In 1998, a documentary called Frat House was shown at Sundance to great critical acclaim. The film followed a group of fraternity brothers as they set out to initiate newcomers, with directors Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland participating actively throughout the fifty-nine minutes of torturous male chest-thumping, homophobic ranting and spontaneous and frightening acts of aggression. The film culminates in a final pledge that involves drinking, yelling, beating, running, push-ups and a whole slew of bodily fluids. After being blindfolded and doused with alternating boiling hot and freezing cold water in a ritual of “final baptism,” hopeful frat members are led crawling, still blind-folded, down a hallway and into a small red-tiled bathroom. Shirtless, wet and exhausted, and after weeks of pledging, they only need to answer one more question before becoming initiated: “Would you ever dick a brother?”
Later, HBO would question the authenticity of that final scene, with accusations of the event being a staged re-creation of previous pledging activities. Phillips and Gurland denied the accusations. Compared to the long list of hazing horror stories emerging in recent years, including a recent case involving a student from Wilmington College in Ohio who lost a testicle during a pledging event, the scenes depicted in Frat House seem comparatively mild.
Despite the critical lens he turns on fraternities in this early work, Todd Phillips would go on to create some of the seminal works of bro culture, including The Hangover trilogy and Old School. Today, movie posters from his films adorn the walls of teenage bedrooms, dormitories and bachelor pads.
Phillips’ films reflect a broader trend of bro-ness quickly growing online. Just as feminist blogs have built communities on the internet by challenging gender norms, bros have built communities around embracing them. Forums on Reddit and blogs like Bro Bible and Total Frat Move prompt self-identified bros to fulfill the stereotypes of masculinity: drinking, fighting and fornicating.
So what exactly is a bro? The typical frat boy model that Phillips’ work explores certainly comes to mind, however, fraternity affiliation isn’t inherent to the bro.Time Magazine’s “A Brief History of the Bro” traces the idea back to Ovid and Henry VIII, while Gawker claims that “the American Bro” has replaced “the American Man.” Some have attempted to distill bro-ness into its essential characteristics, proposing “Jockishness,” “Dudeliness,” “Preppiness” and “Stoner-ishness” as the sometimes-overlapping pillars of bro identity.
The broader definition, put forth here, attempts to understand the bro in the context of changing social forces, where the bro’s identity qua bro is dependent on an unwavering, positively zealous adherence to hegemonic masculinity norms. Deviation from this norm is met with swift social sanctions dealt out in homophobic epithets. The question “would you ever dick a brother?” asserts a consistent fear of homosexuality. In circumstances where male friendships flourish (fraternities, friend groups, workplaces) there is a need to over-assert their opposition to same-sex desire: the ubiquitous “no homo.” Bros are constantly trying to keep clear the lines of homosocial and homosexual relationships, where the former provides a core group with whom to perform the ritual tasks of bro-ness (the aforementioned drinking, fighting and fornicating) and the latter is viewed with an almost obsessive aversion.
Bros, almost uniformly white, middle or upper class, heterosexual men, are drunk on their own privilege and stand in defiant opposition to an otherwise liberalizing society that threatens to unbalance their notions of masculinity. Recently, bro-targeted media has come to fill the gaps that liberalizing society has left, with sites like Bro Bible, (7.5 million unique monthly visitors) Total Frat Move (3.7 million unique monthly visitors) and, most controversial of all, Return of Kings, (1.4 million unique monthly visitors) catering to a bro-centric market. The content varies, from the standard viral video fare to humour to news and sports. Pervasive throughout is an indulgence in the douchier aspects of masculinity: a “Hook Up Heroes” section recounting particularly salacious sexual escapades, trend articles on the topic of beer pong, an emphasis on military and sports-related human interest stories, and of course, the ubiquitous lists of hot girls.
In past years, magazines like Esquire and GQ have served as the cultural tastemakers of men. Unlike the bro-sites of today, these magazines made room for women even while delivering male-orientated content. Esquire in particular, has published essays by celebrated female journalists like Joan Didion, Susan Orlean and Nora Ephron. There’s a difference, of course, between clickbait blogs and established magazines, but these differences don’t end with the relative lack of journalistic gravitas. The surge in popularity of bro blogs espousing far less lofty ideas than their editorial grandfathers is also corresponding with a degeneration of how men are taught to think about women.
In September, Return of Kings caught the attention and ire of the internet with their infamous “24 Signs She’s a Slut” article. A few months later, they managed to top their record of misoginy-fueled virality and published an article entitled “5 Reasons to Date a Girl with An Eating Disorder.” The titles speak for themselves, and the articles do not deserve the page views or mental exertion necessary to read them.
What’s more interesting is the slow blurring of lines between the relatively innocent content of sites like Bro Bible and the far more sinister intentions of sites like Return of Kings. Between the two, men’s roles as sexual conquerors of women slip from beer-pong-playing breast-oglers to openly- women-hating sexual predators. The former is more or less ignorant, uninterested, or at most, vaguely disdainful of feminist ideas of gender, while the latter finds itself in direct opposition to, even victimized, by feminism. The name itself, "Return of Kings," invokes the image of masculine power, once lost to feminist meddling, finally "returning." The popularization of “men’s rights”-orientated blogs, once only found in the deepest crevices of the internet, is a disconcerting trend, especially as it attempts to capture the low-hanging fruit of its more mainstream bro-orientated competitors and promote itself with a more broad-based appeal.
Feminist commentary has grown enormously in recent years, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of blogs and the democratizing voice of the internet. The same technological forces have allowed men’s issues blogs to experience a similar kind of growth, in direct response to the successes of feminist intervention. This waxing and waning of opposing cultural forces, progressivism and conservatism, has been playing out for hundreds of years according to political historians like Henry Adams and Arthur Schlesinger. The idea is that our attitudes to social and political democracy are cyclical, and periods of increased liberalism are often followed up by conservative backlashes, and vice versa. In the 1960s, the second wave feminist movement made great strides in women’s workplace equality and reproductive justice. By the 1980s, the anti-feminist movement, led by activists like Phyllis Schlafly, successfully blocked the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, ushering in an era of social, political and economic conservatism. A similar pattern seems to be emerging in the era of online activism, where several feminist media critics and bloggers have become the target of men’s rights activist backlash, with many including death threats and rape threats. The author of “5 Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder,” who goes only by “Tuthmosis,” expressed a similarly nostalgic regret for the current state of gender relations in a Buzzfeed interview following his article controversy.
“Our site is an effort to push back on this lamentable state of affairs by providing a forum to discuss real male issues, share tips on self-improvement, and have a few laughs without having to worry that you’ll be branded “creepy” or dangerous for failing to genuflect to the current orthodoxy. It’s what our fathers and grandfathers had when they went to get a haircut, took their car into the shop, or played poker with their friends.”
The idea that women’s equality is somehow contributing to a decline in masculinity is a recurrent fear of the gender-conservative. Men’s ability to talk about women as objects has been constructed as central to masculine identity and asking men to change this habit is viewed by some as akin to asking them to change manhood itself. As discussions of women’s right’s issues continue to gain exposure and popularity, men are realizing that they too are implicated and expected to change, an idea that for some is hard to swallow. The prototypical bro has far too much invested in his identity as an alpha male to give it up now and the deconstruction of gender becomes not just an exercise in feminist theorizing, but a deterioration of his very identity.
Notwithstanding the discomfort bros may tend to have on issues of masculinity and femininity, their participation in this process of gender deconstruction is essential. Since men hold much of the power in society, and more often than not these men are of the privileged white, middle-class, bro sub-category, it’s important that we include them as enthusiastically as we have included women in discussions of gender. A certain amount of defensiveness and resistance is to be expected as men realize their complicity in a system of oppression, but it is the inherent banality of bro-ness that we must remember as we attempt to subvert their ideas of the masculine. As much as men’s rights groups would hope otherwise, the bro’s aversion to feminism comes not from a deliberate misogynistic hatred, but from a directionless ignorance of the significance of the things they have never thought to question. A certain amount of compassion will be needed to sway the collective hearts and minds of the cargo-shorts wearing masses.