Monday, April 2, 2012

"True Bromance"? No. I Don't Think So.

I  had an interesting experience a while back. I cannot recall the details of the context, but a friend of mine used the word 'bromance' to lightly characterise a relationship between a couple of males. I can't remember whether they were fictional or real, or whatever.

I wasn't all that impressed, and I pointed out that I found the term dismissive, belittling, and potentially quite offensive.

My friend was genuinely surprised, and stated that she didn't find the term at all offensive.

I pointed out that as she's female, perhaps it wasn't up to her. That perhaps "mere girl talk" hadn't seemed offensive to men who dismissed women's speech in that fashion - and that there were hundreds of similar examples of language which had been used by men in a dismissive fashion; language which we are not permitted to use in that manner any more.

We left it there. I'm not sure how effectively I communicated what I had to say, but I had no particular desire to force the issue either. I value friendship far above political correctness.

What surprised me, at the time, was that the friend in question is highly literate, strongly feminist, and an excellent communicator -- and she chose to defend her position by saying that she didn't see the term as offensive.

Yes, I know. I caught her off guard with my reaction, and I expect she'd never thought about it before. But then, as a man I certainly don't get to use that excuse, do I? "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you find 'the little woman' a demeaning description of my wife? I don't see it as offensive."

And really... let's look at the word, shall we? It comes from this concept of "bro", which you'll find all over the Internet. It's used in an almost universally derogatory and dismissive fashion. It's used to suggest that the speaker is parodying a class of lowbrow, cliched fratboy in the USA. In NZ, it's exaggerated street-speak, more or less associated with the Kiwi equivalent of bogan-dom. Hell, it's clearly been a means of parodying and dismissing a certain kind of male speech ever since that YouTube video with the beached whale. (I'm beached, bro. Beached as!) It's used as parody in pub culture here in Oz. In fact, even my nine and eleven year old boys use it as dismissive parody to describe the moronic chest-thumpers in the schoolyard: Come at me, bro!

Men being what they are, I've seen it used between friends in an affectionate way. And in that sense, it frequently becomes self-parody. But then,  if I recall correctly, it's acceptable for black Americans to call each other 'nigger'. On the other hand, use the word from another background, and you're in a lot of trouble.

I'd argue that it's difficult for a thinking, careful person to say that "Bro" doesn't come loaded with negative, dismissive, derisory connotations. And I'd argue even harder that a thinking, careful feminist really ought to be aware of what it means to be on the wrong end of a gender-specific term of derision.

The second half of the word -- "romance". Nothing wrong there, right? Except the reason I was upset is that the relationship in question was one of those strong male friendships. The kind we used to call "mateship", except that John Howard chewed on the word until it was a mangled pulp that nobody could stand: you know what I mean.

So, romance: the online dictionaries supply a meaning which is essentially identical to 'fantasy' as we now understand it, in terms of 'imaginative genre'. But that's not how it's used in "bromance'. Nope. It's used in the modern sense of 'romantic love', as characterised by a vast body of modern 'romance' fiction, with overtones of life-bonding as a couple, and strong implications of sexual desire.

Combining those two ideas, you get a couple of lowbrow fratboy types looking longingly into one another's eyes with some kind of half-suppressed homosexual agenda. This is precisely how it is used: to belittle and potentially embarrass men into dragging their behaviour towards a socially acceptable norm. It's similar to "get a room!" It's a derogatory label applied to a friendship which is annoying someone else by intruding onto their life.

I find it fascinating. The whole encounter was eye-opening. It makes me ask questions.

First... while I understand that my friend didn't mean the term offensively and didn't expect it to be offensive, I think that implies she didn't really consider the term very carefully. Certainly, I know she'd likely be offended if I used a term implying that strong female friendships must have a lesbian subtext. After all -- wasn't that half the controversy behind the movie Thelma and Louise?

Is the problem that there's no 'official name' for the kind of friendships that men form, which can last a lifetime, and see them trust one another with their lives? I suppose that could be an issue. I know a lot of men who have those sorts of friendships.  I don't suppose it's a purely masculine characteristic, mind you. There's no official name for the female version of such a relationship either. But that doesn't mean I could carelessly start labelling them 'girlymances'. I can imagine the response if I did.

Then there are the other elements of the encounter. The sheer surprise that I'd actually spoken up, and voiced my feelings; surprise that I might be offended by such a widespread term. Well - the term's widespread, yes. But then, so were blonde jokes. Common usage doesn't matter if it's derogatory and dismissive: the word gay taught us that, didn't it?  Personally, I can't imagine using the term "bromance" - not unless I was deliberately insulting and dismissing the kind of self-important, self-involved, hyper-entitled man-children I see emerging from the most egregious sections of the disaster areas that American society has produced. And even then, I'd probably not be comfortable using the term. Friendship is still a real and valuable thing, even where it occurs between dolts.

And further: yes, I did speak up. But I didn't expect it to bring the conversation to a crashing halt. If I'd been on the other side of that exchange; if it had been I who unwittingly said something which came across offensively (and I have, on many occasions) I'd be inclined to take a step back and offer an apology. And I do recall that an apology was offered. But way, way down on my list of responses would be "Oh, I don't find the term offensive"  - because I've had it drummed into me that it isn't my opinion which counts on that issue.

Let's be clear: I've had that lesson taught to me so thoroughly I doubt I could even form the words in that situation.

If I didn't think the term was offensive, I'd apologise anyway, and start listening. And I might ask, as diplomatically as I could, how the term generated offense. And if the explanation was pure politically-correct bullshit, I'd nod, and make a note never to use the term in that company again. And yes, that has happened.  But equally, sometimes I've had people take five minutes and open my head up for me, show me how the assumptions inherent in my use of the term needed to be reconsidered. I've valued every one of those experiences, and I respect everyone who has ever taken the time to help set me straight.

I have tremendous respect for the friend I mention in this matter. If she's thought about the encounter since then, I expect she's probably mulled a few of these ideas over for herself, because she's very sharp, and very thoughtful. However, it's also possible that she's dismissed it as an awkward moment between two people operating off different definitions. It's not really a very important thing, after all.

But then... where does it stop?

There's a double handful or so, maybe more, of people out there who know that they could call on me at the worst of times, and I would answer without question. The majority of them are male, but there are a healthy number of women on that list. I respect all of them. I'd argue that a genuine definition of 'love' would have to incorporate the kind of feelings I hold for them. But between the women in question and myself, it's not a 'romance', whatever else it may be. And these women would rightly be insulted if they thought my respect and love for them was in some way predicated on romantic expectations. They earned the right to be my true friends, often through very difficult times together.

And I am proud of these friendships, every one: with the men, with the women alike. These are the people in whose company I would stand at the end of times, against all things. I count myself among the most fortunate of people that I have their good will.

It's not 'bromance'. That's the short of it.

The rest of it is too long, and way too complex. It has to do with ideas of power and responsibility. It has to do with questioning the old rules -- and remembering to question the new ones as well. In the meantime, I have to go and cook dinner. Simple stuff tonight: a version of chicken parmigiana and a salad. And if I can find some clean latex gloves, I'm going to wash them out, then fill them up with custard and tie them off, so my kids can take gross, wibbly custard-glove hands to school tomorrow in their lunch...


  1. Have always hated the term 'bromance', for much the same reasons you've outlined here - though not anywhere near as eloquently as you have!

  2. You have in the short span of one blog post both introduced and demolished the term. Totally aside from the implications, it sounds pretty silly. Some things shouldn't have words attached. Especially not silly ones.