Are you a young or youngish man who prefers the company of other men? Platonically, platonically. (For the most part.) Are you currently wearing — or have you ever worn — baggy shorts? A baseball cap? A polo shirt? White sneakers? Sunglasses on your head? All at the same time? Are you white? And these other men whose company you enjoy, do you guys drink and watch sports together? Are they white, too? Have you been to see Mumford and Sons with them? What about Diplo? Or A$AP Rocky? If the New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announced that he was having a three-day party on a cruise ship, would you go?
Answering yes to even some of this — Are you a youngish man? — might make you a bro. And I’m sad for you. You didn’t ask for this. Or maybe you did. Maybe you use the word ‘‘bro’’ as a form of address. As in: ‘‘Hey, bro.’’ Or: ‘‘I can’t tonight, bro.’’ Or: ‘‘Derivatives are off the chain right now, bro.’’ So you at least know of the concept of ‘‘the bro’’ and that a culture — of excessive devotion, of ‘‘bros before hos,’’ of springbreak4ever — exists around your lifestyle.
But we’re not talking about you, bro. Not right now. Now we’re talking about the sort of bro who instigates the hijacking of Hillary Clinton’s official Facebook page; who harasses women who endorse Clinton; who tells black Americans whom he thinks it’s in their best interest to support. Yeah, we’re talking about the Berniebro. I know: him, that Bernie Sanders supporter so badly feeling the Bern that he communicates in condescension and flames.
Indeed, ‘‘Berniebro,’’ a term fancifully coined by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic, became a catchall for a certain kind of dog-whistling, sexist proselytizing on Sanders’s behalf, sometimes from his own staff. Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager, could have been auditioning for ‘‘Veep’’ when, last October, he said jokingly of Clinton to John Heilemann of Bloomberg Politics that ‘‘we’re willing to consider her for vice president. We’ll give her serious consideration. We’ll even interview her.’’ Weaver’s willingness ‘‘to consider her’’ was of a piece with a commentariat that is comfortable accusing Clinton and her supporters of a vulgar identity politics — or misogyny, even — for discussing Clinton’s sex in the context of the presidency.
The deployment of ‘‘bro’’ as a means of disparagement is part of a generalized expression of fatigue with the wielding of white-male power, a feeling that has emboldened Clinton supporters. We’re no longer talking about the classic bro. We’re talking about trolls and, in lieu of a less printable word, jerks.
Classic bro adventure still exists. Rob Gronkowski, for instance, really did have that party. Last month, he summoned 700 people, at their own expense, for a weekend cruise — Gronk’s Party Ship — from Miami to the Bahamas. The entertainment included Redfoo of LMFAO and Flo Rida, which, to bros, is like having Chewbacca and R2-D2 show up at your ‘‘Star Wars’’-themed bar mitzvah. The Party Ship’s website encouraged attendees to bring ‘‘your babes and your bros.’’ And during the weekend, as Flo Rida and his band played ‘‘G.D.F.R.,’’ Gronkowski, wearing sunglasses and a pair of shorts in two tones of an aquatic blue-green, humped the stage, turned his back to the crowd, bent his legs and wagged his butt as though it were attached to a jackhammer. (He twerked, basically.)
This was the bro, optimally: feeling good in front of an audience, without rhythm, shame or a shirt. This was the bro, suboptimally, too: Gronk’s presumption that his fun is fun for everybody else. The Party Ship featured a version of the bro that America got to know on MTV’s friends-at-the-beach reality sitcom, ‘‘Jersey Shore,’’ which, to the consternation of Italian-Americans, Garden Staters and many sentient humans, ran from 2009 to 2012. The men on that show made such prolific use of the word that it occasionally abutted the palindromic, as in, ‘‘Bro, I’m telling you, bro.’’
Courtesy of ‘‘Jersey Shore,’’ the bro became evidence of ridiculous male friendship, like the bond among veterans, but with self-tanner instead of casualties of war. The prominence of ‘‘bro’’ also coincided with the arrival of the joshing fraternal comedies of Judd Apatow and the cresting popularity of Barney Stinson, the sleazy, slutty suit Neil Patrick Harris played for nine seasons on ‘‘How I Met Your Mother,’’ who adhered to the articles of a handbook called the Bro Code.
But now ‘‘bro’’ has been ripped from its life as a teasing term of endearment and description of camaraderie and plunked into the sociopolitical swamps of entitlement and privilege. It starts to get at the fractious identity rifts at the heart of this campaign season. On one hand, women and people of color don’t want to be patronized by know-it-all white guys or bullied into supporting one presidential candidate and harassed away from supporting another. On the other: #NotAllMen.
What are white guys who just want to chill with one another supposed to do? Keep their mouths shut and legs closed, for starters. Jesting aside, though, that’s the frustration fueling the current presidential election. White men are being called out for the transgressions of the last year and also, less obviously, for the lingering affronts of centuries past. (You know what they say: A fight about the dishes in the sink is about everything but the dishes.) Bruised male ids are running against rule-bound superegos. The irony is rich. It’s also real: Bros be feelin’ oppressed, yo!
It’s also odd that ‘‘bro’’ has become a culturally white designation. The word has roots both in the church and as a way that black people address black men — as ‘‘brother.’’ Black use of that word is publicly fraternal and privately political. It’s how black men salute each other — still — in white spaces, as a way of saying to each other, ‘‘I see you.’’ What’s vaguely obnoxious about ‘‘bro’’ is that it doesn’t really see anybody.
The willful blindness sometimes feels like a stab at utopia. White men calling black men ‘‘bro’’ aspire to or assume a kinship with black Americans. There are other words — O.K., the N-word — that the bro knows he can’t say. ‘‘Brother’’ seemed O.K. Eventually, so did ‘‘bro.’’ But I’ve heard more than one black man say, ‘‘Dude, I’m not your bro.’’ I’ve been that man. There are regional variations on the word ‘‘bro’’ that seem designed to lock out certain white people: In the South, for instance, there’s ‘‘bruh’’ and, in Hawaii and the American West, ‘‘brah.’’ But a bro can always get a key made.
‘‘Bro’’ draws a line between cultural blackness and cultural whiteness while also drawing a circle around white male groups. Its swell gets at a kind of vague discomfort we have with male camaraderie, even though certain comrade cohorts — like the dudes in ‘‘Entourage’’ or at Donald Trump events — invite derision. The bro, in all his permutations, can work the nerves. But the trawl used to fish him out seems indiscriminate, netting all senses of fraternity.
Where does the expanded taxonomy leave earnest, sensitive male bonds? American neologists coined a cheeky answer: bromance. Meanwhile, dudes who prefer doing everything with and just like other dudes (minus sex) are bromosexuals. And dudes who prefer the company of (and actual sex with) ‘‘masculine’’ guys are gaybros.
‘‘Bro’’-liferation presents an unhappy paradox. We’re out of ideas for how to think about male behavior. And yet, lately certain male behavior has been so reliably hegemonic, so boorish, so violently intolerant that it needs to be classified, rounded up and put on notice. ‘‘Bro’’ puts a dunce cap on patriarchy.