A week from now, I will be bro-ing out, hard. It’s not a boast. Nor is it an admission of guilt. It’s simply me acknowledging reality. This year marks the fifth anniversary of my annual guys’ golf trip, so I don’t have any pretenses.
Anyone who might overhear us arguing over fantasy football teams or witness us drunker than we’ve been since frosh week will peg us, rightly, as a bunch of bros. When they say it, either out loud or in their heads – “Those guys are a bunch of bros” – the word will wear its popular connotation, which sits somewhere between sneering and weariness.
We’ll have no one to blame but ourselves, although I must point out that none of my friends would ever self-identify as a bro. Just like a tattooed guy in skinny jeans who would never cop to being a hipster despite his handlebar mustache, pork pie hat and tattoo of a pork pie hat with a mustache, no one ever actually thinks of himself as a bro, no matter how bro-like his behaviour.
The bro emerged as a social type in the aughts, shooting to fame thanks to the womanizing Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. Ever since, society has struggled to make sense of him. Is he affable and ultimately harmless, perhaps even admirable, like Channing Tatum? Or is he a prime example of straight white male entitlement, like sexist Toronto soccer bro Shawn Simoes, who made vulgar comments on-air to a female reporter? (Simoes thought his behaviour was “hilarious,” until he got fired.)
These days, we have sports bros, finance bros, frat bros, curl bros, stoner bros, preppy bros and more. This gives rise to a question – what exactly is a bro, anyway? The linguistic promiscuity of our bromance with “bro” has stretched the word to the point of meaninglessness, threatening to hide the true (often depressing) fact of what it is to be a bro.
For centuries, “bro” existed only as the short form of “brother,” says Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. It became a synonym for “guy” in the mid-20th century. Around the 1970s, African-American men began to use both “bro” and “brother” as slang for their male friends, and the usage spread from there.
But the real change happened around the turn of the millennium, when the word underwent what Connor Martin calls a “metonymic shift,” moving from a term of endearment to an encapsulation of a social type. “Bro” became a description of a certain type of guy: one who was into sports, enjoyed spending time with other guys, wore his baseball hat backward and loved partying (when I was in high school, we called these guys “meatheads”).
Then, having been narrowed down, bro began a rapid expansion that seemed to engulf every type of guy – up to and including self-identified gay bros, who have been known to exist in Toronto.
The more we add to it, the harder it is to see what makes a bro a bro. A proud anti-intellectualism always seemed like a defining bro trait, but New York magazine recently called guys who read David Foster Wallace “lit bros.”
If enjoying metafiction makes you a bro, then who isn’t a bro? “It’s become totally generalized,” Connor Martin says. “At some point, does it just mean ‘young man’?”
Sometimes, I think “bro” is a catchall term of derision for any aspect of being a guy that people don’t like.
Film director Thomas Keith says bro culture is fundamentally toxic. “Bro culture is sort of this very regressive culture where young men can still celebrate their sexism, their homophobia, transphobia, openly with one another,” says Keith, who directed the documentary The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men. “Men can be very defensive about this. They understand that their behaviours are not acceptable, but they don’t want to exactly give them up.”
Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, agrees that bro culture tries to validate misogyny and homophobia, but he says it isn’t a new phenomenon. “Bro culture has been with us for a very long time. We just called it ‘society.’”
Not that long ago, he says, the whole world was a locker room. Today, men are increasingly being forced to share public space and their hold on power. In response, some men retreat to the retrograde behaviours of an earlier age, he argues.
Bro culture often has the casually affable air of a Judd Apatow movie, Kimmel says, but that conceals a dark heart. “Ninety-something per cent is utterly harmless, goofy for hilarity. And the other some percentage is menacing,” he says. “Brogrammers,” for example, is a term for dudes who insist on turning Silicon Valley into a frat house, insisting on a workplace full of profanity, chauvinism and misogyny; that is a big reason the turnover rate for women in tech jobs is twice as high as that for men.
One rare defender of bros is J. Camm, the managing editor at BroBible.com. “What we try to do at BroBible is obviously change the negative stigma of what a bro is,” he says of his site, billed as “the ultimate destination for Bros.”
“We like to celebrate people who are doing really cool things and have more of a positive impact than some guy who’s a meathead hitting on women and demeaning women.
“People have this idea of what a bro is supposed to act like, and maybe one out of 100 times that stereotype fits the person,” says Camm, who defines bros as “guys who are having a good time, who are really social and know how to let loose.”
Leonardo DiCaprio is a bro in the J. Camm model. Richard Branson is a bro. Mark Cuban is a bro, too.
Since everyone has their personal definition of “bro,” here’s mine. At its best bro culture indulges behaviour that is fundamentally juvenile but harmlessly enjoyable – partying with your pals, high-fiving sports plays. Next week, my friends and I will laugh like teenagers and be blind to everything except easygoing, totally uncomplicated fun. Sure, that’s something we all need more of.
But male bonding can too easily turn into stomping across the world like you own it but owe it nothing, a self-regard so total other people barely register. Being a bro means play-acting at being a guy’s guy while willfully ignoring the once-defining virtues of being a man’s man: self-sacrifice, stoicism, duty to family and community, standing up for something higher than yourself.
And, at its worst, bro culture is as critics charge: sexist, misogynistic and homophobic – indefensible in every way.
This, to me at least, is the true, depressing fact of what it is to be a bro, the reason why so many view even harmless bros with a mix of resignation and contempt. To be a bro is to celebrate aiming low like it’s the best thing in the world.
So please, don’t call me bro, bro.
A bro’s gotta be clean
Axe body spray may be the most popular toiletry brand among pungent proto-bros, but products that promise to make you smell like a man are crowding drugstore shelves. We’ve been lathering up with lady soap for most of history, apparently. Now that we have gendered products of our own to choose from, the question is: How bro are they, bro?
Old Spice Swagger
This stuff smells faintly of mushed bananas. Is it cool for my hair to smell like what babies eat, bro? On the plus side, that swagger font is total gangster, bro. And bro, check out this description on the back of the bottle: “Old Spice Swagger 2 in 1 Shampoo and Conditioner will leave your hair so cocky you’ll need to buy it a pair of expensive mirrored sunglasses.” Cocky hair. ’Nuff said.
Check out the picture on the front: That guy is mountain climbing and crushing it, bro. Cons: This deodorant has a very subtle smell that could be pounding noses way more. Also, is orange a bro colour? Doubtful, bro. But it’s got “Motion sense,” whatever that means, and it’s called “Adventure.” I’m down.
Neutrogena Invigorating Face Wash
Lean in close ’cause I gotta ask you a personal question, bro. Do you ever smell something that pulls you back into a childhood memory? Like, you’re with your dad, who’s getting ready for a party or something, and he puts on Brut or some stuff that smells exactly like your kid idea of a man, but a man who isn’t trying too hard by, like, pretending to be a lumberjack? This stuff is minimally bro, but like a factory for those memories, bro.
Dove Men + Care Extra Fresh Soap
Sensitive dad bros, have you been looking for just the right soap? One that says, “I am looking for a fresh, clean feeling and have no interest in swagger but really am interested in a soap that has one-quarter moisturizing cream to fight skin dryness because at this point in life, that’s my main problem and besides, who am I trying to impress?” Then this is your soap, bro.