Sports. Beer pong. Winning. Traditionally masculine traits (Assertiveness, excessive confidence, sexism, hyper-heterosexuality, braggadocio, aggression [see also fighting and bullying], self-evidence/lack of self-reflection because life is a walnut that has just been cracked between stainless steel butt cheeks, and, while we’re at it, fetishization of other dudes’ bodies and accomplishments veiled as competitiveness but often taking the form of worship due to the fact that the bros are not really in competition with these godly dudes they so admire.) Polos. “Normal stuff” (TV, cars, Dane Cook).
I would like to suggest that there are bros in the world who are dismissed because of how they present themselves. The bros I have in mind are the ones who at once fit in but are also, dare I say, tragically undersold by the moniker. They are tender and caring or quietly reflective and doubtful while still working out too much and wearing wraparound shades and watching dubstep-soundtracked snowboarding videos. I have in mind also the bro who fails miserably at being a bro, who is constantly demoralized by the process of trying to pass as a bro yet never wavers from this pursuit.
The bros are the ones for whom success is the easiest, on account of the fact that their wishes, likes, and dislikes have been endlessly catered to and prioritized by our culture. They have the ease of feeling that they fit in with what the mainstream media espouses as normal male expressions of gender. The modern bro should be very comfortable, but this does not always seem to be the case.
Being emotional and reflective and also identifying as a male is no longer wildly abnormal. Those who once felt there was no alternative to bro-ing down are no longer forced into the tanned, bulgy arms of bro-dom. But, even as everyone’s conception of how many kindred weirdos exist in the world expands — what with the internet and all — the bro remains in the horribly rigid and emotionally stunted corner he has painted himself into.
Intimacy: everyone, even the bro, wants it on some level, but he has not been given the tools to access it, nor is he expected to possess them. A bro may go through life with no genuinely intimate relationships — an existence furnished only by superficial connections in which not much is asked of either participant. This can seem to work when things are going well as per the success the bro is taught he must make a part of his identity, but when the bro falters he may find reaching out to his brosephs inconceivable or simply useless. Without relationships that can accommodate these feelings and without any proclivity towards self-reflection, failure and weakness are transformed into a nameless malignancy infecting the bro’s sense of self.
Derek is quickly approaching thirty and has almost completed the new Japanese style tattoo sleeve that will cover up his old tribal tat. He is short, has a crooked nose, and an honest smile. He was once a hugely popular high school wrestling star, he had a souped up Honda with teeth rattling subwoofers. His hair isn’t thinning yet but his widow’s peak is looking lonely and I sometimes have to squint from the glare on his exposed forehead. He keeps his hair short and when it gets wet or matted down the top of his head emerges in the profile of a swaybacked horse, like some small but dense jockey has been riding atop his skull for years. He is not unhandsome though and has maintained his muscled wrestler’s body.
He never went to college and it has kept him preserved, like a time capsule of a high school senior from the year 2000 — he used to play guitar in a nu-metal band. He has worked in the trades since high school, working in a factory for a year or two and now as a self-employed electrician. He had a bubbly, smiling girlfriend in high school named Angela — their relationship based on getting blackout drunk together at parties and helping each other pick up the pieces in the morning. He cared for her deeply despite the outward appearances of the relationship. They moved away from their hometown together along with Derek’s best friend, Brian, who also happened to be Angela’s older brother.
In old pictures Derek looks so at ease, so confident that things are working out and that they will continue to do so. The veins in his arm muscles still pop and when his hair is arranged properly he looks just as good as he did then despite his now leftwardly skewed nose. But when they arrived at the city they had all moved to, Angela and Derek no longer had the high school parties to buoy their time together and she broke up with him after a short time. She then enrolled in a local college. Derek and Brian knew almost nobody apart from Angela and each other. They would accompany her to parties with her new friends and felt more insecure about their lack of education. Seven years out, Angela remains Derek’s most significant relationship.
As I got to know Derek it became clear that he had been quite lonely since things ended with Angela. He wouldn’t put it this way, but I got the sense that he missed caring deeply for and about someone else — that he on some level felt that his capacities for tenderness and affection were among his best qualities, and that not having the opportunity to exercise them cut him off from a part of his identity and a source of self-esteem. His other friends and I would encourage him, but experiences of rejection and spending too much time trying to make things work with women he didn’t have strong feelings for had made him reluctant to pursue anything. He had a kind of weariness about him, not total defeat, but palpable resignation.
One night on the train home after he had struck out with a lady, he admitted that meeting women felt hard for him and when he did he wasn’t even sure what to do or how to get them to like him. He seemed just barely able to recognize these feelings in himself, straining to relay them as though trying to remember through layers of cheesecloth. What he really seemed to want was a relationship, which, to prove my own point, was not really what I expected when I first met him.
Derek is navigating a transition. He is attempting to catch up with the times, to manage the unfavorable associations that now more explicitly go along with the look that he had traded on for the entirety of his quasi adult life — more than that his life experience has pushed him to the limits of the identity he instinctively assumes. There is a tension in him that arises from trying to accommodate his feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, and a desire to be loved. His tribal tattoo is now almost totally covered, his pants have slimmed, and his shoes are not enormous pillows made for skateboarding. He still wears the occasional backwards hat and has yet to shake the wraparound shades, but overall he has managed to effectively update his appearance. Having observed this change though I can see some of the cracks, his uncertainty about whether or not he is doing it right, of whether he is worth knowing or being cared about.
Derek was not simply incapable of expressing his emotions or being vulnerable, it felt more like there wasn’t anyone in his life who would accommodate these sides of him or give him enough credit to try to engage with him in this way. It is not just that these bros are at times unable to express their pain or to be vulnerable that saddens me, but that our expectations of them as bros can prevent us from giving them the opportunity to do so. Derek is complicit in that he is the one who has adopted this manner of being which attempts to project invulnerability and an “I got this” mentality, yet I am uncertain he really had any sense that there were other options.
He is perhaps a familiar figure: the jock who peaked in high school and fails to create a new identity for himself, forever living in his own shadow. In our popular culture we are told we don’t have to feel sorry for that guy because “he was a dick anyway” — and maybe he was — but does that make his existence less sad? I am also pointing to what I think amounts to a more general cultural assumption that men tend to be emotionally ignorant or that they are incapable of understanding certain things — see: emotions; feelings — because of their gender. This winds up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and then we get guys who are even worse off than Derek and are never capable of opening themselves no matter the prompting they receive. These traditional prejudices are not unfounded and are reinforced by people of every gender both by way of self-defense (e.g. I don’t want to have to confront or assimilate that so I will say I am too much of a man to understand it.) and laziness (e.g. I don’t want to try to actually understand this other person, I will stereotype them based on their appearance.). This isn’t to say that the next time you see a guy wearing an Affliction shirt and talking loudly about wakeboarding that he will turn out to be a great or interesting individual, but it might at least be more interesting to remember he too feels some of the ways you do.