Image by Kat Aileen
“What is a bro?” people fighting on the Internet ask.
This morning as I sat on the subway flanked by two men and facing many more, I began the silent assessment that has become second nature to me recently. Are these guys bros? I wondered, and looked at their shoes.
For the last few months I have been studying bros with the indeterminate goal of understanding them, as part of my half-joking, half-serious column, Ask a Bro. Originally conceived as "an anthropological study" of bros, it aims to figure out what counts as a bro and what doesn't. This is not an original idea by any means, except that instead of approaching this from the standpoint of the snarky observer, I talk to men. In some ways this sounds ridiculous--it's not like I don't talk to men every day anyway. But in other ways it felt like a cool thing to do, because in 2015's battle of the sexes it seems that a serious subset of people believe men should not have a voice at all in women's media, that men and women should exist as two genders divided (unless you want to exist in the middle), and that because women have endured such strife at the hands of men it is our turn to stereotype, mock, and otherwise abuse them as their ancestors have done to us. Just like Taylor Swift, misandry is somehow cool.
The effects of this cultural shift on our male friends are illuminating. When I ask subjects for an interview, I usually first present the column as a "study of men in groups." Once the word bro comes into play, the guys are either shamefully chuckling at or insulted by my suggestion that they might be one. The assumption is that I am going to make fun of them and that they deserve it. Two guys once refused to let me feature their interviews because they didn't want to be associated with a fraternity in the media, despite the fact that during the interview, they had argued vigorously that the camaraderie they found therein was much more significant than the nefarious activities. Most often, I get a question that is both cute and sad: "Do I look like a bro?"
The particular problem of today's young bro became fodder for Twitter discussion/harassment over the last two days, following the publication of Molly Fischer's review of The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace biopic, in New York Magazine. The review is called "Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace," and in it Fischer explains that lit bros love Old Bandana Wearer.
The reasons aren't so important as the responses, which ranged widely: There was the vigorous, mostly female nodding-in-agreement; there was confusion, that anyone who might read a dense postmodern novel could be classified under a term they had previously understood to mean a dense post-workout beer drinker; there was outrage. The outrage mainly came after Alex Balk at the Awl aggregated Fischer's review, falling down strongly on the side of contemptuous adjectives for any "self-styled intellectual-type dude" who might so much as have once worn a bandana as part of a Halloween costume completely unrelated to canonical works of 20th-century literature. After this, one man in particular, the usually very smart and nuanced Freddie deBoer, of the PhD, was so mad that he wrote two blog posts about it.
DeBoer was mad about many things, and one of them was liberal misuse of the word bro w/r/t male DFW readers. ("Wallace...has become lit-bro shorthand," Fischer writes. "Make a passing reference to the 'David Foster Wallace fanboy' and you can assume the reader knows whom you're talking about; he's the type who's pestered at least one woman to the point that she quit reading Infinite Jest in public. Infinite Jest--a novel that appears high on the list of "Books That Literally All White Men Own.'")
On his blog, well read by in-the-know media types who hate themselves for being interested in both David Foster Wallace and reviews of the biopic, deBoer scathingly outlines his own definition, rooted in a teenage insecurity:
I've been called a bro since I was 18 or so. Back then, it actually had a meaning: backslapping, sports-loving, dude-do-you-want-a-brewski, backwards hat-wearing performative masculinity, typically married to homophobia, anti-intellectualism, and binge drinking. Now, it means... guys who are too into David Foster-Wallace? What? How can that be? This whole thing is so indicative of people for whom moving to New York is indistinguishable from crawling up your own ass. Come bike with me up Slayter Hill on a weekend this October. Pedal past the frat houses with me. Listen as they shout homophobic slurs from the porch. Those, my friends, are bros, if there's such a thing as a bro. Any term that can encompass both those dudes and some lit guy who has the terrible failing of liking a book is a term without meaning, other than "this person reminds me of myself in a way that I find profoundly discomfiting. Just like hipster, which means both overdressed dandy and dressed-down lumberjack, and thus means nothing besides "person I feel socially threatened by."
I could make some easy, strongly implying, and at least some-fraction-of-true arguments here. "If 'bro' is the worst thing you've ever been called, you probably are one." Or: "If 'bro' is the worst thing you've ever been called, please shut up." However, more interesting to me are the ways deBoer misses the point about bros and then is very telling. The discussion of the dilution of the term is an old one; Ann Friedman wrote about it for The Cut in 2013.
Purists--and, I've found, lots of men who don't fit this definition but who are bros nevertheless--will agree with deBoer's old-school definition, outdated and dad-like as the phrase "back then." Indeed, in some ways, the "bro" has reached the point of "hipster," in that it is an it-depends, know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. Nevertheless, it is truly extraordinary to see a somewhat prominent intellectual and skilled critic thinly veiling the fact that he is annoyed about someone else (someone else he perceives to be less deserving) getting the chance to claim his particular victimhood. The lit bro exists, as does the skate bro, the lax bro, the finance bro, the alt bro, the tech bro, etc. If you think the men who run the publishing industry have never binge drunk while performing masculinity, then you have never watched an editor explain the appeal of Knausgaard to a 23-year-old editorial assistant at a lit mag party.
But this does not work: We want something concise and simple, easy to employ judgmentally. Fischer's analysis of The End of the Tour offers several clues to the broader definition of bro that we seek. The movie involves a young journalist (David Lipsky) following Wallace around on the end of his book tour, and the pair develop a nice but complicated friendship; it could be said that they become bros. There is competition (or "cock-swinging"), and there is a fraught combination of admiration and envy. There is also a bro-bro alignment, if not against women then at least as a contrast to them. Fischer points out that, in the film, Wallace and Lipsky take two women to what Wallace describes as a "dumb boy movie" and the dates hate it. (Here I think of many things my male friends like that I don't--music without rhythms or melodies, iPhone apps, Knausgaard--and the excited conversations they have with each other about those things as I scroll through Instagram.) A woman also appears as leverage in the bro relationship between Wallace and Lipsky; Wallace, the "strong," more famous and successful writer to Lipsky's fawning jealous fanboy, is "threatened when he thinks Lipsky is moving in on his grad-school ex."
Perhaps it's that women can see bros better than they see themselves; identifying bros in the wild is much more fun when you're not hurting people's feelings, or when the stakes are gentle teasing rather than implicit misogyny. Many women use the term as a shortcut, too, but not for "man we feel threatened by"--though that's surely part of it, in a more actually-dangerous way than DeBoer intends. More broadly, it seems that the bro is a man we resent, a man among men, a guy who takes pleasure in and advantage of a masculine environment to revel in or otherwise promote traditionally or subtly masculine ideas, behaviors, etc. What I like about this definition is that it incorporates--and, kind of, sometimes, implicates--men who might ordinarily be exempt from engaging with the insidious and inescapable benefits of their sex: male feminists, intellectual readers of difficult novels, awkward computer programmers who suddenly find themselves wealthy and powerful, etc. In my interviews, I've also noticed a lot of men say something to the effect of, "I'm not a bro, but I do bro down." To be a bro means to be around men, masculinely. Whether they talk about gross sex stuff depends, and they're coy about it in front of me, but my suspicion is kind of that they do.
Anyway, on my commute this morning, there were few bros, even defined loosely, to be seen. The older man carrying a bucket of tools on my right: no. The guy who looked like Henry Rollins but wearing a cheap cabbie hat and being nice to his girlfriend: no. The man in leather huarache sandals, listening to iPhone headphones and occasionally scratching his blonde beard: I couldn't tell. I deliberated until I reached my stop. I was a little disappointed as I disembarked, until there that I spotted, finally, running towards the departing train, the aviator sunglasses, a tanned, muscled forearm slipping a Metrocard into the pocket of tight bootcut jeans, the obvious shithead we've been looking for.
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