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A fraternity building at Cornell University (Photo: Pete Spiro/Shutterstock)

The Tortured Rise of the All-American Bro

• May 06, 2014 • 10:00 AM

A fraternity building at Cornell University (Photo: Pete Spiro/Shutterstock)

The misogynist portrait of modern American masculinity may be a historical accident. Here’s how to fix it.

In April, my college buddies and I drove up to Maine to spend the weekend getting drunk and bouncing around downtown Portland for a former roommate’s bachelor party. Of all the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made—through high school and internships and college and jobs—these random goofballs are my closest friends. We headed north to celebrate impending nuptials, but at its core this weekend was about, as my girlfriend says, “just hanging out with the bros.”

For all intents and purposes, I am a bro. I identify as a bro in the sense that, as Jezebel so aptly put it, I am “an adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding and who also presents himself in a way that assimilates to the prevailing aesthetic of men with similar socialization patterns.”

But according to Vice, my friends and I are the worst thing to happen to Portland since the great 1866 fire that leveled churches, destroyed the city’s commercial center, and left nearly 10,000 homeless. On an off day, I should be on Boston’s Orange Line, stinking of bourbon and slurring, and “cackling at the ceiling, electrified by the degree to which he does not give a fuck,” John Saward writes. “This is his dream. This is his life. He is the worst person alive, and he has no idea.”

 He is a walking scorched-earth policy. He takes what he wants to satisfy some hedonistic impulse, and then he leaves her sobbing in a hallway with her friend on the other line. He wrings every moment of every drop of novelty. He is doing shots and never with a chaser, because moderation and restraint are for women and faggots and children. The only way to be a real man is to be a real man as ferociously as humanly possible. He goes all-in; he gets shredded and ripped and defines his life by aggression and competitions. He buys the hamburger that comes with two other hamburgers and a chicken cutlet on top of it. Why? Because it’s three hamburgers with a chicken cutlet on top of it.

I’ve been a member of male-centric institutions my entire life—sports teams, a summer camp staff, a fraternity—and still, somehow, my friends and I don’t seem to quite match this portrait of the American Bro. My weekend habits, though boisterous and uncouth, don’t sync with the totally terrifying acid trip of masculinity captured by Vice. Though I have spent time in the presence (or wake) of the horrific men described by Saward, I have never done 75 push-ups because NO REGRETS. I don’t know anyone named Rachael who wants it, she so wants it, bro. None of my fashion choices match Jezebel’s amazing geographical exhibition of the Great North American Bro. Even BuzzFeed’s “How ‘Bro’ Are You?” quiz considers me vaguely well-adjusted, despite the fact that I make duckface in way too many photos and have been known to say “duuude.” “Congratulations on having exquisite taste,” the BuzzFeed results page says, “and feel free to procreate as much as you like!”

Where did this strange American Bro come from, this alien, fist-pumping, Jager-bombing avatar of modern sexism, racism, and nihilism? And why does he loom over every male friendship, every moment “with the boys”? Am I doomed, by our culture, to live as a jerk, a social parasite made fat on the sweet lard of privilege, with my male friends and colleagues? At what point did all strong homosocial relationships between men become conflated with the most vile and socially abhorrent behavior and egregious sartorial choices?

The repressive, hypermasculine bro that stalks your local watering hole and pisses in the street is a modern, anxious manifestation of homosexual panic, an allergic reaction to the mainstreaming of gay culture.

Ironically, the history of homosexuality in America may hold the secret to the modern hyper-masculine bro. Prior to the 1970s, the majority of psychological literature on homosexuality was based on the presumption that the practice was a mental disorder, a view that coincided with advances in medicine at the end of the 18th century and the rise of psychoanalysis in the U.S. and Continental Europe. Homosexuality was eventually declassified as a mental illness in 1973, and all references to homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder were removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Despite this, gays and lesbians were still met with apprehension and hostility by the American public: In 1988, only 11 percent approved of same-sex marriage, and while that number increased to 46 percent by 2010, 40 percent of Americans remain opposed to it.

But decades of classifying homosexuality as a “dysfunction” in America left a lasting mark on all homosocial relationships. In modern Anglo-American society, writes gender theorist Eve Kosofsky (who coined the term “homosocial”) in her classic study “Between Men,” there’s a significantly greater disconnect between male homosexual and homosocial bonds, whereas there’s a much more psychosocially continuous relationship between female homosexual and homosocial bonds. 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 (say it with me now: “broing out”) but marked, most notably, by homosexual panic, the fear of this attention gliding over into something a little more taboo, a little more risqué. In an attempt to emphasize heterosexuality, fear or hatred of homosexuals and misogynist language developed. The bro, in short, is a culture-wide defense mechanism against the gay.

This social split between male homosexual and homosocial relationships is why the sort of homosocial bonding on display in black-and-white photographs of men throughout American history all but went extinct by the middle of the 20th century: homosexuality had become a pathologized identity, one that carried connotations of psychological dysfunction and perversion. “The shift meant sitting for a portrait in your best bro’s lap was verboten; more important, though, some have argued that it has led to a wide-scale deprivation in boys and men of intimate touch that is important to their development and mental health,” Kat Stoeffel explains at The Cut, discussing the rise of touch isolation. “Men who hold hands, sling an arm around each other, and say ‘I love you’ risk being labeled gay at best and violent homophobic backlash (either from observers or their beloved bro) at worst.”

Male physical affection may be making a comeback: According to a recent study in British journal Men and Masculinities, 98 percent of the heterosexual men interviewed had shared a bed with another man, while 93 percent had cuddled or spooned with one, evidence of, as the authors write, “expansion of changing conceptions of masculinity in contemporary culture.”

The repressive, hypermasculine bro that stalks your local watering hole and pisses in the street is a modern, anxious manifestation of homosexual panic, an allergic reaction to the mainstreaming of gay culture (and, by extension, a loss of cultural power and sexual stability). The modern definition of manhood came about in strict domination over the feminine, both sexually and behaviorally. “Male-male relations organize and give meaning to the social and sexual involvements of young heterosexual men in a powerful way,” writes researcher Michael Flood in a 2008 issue of Men and Masculinities, an exploration of how male homosocial bonding affects men’s relationships with women. “Homosocial bonds are policed against the feminizing and homosexualizing influences of excessive heterosociality, achieving sex with women is a means to status among men, sex with women is a direct medium of male bonding, and men’s narratives of their sexual and gender relations are offered to male audiences in storytelling cultures generated in part by homosociality.”

If modern misogyny is a virus, a symptom of psychosexual anxiety and irrational fear of homosexuality, then institutions like fraternities make for an excellent petri dish. Alcohol consumption is the primary way in which men “negotiate masculinities in leisure activities,” writes Lois West in the Journal of Men’s Studies in a 2001 examination of two American drinking cultures, fraternities and the U.S. Navy. Collective boozing—at frat houses, on shore leave, at sporting events—can facilitate the creation of masculine homosociality by “developing a sense of community and trust” around perpetuating certain kinds of American masculine traditions, West writes. But alcohol-driven social interactions are also used to inhibit negotiations over other hierarchies of identity and social boundaries relating to class, religion, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. “Status hierarchies get negotiated through competitive drinking games, humor, and heterosexual significations.”

One of the more troubling features of the modern bro isn’t the sad, relatively recent dose of anxiety that fuels his behavior, but the cultural power he maintains. Male-heavy organizations like the armed forces and college fraternities have the institutional power to safeguard the more violent, despicable, and misogynistic behaviors of young men. The prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, the site of social and professional development for America’s workforce, is especially troubling. Nearly 20 to 25 percent of female college students will experience rape or attempted rape during their time on campus, according to the Department of Justice; and according to research by the Center for Public Integrity, abusive students rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist. Some universities even rebrand rape as “non-consensual sex.” College sexual assault has become such a frightening epidemic in America that the White House has pressured universities to do more to combat it.

Fraternities, once social organizations focused on personal development and scholastic achievement, have devolved into engines for misogyny and assault. And they can breed future horrors. “Future fraternity brothers are often coddled by yes-men athletic coaches and administrators in high school, where they learn that they can argue their way out of class and — as nationally publicized cases like Steubenville and Maryville show us — rape accusations,” Katie Baker writes. “‘[A]n astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities.’ Once they’re entrenched in the high-paying jobs they expected to easily obtain, these former fraternity brothers … continue to act the same way behind barely closed doors. If you feel so secure about your past, present and future that you feel invincible, why stop the fun?”

One of the more troubling features of the modern bro isn’t the sad, relatively recent dose of anxiety that fuels his behavior, but the cultural power he maintains.

And in that permanent aura of cultural invincibility, born from the anxiety of homosocial bonding, is where we find the American bro, freed from the ivied walls and storied halls of his fraternity house and let loose on the sidewalks near you. A visceral portrait of the dark strains of brodom can be found in Cord Jefferson’s demand that the white community take responsibility for a “culture of lawlessness” after a group of surfers rioted in Huntington Beach, California—a satirical inversion of the “culture of black violence” segments favored by cable’s talking heads. “Whites in America have been out from under their European ancestors’ boot heels for centuries; California specifically outlawed preferences for nonwhites in state hiring and education nearly two decades ago, so being ‘oppressed’ is no longer an excuse for behavior like this,” Jefferson writes. “How long must we wait for the white community to get its act together?”

Racism, sexism, and misogyny are alive and well in the minds of some men with too much time, money, and anger on their hands. In this respect, the chest-thumping, booze-guzzling mess of a man you encounter clad in stunner shades and blasting EDM in the early hours of the morning isn’t the norm, but some accidental avatar of the worst impulses of modern man. The bro is a historical accident, a hostile social virus—incubated in the safety of homosocial bonding and bred in communal organizations—that has infected the bloodstream of the United States.

Changing demographics and attitudes may be a vaccine against the social and political dominance of bros: Millennials, fast transitioning into adulthood, are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a trend driven by the large wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have been coming to the U.S. for the past half century, and whose U.S.-born children are now aging. Millennials are essentially a transitional generation: Some 43 percent of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation, and the Census Bureau projects that the full U.S. population will be majority non-white sometime around 2043. With the changing racial make-up of today’s young adults comes a burst of political liberalism, an acceptance of homosexuality, and an emphasis on social and political justice along gender and racial lines.

But the bro is a persistent creature, and some male-centric organizations can remain safe spaces for misogyny, frustration, anxiety, and cultural narcissism despite shifts in American society. The emphasis on terrible style choices—the cheapest, most juvenile form of identity politics—only distracts attention from other forms of sexism that permeate American culture beneath the veneer of irony and sophistication (hello, hipster sexism). And casting homosocial relationships between men into something cartoonish and clownish, either as insufferably haphazard and childish (like the bromances that dot Judd Apatow’s filmography) or mortifyingly aggressive and secretly homosexual (Jersey Shore), can end up conflating positive friendships with the caricature of a man that is the American Bro.

Male friendships are camouflage to the worst impulses of the bro, at the cost of a relatively decent, courteous, and moral class of American men. For them—us—being good isn’t enough. We can’t just point to this scourge of American social life and say “not all men.” I was lucky enough to belong to male-centric institutions—like my childhood summer camp—that emphasized understanding, empathy, and loyalty. But as a straight, white man, I benefit from brodom in American culture, and I’ve been socialized to navigate it. This is what it means to actually “check your privilege”: If the American Bro is “the worst person alive, and he has no idea,” as Vice’s Saward writes, then a real man lives keenly aware of the historical and institutional powers which he has inherited, regardless of good, humble, and sensitive he thinks he is.

This, really, is my challenge: To recast “bro”—now, rightfully, a slur—as the rallying cry of honest, thoughtful, and productive male friendship.

Jared Keller
Jared Keller is a journalist and social media specialist living in New York. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, National Journal, Outside, Al Jazeera America, and The Verge.

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