Saturday, April 11, 2009

what’s the deal with bromances? (feature essay)

this essay is apparently somewhat long. feel free to skip around.

Jerry and George are more than just friends. There’s a nasty rumor going around town that they are beyond buddies, pals or even compadres; supposedly, they are in the midst of a bromance. Sure, there's an abundance of evidence that makes this allegation relatively easy to swallow. Then again, watermelon-flavored chewing gum is relatively easy to swallow, but that may or may not riddle your innards for seven long, grueling years. True, Jerry and George hugged and high-fived like there was no tomorrow. They shared a stash of secrets, frequently traveled together and had inside jokes built into the walls of their inside jokes. They were a lot of things to each other; classmates (John F. Kennedy High), teammates (softball), scheme-mates (the “switch”), inmates (the finale) and, above all, consummates of bachelorhood. But the truth of the matter is that if you look squarely at the facts and abide by the wonderful rules of semantics, there was nothing particularly bromantic about their relationship. And it’s important for you to spread this anti-rumor in order to cancel out the original rumor.

The phrase
‘bromance’ was coined in the early '90s by Dave Carnie, the editor of a skateboard magazined called "Big Brother." He was specifically referring to the kind of intimate yet relaxed relationships that develop between skaters who spend a great deal of time together (note: if I were still in Cubscouts, this is where I’d receive my Wikipedia badge; also, did you know that bromance is a portmanteau, which means that two or more words are blended together to form one, big, super word?). Though it may have been coined over a decade ago, it seems the phrase has only been fully minted in the past few years, personified by an absolute explosion of usage across the entertainment landscape that makes Vesuvius look like a hiccup.

I think
now is likely the best time to define what, exactly, is a bromance. Like all tangents of romance there are a thousand voices, a million echoes and not one concrete definition of what it does, could and should mean. Despite the multitude of entries in the urban dictionary, it seems pretty clear that in the condominium of love, bromance is the elephant in the room who says “yo” and high-fives the other elephant in the room with no sexual agenda, only an unspoken desire to engage in future high-five marathons. In short – and without elephant allegories – a bromance is the intimate friendship between two completely heterosexual males whose respect for each other fuels an affection which generally goes beyond the boundaries of normal camaraderie. In an unspoken fashion, it seems to mimic and even emulate the process of romantic relationship; complete with a courting period, a honeymoon phase, and a readjustment stage as things progress to the typical tide that is to be sustained. And as a corollary, though not an absolute necessity, the bromance honors honesty and emotional openness more than a run-of-the-mill friendship. Unlike the typical male-female romance, however, there is seemingly an arrangement to treat emotional breakthroughs and borderline epiphanies with the same casual attitude as sarcastic remarks and lunch orders. As such, the context of the relationship remains without hassle. At least, in theory.

It’s important
to note that a bromance is not a mancrush or a variation of such. They are different, quite different. Conceptually, they aren’t even cousins. A mancrush is centered around one man’s admiration and perhaps even desire to become the other. The mancrush exists outside the scope of reality, in a land of idealism and emotional vandalism. It can exist (and often does exist) from afar, with no relationship necessary between the two parties involved. You can mancrush anyone at will. You can mancrush your boss, your mechanic, your male nurse, or just the guy in the spiffy striped suit who whistles a catchy tune as you watch him through your binoculars. Basically, the mancrush is exactly what it sounds like: a man possessing a crush on another man for a reason of his choosing. Except, like the bromance, it is theoretically completely heterosexual.

I forget:
does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Forgive me, I tend to get confused. In an era of uncertainty, of over-choice, of the under-esteemed, the logical place to turn for progress in the big, small and even medium-sized screen (that is, a big flatscreen). Over the past decade, film and television have charted the evolution of the mano-y-mano relationship, so much so that the process of charting likely advanced the direction of the graph. In short, the revolution was and still is televised. Joey and Chandler succeeded where Bert and Ernie failed; they showed us roommates who liked each other, who really liked each other, but never gave off a whiff of homosexuality. Joey and Chandler made it fun to openly bromance, to change the range of a friendship to include awkward hugs and moments of immense grief broken up by laugh-track worthy one-liners. As the title of the show indicated, they were nothing more than friends. Things then evolved quickly, exponentially even, with examples everywhere. George Clooney and Brad Pitt made it openly cool to bromance. J.D. and Turk made it quirky. Seth and Ryan made it altruistic. Alan Shore and Denny Crane made it sophisticated. The 40-year-old virgin and his non-virgin friends made bromancing essential to self-esteem resurrections. Michael Cera and Jonah Hill made it possible for children of all ages to try it at home. Seth Rogen and James Franco made it acceptable for stoners to join in on the fun (a.k.a. bromancing the stone). As entertainment often does, it tickled an emotion within us, but in this case it went beyond, capitalizing on this unmentioned and untapped feeling and turning it into a norm.

As Wayne
once quoted while in his world: “Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said ‘If you label me, you negate me.’” I’m pretty sure it was the German with the unpronounceable name who put forth that idea. He was talking about capturing ideas in the imprecise cages that come with naming things. It’s natural and frequently extremely useful habit. But when you try put a bowtie on something that never stops changing, things get tricky. That’s what Wayne was trying to say. To try and define the volatility of human relations is a dangerous business that nudist beekeepers wouldn’t even touch. And who better to outdo a nudist beekeeper then, well, Brody Jenner? (Answer: anyone).

Brody Jenner,
the prodigal son of Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, took the challenge upon himself to call a spade a spade. On December 29, 2008, Mr. Jenner launched a show in which he searched to find a new best bud following a vicious fall-out with his previous best friend, Spencer Pratt. Nine men competed in challenges in an attempt to win a “bromance” with Brody Jenner on the cleverly titled “Bromance.” This should have outraged the bromance community and led to around the clock protests. Joey and Chandler must have been spinning in their metaphorical graves. And for good reason, this monstrosity of a tv show nearly caused extinction of the bromance. Did John and Jake Doe truly want to enter the type of relationship that brought to mind Brody Jenner’s saccharine smile? I’ve never met John or Jake, but I wouldn’t. Luckily, though, bromance didn’t go the way of the Baxter or the Coyote Ugly. It was revived, resuscitated and cemented into the cultural scoreboard with the recent release of “I Love you, Man,” a clever, somewhat realistic comedy that demonstrates the value of having an intimate heterosexual relationship. More importantly it spawned a new genre of buddy movie: the bromance and an explicit cultural acceptance of the concept without letting the outlines of labeling ruin the simplified complexity.

As with
any new, exciting term it can be fun to pull the label gun out of holster and retroactively re-dub personalities, situations and relationships. There is, however, a strong danger in doing so; it makes us trigger happy. Since the outburst of bromance has changed the face of the world (from Marlon Brando to Paul Rudd, that is), the phrase has been overly used and overtly used incorrectly. Like finding Waldo [note: okay, sure fine, I accept that Waldo has some kind of deluxe time-machine. That’s fine. But I don't accept that upon arriving in the Past, he makes no attempt to change his wardrobe to assimilate. Why, then, are his peers not gawking at him, wondering who is this freak in the striped shirt?] it has become a gladly accepted challenge to spot the bromances thoughout history. Some of the more popular false claims include Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction), Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (Chicago Bulls), and Bill Clinton and Al Gore (the re-inventor of "is" and the self-proclaimed inventor of the
internet). I can’t help but mightily disagree with all of those examples. There seems to be an overwhelming desire to label any strong relationship between two very intriguing male characters as a bromance. This is absurd. One cannot trek back throughout the torrid course of entertainment history (and real history) and declare a romance between any two intriguing male and female characters. I mean come on, let’s be civilized about all of this.

back to Seinfeld. Did Jerry and George truly bromance? Can they be considered forefathers of a cultural movement that has changed the way that men interact with each other? Should they be properly memorialized in the bromance hall of fame? On paper, Jerry and George seem to make wonderful bromantic candidates. They rant, they ruminate, they recluse themselves from the world in favor of each other’s company. Their relationship is intense, intimate, and intrinsically honest. In fact, they know each other so well they’d likely toast competitors on the Newlywed game. Despite this supreme heterosexual closeness, though, Jerry and George cannot be classified as Bromeo and Juliet for a very simple reason: Jerry does not feel the same way about George as George feels about Jerry. At the end of the day the most critical tenet of the bromance is reciprocity. Both "partners" must have similar goals and intentions or you're doomed from the getgo.

among those goals and intentions, whether they be creative, athletic, emotional or timekilling, they certainly cannot veer away from heterosexual. Consequently, as straight as George may be, there is still a subtle hint that he seeks something more than friendly from Jerry. There is a sense of unrequited something; shreds of this je-ne-sais-quoi can be seen in the subtle pleasure he derives from mistakenly being “outed” with Jerry or the strange way that George opts to spend his “summer of George” as a pseudo-member of a bizarre three-person relationship that Jerry enjoys with Amanda Peet. The producers of the show further explicitly explored this area of intrigue before signing off (or for you diehards out there, before "sein-ing" off). In the final season, George dates a girl who looks almost identical to Jerry. Kramer refers to her as a femme-Jerry. Even George can't deny it, realizing that perhaps he might finally be content if he could have "what he has with Jerry, but also be able to have sex with her.” It's a tangled web, George weaves, but a web in which he secretly hopes to find Jerry caught one day and have him too realize that they ought to swear off women and live happily ever after in unabashed togetherness.

It's a tangled web indeed.
But it's not a bromance, nor a romance, nor even a mancrush. What Jerry and George are guilty of is a trophy friendship. Their entire relationship is based on Jerry being the hero, the winner, the alpha, the trophy. This therefore makes George the opposite of all those qualities; the foil, the loser, the beta, the sycophant. But don't send out the invitations to the pity party just yet, because actually George likes it this way. And so does Jerry. Their relationship may not be reciprocal but the disparity of their coolness feeds their self esteem. Whereas Jerry is the one who must decide between girlfriend and roommate, George plays the vital role of coming up with the scheme to help his buddy pull off the switch. In short, George loves that he gets to hang out with a guy as cool as Jerry and Jerry loves that he gets to hang out with a guy who thinks that he’s so cool.

The trophy relationship
is severely common and predates the bromance by quite some time. Countless examples are etched into our memories, highlighted by Fonzie/Richie, Yogi/Booboo, Bueller/Cameron, Batman/Robin, Norton/Durden, and even Vince/Eric (though this one is actually the reverse of what it should superficially be). These relationships are unbalanced, yet entirely symbiotic, particularly because of the misbalance. There is, however, something entirely flammable about these tight-knit arrangements. If, for some reason, the foil supplants the hero as the alpha, your in for a twelve course meal derived from a recipe known as disaster.

George can never succeed where Jerry has failed. George can never get the girl or steal the spotlight. He knows this and accepts this. This is what defines their relationship, their trophy friendship. That's why any time George seems to surge ahead of Jerry, if only for a moment, he immediately self-destructs. When he usurped Jerry at Career Day with increased intelligence due to abstinence, he quickly slept with his maid and reverted to his old self. When doing everything "the opposite" landed him a wonderful job with the New York Yankees, his first decision as assistant to the traveling secretary was to disastrously change the team uniforms to a very shirkable cotton. These decisions may have seemed odd at the time, perhaps even like plot twists out of left field. But I assure you they were not. They were the only thing that George could have done. After all, that's the type of friend he is. He's the lovable loser and he requires that love to survive. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


1 comment:

  1. Wow...I'll never think of a bromance in the same way again. Also where can I get my Wikibadge (see what I did there?)