for two at an upscale French restaurant, others whose preferred attempt at seduction was overanalyzing everything to do with a possible relationship, with what relationships mean, in some under-furnished and messy dorm-like apartment. The latter seemed preferable to many of us at 19 - eschewing convention! building something amazing that defies the bounds of something so bourgeois as a "relationship"! - but at 30, especially if dude is also 30, I can't imagine this would have the same charm.

No doubt because the essay is in a women's mag, Kaling can't state the obvious, which is that the reason she was dating "boys" until recently - the reason women our age tend to go through a "boys" phase - is that women are, for those years, "girls" in just the same sense: not interested in settling down yet, not ready to commit to a man or much of anything. But society asks us to believe that girls/women all along, from the lead-up to junior prom on, want men who are prepared to commit, on account of all hetero-wired ladies being born wanting not guys but babies-and-rings. When in fact, there's maybe this five-minute window of time when women want commitment that men are not offering, but a far longer window during which women are expected to want Serious, but are actually just fine with three-month this-defies-labels relationships.

Oh, oh, and furthermore: there's the whole dynamic wherein the "boy" explains to the "woman" that he just wants to be free, play it by ear, whereas she's obviously looking for a "man." When she is not, in fact, looking for a "man," but is herself still a "girl." There are a lot of young men out there assuming, incorrectly, that the young women they're dating are on this forum

But one part of Kaling's essay really, really announced why it is that she gets to write for a living. She describes a guy she dated (a "man" not a "boy," but she's explaining why he was nevertheless not ideal) as "a comedy writer who was a smidgen more accomplished than I but who talked about everything with the tone of 'you’ve got a lot to learn, kid.'" As the kids say: this.

Women, listen to me: have we not all met, if not necessarily dated, this man? Have we not all dealt with men who are by all accounts less accomplished, who know less about the topic at hand, but who take that tone? This, I remember, is why it was so difficult to get women to write for the op-ed section of the college paper - there were simply too many male college students who began sentences with that all-knowing, "Well, you see, here's how it is...," and too few female ones doing the same. These 19-year-old boys/men/whatever had totally figured out the war in Iraq. Somehow this, and not the tired-if-described-in-a-clever-way-by-a-clever-writer man-child issue, seems the real question for young women today, at least those whose sexual orientation demands they deal romantically with men.

11 comments:

Jacob T. Levy said...

I officially find the Kaling essay baffling: the boys as well as the men-- and, as you say, the girls as well as the women. But then, as you hint, there's a different psychology involved in spending one's twenties in grad school that *is itself a commitment*-- as a doctoral program that you mean to be a pre-professional program is, and as I guess part-time creative writing MFAs may not be. Since I spent my twenties surrounded by doctoral students, and since my college friends went through their twenties with something like a median of two relationships each, I just wasn't exposed to one side of this equation.

On the other hand, those committed doctoral students are still poor, and not generally bearers of mortgages. So the idea that the mortgage is a *leading* indicator of grownuphood rather than a trailing one strikes me as weird.

Despite having written for one myself (or maybe because of my shame at having done so) I've become an advocate of closing down the op-ed pages of student newspapers. It seems to me that almost all they provide is a public space in which 19-year olds can practice their overconfident-without-knowing-much voice. Better to devote that energy to the news pages where one might at least learn something about how to learn new facts.

Flavia said...

I think this article describes the phenomenon exceptionally well.

Phoebe said...

JTL,

"I've become an advocate of closing down the op-ed pages of student newspapers."

Maybe it's because my own involvement still seems recent, and it was great fun, but I couldn't disagree more. It was, at Chicago at least, one of the only outlets for anything approaching "creative writing" or essay writing, etc., for undergrads wishing to have any kind of audience. There was, at least when I was there, a literary magazine that liked to publish half/more-than-half established authors. I suspect that's the case at some other colleges as well.

Flavia,

That's truly wonderful! And just as I was thinking, 'but what about women who haven't published books?,' Solnit gets to that. So it's not like Simone de Beauvoir complaining about how tough it is to be second-to-Sartre. All women deal with this, whether it's about super-intellectual topics or sports trivia or who knows.

Meanwhile, of course, things women are expected to know more about - cooking, fashion - are areas in which expertise is meant to indicate stupidity. Unless they're dealt with in explaining mode, and it's Michael Pollan (not that he doesn't have good points!) talking policy.

PG said...

Despite having written for one myself (or maybe because of my shame at having done so) I've become an advocate of closing down the op-ed pages of student newspapers. It seems to me that almost all they provide is a public space in which 19-year olds can practice their overconfident-without-knowing-much voice.

I agree with Phoebe that it provides a good outlet. Better than shutting them down would be to expand my college paper's requirement (which was that at least half of our op-eds had to deal with local/campus issues) to cover all op-eds. I wouldn't be surprised if this also got more women writing op-eds, since they ran at least half of campus organizations and seemed more likely to connect with the locals as well. It might make the letters-to-the-editor page more lively as well, since factual errors about the campus Tri-Delt chapter are far more likely to rouse an angry letter from a chapter member or alum than this week's bloviation about foreign policy.

Phoebe said...

PG,

That's not a bad idea - making it at least a mix would be great. In my own experience, though, it was sometimes tough just to fill the page with *anything*. When a woman in a sorority wanted to write about what it means to date frat guys, into the opinion pages it went. But when yet another guy had Serious Opinions about Iraq, if they halfway made sense, same deal. We tried, I remember, to promote the section, to get people interested in writing, but there weren't too many takers. Any further restrictions and... maybe eventually, without "op-ed" seeming in students' minds like "know-it-all-spouts-nonsense," more would contribute, but in the short-term, there would have been much empty space.

PG said...

Yeah, and I should clarify that "local/campus" could be defined pretty broadly. So long as I talked to and quoted some fellow students who were going to protest Bush's inauguration, I could write a column about why it was a bad idea to protest the inauguration. I think any Serious Opinions about Iraq similarly could be squeezed into "local/campus" (and quite possibly improved in quality) by, say, talking to a graduate student who had done a tour of duty, or a professor in the Middle East studies department.

The problem of insufficient interest in writing opinion might just have to be solved by shrinking the opinion section to be proportionate to the size of your student body. I was writing for a paper serving a population of 20,000 (undergrad + grad + faculty), and on a campus of that size, everything requires a try-out. Opinion columnist was much less prestigious and competitive than Tour Guide, and we still had to write a test column and spend a month on probation.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Integrating reporting into op-eds wouldn't be a terrible idea. I reported and wrote op-eds in college, but I suppose these were rarely (for) the same articles. That would have been useful preparation to pitching articles for... any serious magazine, really. I don't think it much matters for my dissertation, though, although the copy-editing experience I got at the alumni mag does help, a ton.

Re: population served, I don't think the college papers at either university I've been affiliated with in any meaningful sense serve grad students, faculty, staff, locals, etc. It's just for the college students, and at that, just for the few who are interested in campus news. We needed, I think, maybe two articles at least each time? And we had a whole bunch of columnists ostensibly padding this, but we would still sometimes come up short. One option was to let profs write, and they would sometimes want to do so, but given all the other outlets a prof at a well-known university would have (although I may have overestimated these while a college student with no such outlets), it seemed a bit like the "Seinfeld" when Kramer takes a children's karate class. Ideally, the opinions would have come from students. Unfortunately, there will always be more 19-year-olds with Very Serious but poorly-thought-out foreign-policy notions than 19-year-olds with clever ideas to fill 700 words. So yes, adding a reporting... if not requirement, then suggestion, wouldn't have hurt.

PG said...

Oh, do Chicago and NYU alumni not read the student paper? Especially once it went online, our student paper had a lot of alumni reading it. This probably was due mainly to sports coverage, but a couple of alumni wrote letters to the editor about my columns. And the aforementioned Republican friend who also wrote opinion was a law student, and again judging by letters-to-editor, we had grad students as well as faculty and administration reading. I think the way the school is run -- not just the emphasis on athletics but also on student self-governance -- tends to get people more emotionally involved and thus more interested in following college news, which can otherwise seem pretty low-stakes business.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't think alums generally do, but I haven't looked into this. It probably does relate to sports - neither UChicago nor NYU has some network of alumni sports fans returning to campus for games. Also, neither school is the kind of name-brand place that has people feeling like the school's name alone makes their time there the crowning achievement of their lives, so I don't think too many parents bring their kids to bask in the glory and buy t-shirts or whatever seems to happen at certain Ivies that come to mind. The significance of the NYU student press is, I think, that sometimes student news becomes city news, and those stories get picked up, and that because of the location, the journalism school, kids who write for it go on to pretty great jobs in journalism in NY. With UChicago, I think it was pretty much to get students interested in writing some writing experience. I could be wrong, and maybe these days the Maroon is all letters from alums, but I doubt it.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Re filling the space: *both* McGill newspapers routinely seem to have two full pages of op-eds, in addition to letters to the editor and board editorials, with frequent spillover onto a third. I do not think that anything is thereby improved.

Phoebe said...

JTL,

The improvement is that the editors could then opt only to run the best of what they get, or to have diverse opinions, or whatever they want. When you're only getting one or two centrist takes on Iraq each week, you end up having to run those.