Opinion: Toward a Politics of “The Bro”

Author’s note: The following is a response to the October 22nd article “Looking Past the BC Bro Illusion” by John Wiley for The Heights. In the article, Wiley raises important issues that are not discussed often enough in the Boston College community; namely, the various manifestations of inequality, socioeconomic and otherwise, that infect our culture and socially stratify our campus. If pieces like Wiley’s were found more frequently in the pages of BC publications, our school would be better off for it. Wiley’s piece is essential reading for anybody who loves Boston College, and wants to strengthen it.

Let’s unpack the “BC Bro.” In John Wiley’s column “Looking Past the BC Bro Illusion,” his argument misrepresents the way in which structures of inequality are inscribed into our everyday lives, and ultimately prescribes a solution that reproduces the very problem he seeks to address. In this short article, I will begin by critically engaging his account of “the BC Bro,” before sketching the beginnings of my own account, finally demonstrating the connection between “the Bro” as I understand it and the broader social problems that Wiley rightly seeks to address. My account should not be understood as exhaustive, but rather suggestive and critical, seeking to problematize Wiley’s imagination of “the BC Bro” and thereby clarify the terms of discussion. The issues that Wiley raises merit sustained attention and prolonged critical conversation; it goes without saying that this article is merely an attempt to begin, not conclude, that project.

Wiley’s thesis, that “we must abandon the ‘BC bro’ myth and stop projecting stereotypes that steal away from the real conversation on inequality at BC,” makes at least three crucial errors. First, by labeling the “BC bro” a myth, he implicitly casts it as unimportant precisely because it is not real. By contrasting this myth with “the real conversation on inequality,” he portrays the “BC bro” as a distraction, a hindrance to more effective means of combating social ills. Second, by characterizing the “BC bro” as stereotyping, Wiley implies that the image is problematic primarily due to its inaccuracy.

In other words, we should stop talking about “BC bros” because such labels imply a uniformity that is belied by the diversity of our student population. Finally, in referring primarily to “BC bros,” Wiley restricts the geographical scope of the problem to BC’s campus, thereby obscuring the relationship between the “BC bro” and what we might call “the Bro” (capital B) more generally.

All of these misdiagnoses stem from a widespread fundamental misunderstanding of the Bro. I want to suggest that the Bro is more than just a label for college-aged men who make particular sartorial choices. Rather, the Bro designates an aspirational performance of hegemonic collegiate masculinity, one that is distinctively capitalist, heterosexual, and domineering. This is a performance that navigates the world by subjugating it, gaining its self-understanding through the progressive domestication (which is to say, the bringing-under-control) of all that is not itself.

The domestication performed by the Bro enacts interrelated ideals of economic, political, and sexual control. As John Saward puts it in his masterful portrait of the Bro, “He [the Bro] is all about CONSUMPTION. Every decision is dictated by the pursuit of this. He consumes women, exploits weakness…he conquers things, he rolls deep.”

These final two descriptions capture the paradox at the heart of Bro identity: the Bro is simultaneously capable of individually domesticating his surroundings and dependent upon companionship, specifically male companionship. These two aspects of the Bro reproduce each other, as “homosocial relationships” between those who present and understand themselves as Bros “reinforce [those] beliefs,” and thereby preserve the Bro as an aspiration for masculinity. That the idea of the Bro is properly characterized as a system of beliefs is demonstrated both by the name of a popular bro site and by the quasi-religious fervor with which performances of masculinity are policed in these spaces.

Photo Courtesy of Tumblr

Photo Courtesy of Tumblr

What does this have to do with the “crippling culture of exclusion” that Wiley rightly criticizes? Because the Bro practices domination as a means of self-expression, the Bro is not a distraction from structures of inequality, but both their product and producer. In other words, the Bro only comes into being through the logic of social exclusion, while also functioning to reproduce the very logic by which it is produced in the first place.

The image of the Bro, which, as Wiley notes, is an image of a wealthy white male, is thus the embodied representation of a white supremacist, masculinist, heterosexist, and consumerist political society. The Bro shapes our normative conceptions of gender and sexuality, at the same time that it is created by our social imaginary. Insofar as the Bro names a hegemonic performance of masculinity, negotiating that performance is obligatory. In other words, one does not have to be a Bro, but alternative masculinities can only be understood in reference to that mainstream, and establishing a relationship to the Bro will be an important aspect of their self-understanding.

This brings us to an important point: While Wiley correctly classifies the Bro as a “myth,” he wrongly takes this as a justification for dismissing the Bro’s potency as a site of identity politics. It goes without saying that the Bro is not “real” in some pre-social sense (nor, for that matter, are gender, race, sexuality, class, etc.), but to the extent that the Bro does important work to shape our socio-political imaginations (qua gendered, racialized, sexualized, classed, etc.), we cannot simply dismiss it.

The uncoupling of the Bro’s outward presentation from the social conditions of its emergence functions only to reinforce the invisibility of those conditions, and thereby reproduce the Bro (understood as a logic of social exclusion). In other words, it is wrong to presume that the Bro is merely a characterization of particular individual behaviors, as opposed to a category of social and political importance.

This is why Wiley’s solution (“looking beyond the BC bro illusion”) is ultimately inadequate: he accepts the false notion that “the Bro” arises primarily from an assessment of individual people, and thereby tacitly cosigns (or at least ignores) the social logics that condition the possibility of the Bro’s emergence. The notion that the Bro is unrelated to processes of social exclusion, which is central to Wiley’s argument, functions merely to exonerate the Bro from responsibility for the work that it does to shape and reproduce those processes.

Photo Courtesy of Megan Flynn

Photo Courtesy of Megan Flynn

At this point, it should be obvious that I am not referring to any individual people when I say “the Bro,” but rather to a socio-historical phenomenon that denotes a particular way of understanding and assessing the human. Contra Wiley, then, we should not dismiss the Bro as an “illusion,” but rather deconstruct it to reveal the socio-political meanings it conceals and creates. The task is not to “look beyond” it, but to look into it. Such a project is clearly beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to note an important methodological point. As I noted above, we cannot simply talk about “the BC bro,” but must deal with the Bro more generally. Though the socio-political processes that create the Bro are reproduced, perhaps in a somewhat particular way, at BC, the Bro does not originate on our campus.

As BC, along with elite universities across the country, thinks about how to improve collegiate culture, perhaps the place to start is together with our peers. There is only so much that can be done at BC, or Harvard, or Stanford, but perhaps a coalition of prominent universities, coming together to critically interrogate the social imagination that produces the Bro and its attendant problems, can begin to chip away at this image’s hegemonic grasp on our society. Of course, there are many, many, many problems that could not be solved through such a partnership (one of which is enacted in this very exchange: a discussion of social exclusion between two white men), but such a shift in how we understand ourselves and our partnership with peers could bear critical fruit.

BC is uniquely positioned to initiate a critical discussion of the Bro, for the simple reason that our professed institutional mission flows from the following of the first-century Palestinian Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth defied the logics of exclusion that organized the Roman-occupied Palestinian society of his day, refusing to be over-determined by socially prescribed performances of masculinity, racial identity, and Judaism. If the Bro embodies a hegemonic social logics of domination, Jesus’s crucified, Nazarene, Jewish body signifies a subversion of that logic. Inasmuch as Boston College understands its mission in terms of following Jesus, his bloodied flesh is a site of discernment for working out what that following entails.

My argument in this piece has been that the Bro names a hegemonic logic of social belonging and exclusion. John Wiley’s piece, while not unproblematic, initiates a conversation that needs to be had, and thereby contributes to that process of collective discernment.