This week, cultural commentators posed a question that cuts to the heart of the modern male experience: What is a bro? First, NPR’s Code Switch proposed a taxonomy of bros that extends in four dimensions: the “jockish” bro (as represented by Tim Tebow), the “dudely” bro (Andy Samberg), the “stonerish” bro (James Franco), and the “preppy” bro (Armie Hammer), with swimmer and reality TV star Ryan Lochte positioned at the epicenter of the Venn diagram. Then, Jezebel graphed a Bro-proval Matrix, categorizing bros from “jock” (Lochte) to “alt-bro” (John Mayer), then sorting them by public opinion, from “reviled” (Paul Ryan) to “beloved” (Channing Tatum).
These learning tools have provided us with an advanced understanding of the relationship between Ashton Kutcher’s brand of brodom and Brody Jenner’s. But the overriding nature of the bro remains difficult to pin down. As Callie Beusman writes at Jezebel, “The concept of the ‘bro’ is nebulous yet ubiquitous, sort of like that famous definition of obscenity: ‘I know [a bro] when I see [a bro].’” The bro is “a shorthand for a specific kind of fratty masculinity,” Code Switch’s Gene Demby posits, before concluding: “Y’all know who we mean.”
While, yes, we do, isn’t it worthwhile to try to pin this shit down? For instance, what does it really mean to bro out? Brodom in men is analogous to girliness in women: It is a self-conscious expression of the most frivolous of stereotypically masculine behaviors. While unabashed girly girls like Zooey Deschanel take pleasure in indulging in superficially feminine activities (dress shopping; manicures), bros take a similar approach to trivial masculine pursuits (trash can basketball; drawing penises on passed-out friends). Extensive bro codes and bro tips exist to regulate this behavior, including the acceptable times for scratching your own crotch (whenever the itch strikes), the optimal spacing of bros at rest (one seat between them, to accommodate for the potential arrival of women), and the correct form for calling dibs (in the company of witnesses, never implied).
Of course, no one bro code can define all bros, as the standard for masculine performance differs based on regional identifications and sociocultural norms. Take Andy Samberg: Though he often plays a club-hopping bro in his Lonely Island sketches, the comedian himself embodies the type of artistically-inclined sensibro embraced by his home turf of Berkeley. (Samberg simultaneously pokes fun at bros even while he acts like one, which is very bro-y.) The characteristics of brodom also evolve over time, in some cases integrating increasingly feminine touches into the fold. Several years ago, a friend of mine was ejected from a frat party for wearing a fedora. At one point, that fashion was viewed by some bros as unforgivably metrosexual; today, the hat is now a staple among a certain class of bro (a class led by Justin Timberlake).
Furthermore, “bro” is neither a compliment nor a burn. Because brodom applies to frivolous aspects of masculinity, engaging in these acts says little about the bro’s central strength of character. Brodom is vast enough to contain the masculine stylings of Matthew McConaughey and Keanu Reeves (seem like cool guys) and John Mayer and Tucker Max (do not). This is why why I contest NPR’s appointment of Ryan Lochte as its ultimate bro. While Lochte is certainly highly broish, an unrelated character trait—stupidity—dominates his public persona. He is more himbo than bro. Bros deserve better than Lochte as their spokesman.
These taxonomies of bros have also raised questions about the demographic limits of the bro community. Why, for example, are bros typically portrayed as white men? Maybe because the masculinity embodied by bros is meant to be frivolous and, therefore, harmless, and it’s a lot easier for white men to come off as affable while engaging in masculine performance. Racist tropes continue to characterize black men as more inherently dangerous than their white peers. Consider Kanye West: He regularly confronts masculine culture in his work, listens to Daft Punk, and—like Macho Man Randy Savage before him—wears novelty shutter shades. And yet he will never be crowned bro, as his masculinity is viewed as threatening, not lovable.
And what about women? Can they be bros? I believe they can. (And when I posed the question on Twitter, dozens concurred.) Women who adopt typically masculine behaviors (dominating the conversation, running for public office) are sometimes seen as threatening, but those who revel in its most superficial aspects are often praised. Similar to how the metrosexual man integrates feminine performances—personal grooming, a studied dedication to fashion—into his masculine identity, ladybros adopt conventions of the bro culture in their own lives.
Cameron Diaz was an early ladybro, rising to prominence by integrating semen into her hair regimen and for surfing, burping, and donning copious fedoras in her personal life. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey is a bro, and not just because she threatens to dislocate people’s arms for a living (although it doesn’t hurt); she also adopts a stereotypically masculine cadence and swagger in her public appearances. Ke$ha is a bro—what bro has not awoken in the morning feeling like P. Diddy? (Not that Diddy is a bro—stating that you “feel” like Diddy is a lot more bro-y than actually being him.)
Some women are initiated into ladybrodom simply by their close proximity to prominent bros (Robin Quivers on The Howard Stern Show). Other women earn their affiliation by adopting the ethos of a bro, while also projecting typically feminine qualities that hetero bros consider attractive. Think of Olivia Munn, sexily eating hot dogs on Attack of the Show. Or Megan Fox, who has said that she is attracted to both men and women (hot), but is disgusted by the idea of her girlfriend sleeping with another man (broish). Meanwhile Taylor Swift’s own attraction to bros across the spectrum (notably, John Mayer and Conor Kennedy)—coupled with her “bros before hos” public attitude—has earned her the title of pop’s resident female sensibro, though she prefers the term “girl-next-door-itis.” (Also, it totally seems like she would quote The Princess Bride). And Sheryl Sandberg is the bro whisperer: The Facebook COO’s brand of female empowerment relies on infiltrating, then translating, the cultural traditions of brogrammers to women at large.
I am no bro. But I welcome the continued cultural fascination with the bro community. Bros are evidence that masculinity is as fastidiously constructed as femininity is. Bros are not born; they are made. And our manicures are only as frivolous as their airbrushed tanks.