The way in which we understand gender actually changes the way we live gender. As we interpret ourselves differently, we also live ourselves differently. – Judith Butler
In my own relationships with other women, there are no labels or categories of friendships that exist parallel to the “bromance”. Why? I suppose it’s because there is no need for such a label. An important function of the bromance, as I’ll explain shortly, is to allow for different modes of expression, especially of the emotional kind.
However for women, we don’t need to create that label since we already have room for emotional self-expression. In fact, it’s expected of us. We should be able to indulge in moments of intense emotional bonding, because we’re women. That’s our thing, right? However, a lot of my friendships with other women actually aren’t like this for me. I often wonder, is that wrong?
This got me thinking about terms such as “bromance” and “no homo” and what their usage means for all of us, in all of our relationships. More importantly, I want to examine how this reflects the values and norms of contemporary Western society. This seemingly innocuous word actually tells us a lot about the tensions between heteronormativity1 and homosexuality, and of the expectations of men versus the expectations of women. At the core of this issue is a reflection of how we have been socialized.
“Bromance” is laden with subtext. Let’s break this word down into its parts: “brother” + “romance” = “bromance”. This equation represents a form of male bonding; it is a clever combination of words that defines a close, yet non-sexual, relationship. There are many paradoxes and ironies at play here, especially when we dig deep into the circumstances that give way to this phrase. But even on the surface, there are some immediate implications associated with its use.
I will concede that those who use this term may not have explicit homophobic2 intent. However, it’s not innocent. Understanding bromance as a close relationship between males serves two functions. First, though a relationship is defined, there is considerable wiggle room left in which to alter those boundaries because the meaning of a “close” relationship can change depending on multiple variables.
Second, it’s a friendship between males, which incidentally serves to exclude females. The exclusion functions to carve out space for a relationship between men that women already have. It parallels the relationships women have with each other, and the ways in which women express themselves within those relationships. This notion has many important implications, which I’ll come to shortly, but for now, a “bromance” is expressed as a sort of “boy’s club” where only men are allowed to enter.
This brings me to a number of crucial elements that are at play when men utilize the phrases “bromance” and “no-homo”.
Homosexuality and the Feminine
First, this phrase exhibits the severe tensions that Western3 society still harbors regarding homosexuality, or as a matter of fact, the entirety of the queer community. In our culture, emotion is juxtaposed against a masculine rationality; in the western tradition, “reason has been associated with members of dominant political, social and cultural groups and emotion with members of subordinate groups”.4 Emotion, then, tends to be coded as “feminine” and it’s not a new and surprising claim that society has a tendency to look down on “feminine characteristics“,the feminine is more prone to, and adept at, showing emotion. Furthermore, femininity and homosexuality are often (wrongfully) equated. Any relationship that falls outside the heteronormative “ideal” is associated with being feminine and with the effeminate; thereby they are both delegated to the status of inferior.
In this sense, displays of homosexuality are characterized as “wrong” or “out of place”, and the term “bromance” is subsequently used as a defence mechanism for men when exploring the depths of their relationships in a heteronormative society. At the same time, it unnecessarily sanitizes same-sex relationships so that they seem purely platonic, because platonic relationships with men are the only seemingly acceptable relationships to have.
Again, guys likely aren’t saying “no homo” because they’re necessarily homophobic. Maybe they really don’t care about dudes having sex with other dudes, but there are latent uncertainties that give way to feeling threatened by being associated with the feminine.
Despite all this, there are some positive, and unexpected, consequences of having “bromance” and “no homo” in our language toolbox: it has allowed men to push the boundaries of traditional expectations. “Bromance” creates a space of understanding not only for those participating in the relationship, but also for outsiders supposedly judging the friendship. It provides legitimacy to feelings of affection that go beyond what the structures of heteronormativity prescribe as being “correct” conduct in a platonic friendship.
Men are able to do things outside the restrictive boundaries of heteronormativity while simultaneously fitting into it. If nothing else, this demonstrates the privilege of being a straight male – the ability to define and redefine relationships with little consequence.
Ultimately this is harmful to society. As a friend of mine would say, “basically, you’re creating a man-box that’s not necessary”.
This brings me back to my first point about female relationships. Our society truly has a double standard in how we treat platonic friendships. The intimacy within female relationships is not called into question, and therefore we don’t feel the pressure to assert ourselves and our intentions to the world. Honestly, I could literally grab one of my girl friends, and make out with her and the authenticity of my “straightness” wouldn’t be doubted. I’m able to blur the lines of heteronormative behavior without consequence because I’m a woman.
Yet we need to create words for men to be able to safely navigate these waters. Bromance simultaneously allows for the exploration of boundaries in male platonic relationships while confirming the fact that they’re abiding by those very same traditional expectations. Using the label “bromance” may be liberating for the individuals in the relationship, but it’s extremely harmful for everyone else.
Our “Tolerant” Western Society
Bromances and “no-homo’s” demonstrate yet another paradox – that of our tolerant and accepting society. The argument here is that people who say “no homo” are so comfortable with members of the LGBTQ community that they can make affectionate jokes about them, and then we can all sit around holding hands and applaud at just how tolerant we are in the 21st century.
Except we’re not.
It’s okay to hold hands, but “no-homo, man”. It’s okay, as long as you’re not actually gay.
It’s important to recognize that homophobia is an institutionalized social system, and if we continue to claim that saying “no homo” isn’t a big deal, we let institutionalized homophobia go unexamined.
I don’t think I’m attributing more importance and maliciousness to these terms than they deserve. When I hear close friends or members of my family utter the phrase “no homo”, or talk about this great “bromance” two friends have, I cringe. I cringe because it’s obvious we’re so confused and restricted in the ways we can talk about and explain the varying depths of affection that are possible. This is problematic because what is actually implied by “bromance” is essentially close friendship, and this is nothing to hide!
This conflict men may find themselves in is usually mediated through comedy. If we look to representations of bromance in popular culture, such as films and TV shows, we can easily see that comedy is used as a linguistic tool in which to facilitate these relationships. Many of the more “feminine” actions such as displaying emotion or talking about feelings are sometimes mitigated when those participating in a “bromance” make jokes about those actions. Yes, comedy helps to erase certain tensions, but it lessens, and thereby belittles, homosexual relationships by relegating them to the sphere of what’s funny.
These terms are all about gender performance and gender construction. Bromance creates a space for a different mode of expression in what is an unfortunate condition of 21st century Western society. It is an assertion that the speaker doesn’t want to be perceived as gay, and “no homo” is usually uttered after something has been said or an action conducted that may have given off that impression.
It’s all a performance! It’s a performance for the world to see and judge. Those familiar with gender and critical theory5 know that we are constantly performing our gender identity. The individual, you or me, knows deep inside what or who we are and we shouldn’t have to hedge our actions with these phrases to guarantee society accept us.
But we do. Bromance ensures that others accept this relationship in a way that maintains their privilege in a heteronormative society.
This is a really interesting linguistic process, a process that is a manifestation of our expectations in society, which insidiously works to erase homosexual subtexts. Similarly, we can talk about phrases such as “man-crush”, “girl-crush”, “metrosexual”, or even the “bro code” that Barney Stinson champions in How I Met Your Mother.
In a way, I think this allows us to re-examine homosexuality, but I’m unsure if this represents a new shift in society. Yes, this allows men a space to express their emotions without being labeled homosexual, but there is still an underlying and ugly tension here, because being homosexual is still left in the domain of “wrong”. It’s a painfully self-conscious method of asserting identity, because apparently, it’s unfathomable for straight men to have caring, supporting, and affectionate relationships that are non-sexual.
The dark and twisted heart of this issue is the way we are socialized into accepting only certain types of relationships as performed by certain “types” of people.
Western society is ill equipped for self-expression in the context of the fluidity of relationships; we are confined by our current modes of expression.
How do we change this?
I’m not saying that the utterance of “no homo” is akin to gay bashing, but we must remember that our world is constructed by words. It doesn’t mean that whoever said “no homo” is forever going to be a homophobe, or that he even implied he’s homophobic in the moment he said it.
It means that his words carry the enormous weight of the beliefs that are entrenched in the discourses surrounding our socialization. Let us recall that language has meaning – words are the symbols of significance. In those shared spaces between people, words represent the prejudices and values that we, as a collective, use to shape our world.
Footnotes and References
1. Heteronormativity is a system that takes heterosexuality as a universal; as a given. Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the property or quality of being heteronormative; the privileging of biologically determined gender roles and heterosexuality”. ↩
2. “Homophobia is not only a hatred of homosexual subjects, but also a discplinary strategy employed against all social subjects to ensure that they comply with society’s preference for heterosexuality.” Quoted from Gender Studies: Terms and Debates (2003), pg 25. ↩
3. From my experience, these phrases are used mostly in English speaking countries, largely in North America. ↩
4. Jaggar, Alison M. 1992. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” in Alison Jaggar and Susan Bordo (eds) Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. Pg 157. ↩
5. American philosopher Judith Butler discusses the concept of the “performative” in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) to redefine gender as an action humans are compelled to perform by society rather than a state of being of bodily condition. ↩
Navneet Khinda is in her fourth year studying political science and economics at the University of Alberta. You can follow her musings @navneetkhinda.
Image courtesy of Hannes Cla on flickr.