At MTV’s Video Music Awards in August, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and subsequent fears over what it presaged for other “settled law” like marriage equality, Billy Eichner issued a bold call to arms. “I need you all there in theaters on Sept. 30,” he commanded the audience, summoning it to the release of his new movie, Bros. “We need to show all the homophobes like Clarence Thomas and all the homophobes on the Supreme Court that we want gay love stories and we support LGBTQ people. And we are not letting them drag us back into the last century, because they are past, and Bros is the future! Are you with me, VMAs?!”
Bros is the first gay romantic comedy co-written by and starring a gay man to be backed by a major studio (Universal) and receive a wide theatrical distribution. It also features an almost entirely LGBTQ—and quite talented—cast, even in the straight roles. While its director, Nicholas Stoller, has churned out reliably crude-yet-sweet R-rated comedies like The Five-Year Engagement and Neighbors for years, and while Eichner has been a touch bullish in touting the movie’s Hollywood “firsts,” Bros is certainly notable for a mainstream release.
The rest of Eichner’s claims in recent months should raise more of an eyebrow. Isn’t there cynicism in linking a corporate studio movie’s success to the right’s terrifying attack on the rights of women and queer people in this country? Does Clarence Thomas even watch movies? (Mostly kidding.) I guess we can circle back in October and see, but already, Eichner and the PR machine behind Bros have been pitching the film as a “historic” queer milestone, with most pre-release media coverage donning headlines in kind.
Part of this is about the stark mechanics of how movies get made, a struggle which Eichner, having worked in the industry for two decades, knows something about. As he told Out magazine: “The fact of the matter is, we need people to go see this movie, gay people and straight people, in order for them, meaning the powers that be in Hollywood, to greenlight more movies like this.” But box office viability is not all that’s on his mind. Within all his trademark yelling (and fair points), Eichner has been making a curious argument: We should come see this movie not just because it’s good or funny or sexy, but because it is politically important. Seeing it, and thereby driving up the box office, has been framed as a kind of political act.
This is not a review, but I do happen to think Bros is good and funny and sexy, incisive about certain aspects of urban gay life, and totally worth seeing. It’s the “historic” part that deserves more scrutiny. Watching the movie, it’s clear to me that Eichner’s interest in queer history, and where modern gay romance fits into it, goes far deeper than marketing. In fact, the film unexpectedly ends up as much of a treatise on how we should think about our past and present as it is a goofy date-night romp.
But while selling Bros as politically “historic” is savvy, it’s also a little off. I do believe Eichner is sincere in his conviction that this movie represents, if not the culmination of LGBTQ progress on this Earth, a major step forward. The question for many queer viewers is, is that true? There may be a fundamental problem at play here that goes deeper than dubious claims about enlightening the Supreme Court through amusingly honest depictions of anal sex. Must the arc of our history bend toward Bros?
Before we dig into that, I should probably tell you what happens in this movie. The romance plot is, despite its dude-on-dude content, pretty straightforward. Eichner’s Bobby, as the passionate, cranky host of an LGBTQ podcast (which, hi!), seems interested in gay love more in theory than in practice; at 40, he’s yet to have a real relationship. During another ambivalent night out at the club, he complains to a friend (the wonderful Guy Branum) about how, despite marketing ourselves as especially smart, many gays are really very stupid—only to catch the eye of a ballcapped hunk, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), who by all appearances is quite dumb and yet very hot. Of course, there is more to Aaron than his hormonally enhanced pecs, and the rest of the movie follows the guys getting vulnerable and discovering that real affection between two men in the dehumanizing age of ass pics on Grindr is possible, and perhaps even desirable. By convention, this feelings-infection must be troubled right when things are starting to look serious, here by a whiff of nonmonogamy. It shouldn’t be a spoiler at this point, but thankfully, the boys find their way back to each other in typically breathless rom-com fashion, complete with a musical finale.
You might gather from this description that I am not the biggest fan of the romantic comedy. I can sometimes find them fun in a campy way, especially the Hallmark strain that Bros rightly and hilariously skewers during its requisite Christmas-with-the-family act. But in general, I have always viewed them as one of many things straight people do that doesn’t concern me.
Eichner does not agree. On the media circuit for Bros, he has waxed poetic about his love for the genre, recalling that during his formative years in the 1980s and ’90s, he was devoted to films like Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally, and Broadcast News, and that it was seeing these that made him want to work in Hollywood. “As a kid watching them,” he told Out, “and probably as a gay kid, it made me want to be an adult … in a complicated relationship in Manhattan. That’s what I wanted to be. But we were never in those movies, ever. We weren’t even the best friend at that point.” Of Bros, he added: “I really wanted to do a movie at that level and that style, but that was about a gay couple, because we truly had never gotten that.”
I do not fault Eichner for his love of these movies (reading him rhapsodize about them is endearing, actually), but his desire to create a gay one—and his belief that such a film would be in any way “historic” or politically potent—doesn’t make sense to me. Rom-coms have done too much work establishing norms around straight dating and romance—norms that, echoed in the real world, are at best too stifling, if not downright creepy, for that to be possible. While there has been a valiant push to integrate the genre in recent years (Happiest Season, Fire Island, et. al.), not to mention decades of smaller indie attempts, I’m just not sure why this is a narrative tradition queers should have a great deal of interest in joining.
You might counter by pointing out that, well, maybe we can do it differently—queer the romcom, as it were. It’s possible that could happen one day, but without spoiling too much, Bros doesn’t get there. For all the film’s forthrightness about Grindr-speak and poppers and that awkward guy who always invites himself to the orgy, as well as its protestations that our love is NOT THE SAME!! as their love, its main romantic arc follows familiar straight paths (side-eyeing potentially novel terrain like triad relationships along the way) and leaves us in a pretty conventional place. This isn’t all that surprising: As we’ve seen with marriage, switching out the genders in a fundamentally conservative institution does not necessarily do all that much to change the institution. If anything, it only seems to make the people—or characters—involved more conservative.
During my screening of Bros, I had this nagging sense that, however much I laughed at each smartly crafted set piece about modern gay life, the movie was somehow cramped or cluttered, that it needed more editing. Now, I think I understand that feeling better: Eichner and his co-writer are trying to stuff a whole lot of gayness into the preexisting package of the straight rom-com, to make it new—to “correct” an exclusion, as Eichner has said. But ultimately, the box is just too small, and too strongly built, to accommodate much in the way of novelty or change.
For all the ways Bros is hamstrung by its fidelity to genre, watching it was still a surprising experience. That’s because, for a movie advertised to be a love story between two bros (and contra all its ribbing of polyamory), it actually, for much of its runtime, dotes on a third beloved: queer history itself. When we first meet Bobby, he’s a podcaster ranting about a failed gay rom-com pitch of his own, and how gay people and relationships are censored out of history—clearly these two male figures in this ancient painting are together, and how dare they suggest that this old-timey woman and the dear friend with whom she exchanged heartfelt correspondence were not gay? His passions soon lead to his joining the board of a new LGBTQ history museum, and from there to extensive fights about historiographical issues like whether to dedicate an exhibit to America’s “first gay president,” Abraham Lincoln.
We could spend a long time discussing the complexities of whether or not it makes sense to claim Lincoln, whose life certainly was enriched by a considerable amount of male affection, as a gay man. But what matters here is the underlying divide itself: Some people believe gayness is only a meaningful category within a specific, fairly recent historical moment (usually the late 19th-century onward; Lincoln is definitely cusp!), while others view it as an eternal human condition, such that we can trace a sort of spiritual-emotional lineage to ancestors thousands of years in the past, even if they maybe wouldn’t have had a word for it.
Most of the time, I think fights about this are getting a bit lost in the semantics. In any case, it’s clear where Bobby stands: Lincoln is ours. Likewise with Eichner: “There were gay love stories since the beginning of time,” he told Out. “We just didn’t hear about them. And [Bros], in a very big funny way, is our way of saying, ‘This is just one of millions of love stories. And you’ve never let us tell our stories. But we’re here now, and we’re going to keep telling them.’”
This, moving past any regrettable rhetoric about Clarence Thomas’ investment in box office numbers, is why I think Eichner sees Bros as “historic.” He seems to feel that, by writing us into a big splashy studio rom-com, he is making up for decades, if not centuries, of queer love stories that were kept in the closet. One of the final scenes of the movie drives this home. It features Bobby and Aaron, reunited, kissing each other to rapturous applause in front of one of those ancient “gay boyfriend” paintings, beneath a rotunda splashed with projections of supposed queer forebearers. The message is clear: Finally, our story—the story of these men and those men—is being told honestly and properly. This is what the ancestors dreamed about. This is where we were always supposed to end up.
It’s a moving sentiment in its way. But it’s also a limiting one. The truth is, we have almost no access to what those ancient men thought about or felt for each other. But whatever it was, it’s unlikely that it would much resemble anything going on in Bros—and that’s actually fantastic. As the queer historian Hugh Ryan recently explored in a fabulous piece for Electric Literature, the thrilling thing about studying our history is that it is a recurring lesson in the value of not understanding. “There were of course queer people in the past, filled with same-sex desire and cross-gender identification,” Ryan writes. “But the further my research took me, the less those desires and identities added up to an overall picture I understood. The building blocks were the same, but the final construction was very different.”
There is a creativity to queer life across time—to what we did and do with those “building blocks” in our own situations and moment—that is beautiful. But to me, it is a beauty that just doesn’t fit well into a rom-com, a house that was never designed for us to live in. We are indeed as “different” and special as Eichner’s Bobby believes, but we lose sight of that uniqueness within the confines of such a straight frame.
Just ahead of the movie’s final fireworks, Bobby’s straight and recently divorced brother Jason (Jai Rodriguez—yes, that one) gruffly tells him, “My story is not your story; go write your own damn story.” He’s suggesting to Bobby that giving Aaron another chance need not end up like his own relationship. But the line works equally well as a pep talk for queer artists post-Bros. We’ve seen what trying to tell our stories in their forms looks like. I’m excited to see what truly historic things emerge as we continue to invent our own.