Pop culture is having a broment. There are the surfer bros, lax bros, and frat bros. Maybe they grow up and get jobs as Wall Street bros or brogrammers. If they’re “feeling the Bern” this year they’re Berniebros. On the weekend they might just “bro out.” In the last few years there has been a “bro-liferation” of bros in pop culture. “Bro subculture” has its own Wikipedia page.
The term “bro” has become so ubiquitous in our vocabulary, it has been stretched beyond the point of meaning. But whatever it does mean—whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective—bro rarely means something good (except when used by bros themselves).
A New York Times piece recently offered a theory about our current attitude toward bros: “The deployment of ‘bro’ as a means of disparagement is part of a generalized expression of fatigue with the wielding of white-male power.” Maybe. It’s certainly true that after a history of different connotations, bro has become shorthand for a largely white-male, entitled culture. When I say “bro,” I mean a twentysomething guy who probably works in finance, watches sports, drinks beer with other bros, and casually mistreats women.
But the definition is flexible and varies by region. “Tech bros” abound in my Brooklyn neighborhood and are distinguished by their self-importance and self-righteous affluence. The epitome of this type of bro is the one who wrote an open letter to the mayor of San Francisco a few months ago, complaining that he “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day” and insisting that “the wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city.”
There are also nuances to bro-dom that don’t depend on profession. NPR published a useful Venn diagram a few years ago breaking down the (often overlapping) traits of bros into jockish, dudely, stonerish, and preppy. You may have your own metrics.
But lately I’ve been noticing that bros as a group are taking on some harsh treatment in the media, perhaps not all of it deserved. It seems they are one of the only demographic groups in America that it’s okay to publicly denigrate. And some bros have noticed.
David Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports, a website for bros, put it this way: “There is a sentiment among frat guys, lacrosse players, and middle-class affluent white kids that they are kind of getting persecuted lately.” That was his explanation to CBS News for why so many bros support Donald Trump for president (they apparently see him as someone who stands up for “persecuted” guys like them).
I have worked for many years in a bro-heavy neighborhood in Manhattan, and I must confess, I am a chronic bro-profiler. In my periods of dabbling in dating apps, I swipe left instantly when I see someone I’ve pegged as a bro. Oh, you like hanging out with friends and watching sports? Are you smirking in your profile picture and sporting Ray Bans? Do you own salmon-colored shorts? Any of these instantly sets off my bro-dar.
I’ve started to feel kind of bad about my dismissive categorizations, though. After all, I don’t particularly like it when people lump me into a certain category of women; it’s rude and it’s also rarely accurate.
First, lumping a bunch of people together under the category “bro” is an obnoxious way of signaling my own supposed superiority. It’s sort of like calling women “basic”—also a term meant to show disdain for people who lack a certain amount of originality. There’s nothing actually wrong with liking mainstream things that lots of other people like, and who are we to judge them for it?
The fact is that not all people who might be classified as “bros” are dull chauvinists—these people are individuals, and their characters vary. A love of sports, dressing preppy, or interacting with male companions in a “hyper-masculine” way doesn’t automatically preclude someone from being a good and/or interesting person. I’ve learned that many people I might have mentally categorized as bro-y on first acquaintance are actually wonderful human beings.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by the rise of the bro. There aren’t that many socially sanctioned ways of expressing male friendship or masculinity other than bro-associated behavior. And for the most part, many telltale bro signs probably come from a place of insecurity rather than strength, even when it looks like they’re privileged and powerful.
Of course, sometimes individuals or particular groups of bros out themselves as worthy of contempt by their words or behavior, such as the tech entrepreneur who doesn’t want homeless people to ruin his morning. It’s not “persecution” to call that sort of thing out, even if Trump Bros see it that way.
But calling out jerky behavior—a worthwhile thing to do—doesn’t mean we need to categorize it as “bro” behavior. Jerky behavior is a negative choice whether expressed by women or men—it is neither masculine nor feminine in nature. There exist women who choose to act jarringly cold in how they treat people; this doesn’t make bitchiness a distinctly female trait, since men can express the same behavior. In other words, it’s not only short-sighted to lump people into narrow categories. It is also wrong to attribute negative traits to one gender or the other—traits that are not intrinsic to the gender.
It’s worth remembering, amid our urge to categorize and judge others, that bros are people, too. They’re men, and belittling them probably won’t help either sex. So, in an effort to be more intentional with my language, I hereby retire the term “bro” from my vocabulary. A world with fewer labels is far more interesting, anyway.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan