The Bro — and Our Obsession With Him — Is a Symptom of Masculinity in Crisis

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Pacific Standard recently published a fascinating essay by Jared Keller, entitled “The Tortured Rise of the All-American Bro.” Keller’s essay is a response to a piece in VICE, which labels the American bro as “the worst guy ever.” The ongoing debate over exactly what a “bro” actually is, and what his existence means for society, is one that’s simmered online for the last couple of years. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one that gets to the heart of many of the most relevant questions about what masculinity means in the 21st century.

Keller examines the phenomenon of “homosocial” relationships, i.e. social relationships between people of the same sex. These aren’t, of course, inherently problematic — there’s nothing wrong with associating with members of your own sex, and indeed, a certain discomfort about doing so is one of the things that lies at the root of the whole bro phenomenon. But exclusive homosociality is something different. Essentially, you can define a “bro” for these purposes not so much as someone who is a member of male-centric institutions — “sports teams, a summer camp staff, a fraternity” — but someone who defines his identity by those memberships, and by his idea of masculinity in general. He’s the ultimate expression of homosociality, if you will.

So why do some men end up as bros? Keller suggests, “Ironically, the history of homosexuality in America may hold the secret to the modern hyper-masculine bro.” His thesis is a fascinating one — that societal homophobia has led to a situation where homosociality is defined by the rejection of homosexuality:

The discontinuity between male homosociality and homosexuality results in male homosocial relationships taking on the form of ‘male bonding’, which is characterized by homosocial desire and intimacy… but marked, most notably, by homosexual panic, the fear of this attention gliding over into something a little more taboo, a little more risqué.

This isn’t untrue, but I suggest it’s only part of the picture. Because if the stereotype of the frat bro is defined by being a “culture-wide defense mechanism against the gay,” I’d argue that it’s also a culture-wide defense against women. Keller touches on this: “modern misogyny is a virus, a symptom of psychosexual anxiety and irrational fear of homosexuality.” I’d argue that the two are one and the same — or, even more generally, the fear of anything that your average bro sees as existing in opposition to conventional conceptions of heterosexual masculinity, by which he defines his nature. It comes from a sort of internalized misogyny that’s rooted in a whole lot of very deep-seated cultural fuckery, and the question of what to do about it is not one that has any easy answers.

It’s interesting and sad to watch how gender roles assert themselves, or are asserted on, boys. Little boys and girls generally have no problem at all hanging out with one another — sure, there’s a realization of difference, but if anything, it tends to manifest in curiosity more than anything else. The late preteen years and/or puberty, however, bring a schism — all of a sudden, males and females see one another as different. And as with all humans, some kids react positively to difference, and others negatively.

Both reactions come from an objectification and what we might call otherization of those who don’t share your gender and/or sexual preference. This isn’t unnatural in puberty, of course — it’s when you realize that you are a sexual being, one with a view as to where you fit on the gender spectrum and the Kinsey scale. Where things go from here is very much dependent on the situation the boy child in question is in. If he’s been brought up around women, with strong female role models, and has female friends, well, he probably gets over this nonsense pretty quickly and goes back to seeing women as fellow humans, albeit ones he may well find sexually attractive. If he’s been brought up in a situation where women are objectified and exist to cook dinner, though… there’s a problem.

Objectification prevents empathy. It prevents you from seeing the Other as a human just like you. Sometimes this manifests in Lothario types who like to treat women as Beautiful Princesses and all that, but more often it manifests as fear, because if you define yourself by your manhood, then you have a binary in which (along with homosexuality, genderqueerness, transgenderism and anything that doesn’t fit into your pigeonhole) remains the other. There’s a perception that women have the power to reject, to humiliate, to emasculate.

If women fear men’s power to dominate, to oppress, then men’s fear of women is rooted in the idea of being rendered unable to do those things. I’ve always found it perversely fascinating that our words for the two great otherizations of heterosexual masculinity — misogyny and homophobia — have such different linguistic roots, with the former coming from the Greek μισέω (“to hate”) and the latter coming from φοβία (“fear”). Because the thing is, they’re not so different. If anything, you might argue that misogyny is hatred that comes from fear, while homophobia is fear that comes from hatred.

In any case, a desire for heterosexual men to be exclusively homosocial generally boils down to the way our culture tends to exoticize the other sex. How much do you hear the trope that men and women will just never understand one another? That men are from Mars and women are from Venus? And all that shit? If you believe women are fundamentally different from you, and you’re kinda scared of them, then… well, then you might react defensively. You see this from those preteen years — boys teasing girls that they have a crush on, for instance. It’s not such a leap from this to being one of a crowd of beer-swilling bros who hoot and catcall passing women they find attractive.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the entire bro phenomenon is the fact that it give a name to a conception of male sexuality that has in the past not needed any sort of label, because it’s just been a sort of default state. The very existence of the “bro” descriptor for people who in the past would just be described as “men” is a demonstration that masculinity is more scrutinized than it used to be. It’s not a “historical accident,” per se — it’s that this model of masculinity has never really been interrogated prior to the rise of feminism because, well, why would it be? But it’s also because feminism has resulted in men’s ability to dominate and oppress being significantly undermined. (For avoidance of doubt: this is a Good Thing.)

This has led to a well-documented crisis in masculinity, something that’s been exacerbated by the decline of traditional male jobs — work based in physicality, like manufacturing, construction and mining, for instance, has been outsourced or automated. At the same time, a lot of traditionally male-dominated white-collar professions are proving to be ones at which women are just as good at as men, if not better. The result is a fundamental shift in the way that men who define themselves as men first and foremost (as opposed to, y’know, humans) see one another. As Joe Jackson sang in “Real Men,” in my opinion the best song ever written about this subject, “Time to admit/ What you call defeat/ ‘Cos there’s women running past you now/ And you just drag your feet.”

The reaction to this shift has manifested in plenty of different ways. It’s not all negative — it’s not like the majority of men aren’t able to see women as fellow humans rather than some sort of ill-defined existential threat. Many men have perfectly healthy relationships with the opposite sex, and with those who don’t share their preferences, and don’t need to be taught to treat those people with respect and egalitarianism. But there’s always a minority who don’t. Bro-dom is, of course, one of the less destructive manifestations of this — it also finds expression in progressively more ghastly ways, from pick-up artists and the dickheads who inhabit r/TheRedPill through the purveyors of female genital mutilation, enslavement, and rape. Nevertheless, bro-dom is a problem because it stems from the same place.

The fact that we are interrogating the phenomenon of bro-dom, if nothing else, shows that we’re analyzing male sexuality and male behavior a lot more than we used to. This is, again, a good thing. But if we’re going to do so, it’s important to get the complete picture. It’s not so much that we need to recast male friendship as a positive thing — we need to stop thinking of friendship as gendered entirely. We’re all humans. And we all have to share this planet.