Culture Warrior: Bromance and its Predecessors


With this weekend’s release of I Love You, Man, the recent trend of comedies centered on platonic male relationships—the ‘bromance’—is articulated to its furthest extent thus far, taking the traditional genre formula of the romantic comedy and replacing the traditional male-female love story with two heterosexual males. While this trend of celebrating intimate male friendships is pervasive and seemingly wholly new in mainstream American comedies, the determining predecessors for this trend, and its balance of male and female characters, contains roots in canonical films of 1960s and 70s New Hollywood.

But first, a look at the current trend. Though Judd Apatow has no direct association with I Love You, Man, the presence of Apatow regulars Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in this film echo the centricity of male-male relationships that have come to be associated with the Apatow trademark. Many of Apatow’s films (as producer, writer, and/or director) have centered on close male friendships and often feature a moment in which one of the males must make a choice between continuing to cohort with his same-sex buddies or making compromises in order to adequately allow a female presence in his life. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s character learns that he can only become an adequate figure in the life of his child’s mother if he turns his back on a life of stunted adolescence within his male community. In Superbad (which, according to Rogen, had no ‘bromantic’ element until Apatow got his hands on it), the central tension of the film is the breakup and reconciliation of two lifelong friends, only to have that reconciliation threatened once again in the last scene as they each choose to go their separate ways through the mall with their respective female counterparts. The Apatow-produced Anchorman takes place in a misogynist, male-dominated (redundant, much?) 1970s southern California whose delicate balance is threatened by the presence of a take-charge career woman. And Apatow’s directorial debut, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, focalizes male social bonding as the enabling force for a loner to even establish a relationship with a woman.

I Love You, Man, while a perfectly enjoyable piece of entertainment, attempts this balance rather awkwardly. Rashida Jones and Jamie Pressly’s characters are certainly essential ingredients to the film’s fantastic supporting cast, but the film apparently doesn’t know how to achieve the necessary fallout-to-reunion tenet of the romantic comedy formula adequately with both the Rudd-Segel and Rudd-Jones relationships. And by the time we reach the film’s last scene where Segel gets more on-screen attention at Rudd’s wedding than does the bride herself, it seems the film has forced onto us an idea of an achievable balance between a male’s relationship with fellow males and his female companion that simply isn’t convincing, as it only works if the female agrees to be silent when necessary, even at her own wedding.

But perhaps one of the most extreme and interesting manifestations of the bromance was last summer’s Pineapple Express, where the film’s central male-female relationship (between Rogen’s character and his high school girlfriend) is deliberately dropped as the male character, in the face of proposed commitment, chooses instead to exclude himself to his friendship with fellow males, perfectly summarized in the film’s brilliant final scene at the diner.

Pineapple Express’s version of the bromance fits perfectly in line with the trend of male-male relationships repeated in many films from the late 1960s through the early 70s. While often regarded as one of the greatest periods of American filmmaking, the most celebrated films of New Hollywood were notably dominated by largely male-centric narratives. While many such films are/were argued as progressive for their era, they took a more paranoid, antagonistic approach to female characters than do the current trend of bromantic comedies. Easy Rider showed preference of the freedom allotted by the companionship of the male while keeping females (like Karen Black as a prostitute) carefully in the margins. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest featured a company of men battling against the indisputable evil of the oppressive female nurse. The first two Godfather films seemed to argue that the essential mechanizations of the entire working world were run exclusively by men, and women were either victims of this process (Michael’s Sicilian wife in Part I) or they eventually abandoned their male counterparts (Michael’s second wife Kaye, and his sister in Part II). The woman became a misguided source of fear and salvation in Taxi Driver, and females just seemed totally irrelevant in films like All the President’s Men or The French Connection. Sure, there was the occasional female movie star during this period that could carry her own film—like Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, or Julie Christie—but they were severely outnumbered by the endless list of male movie stars who dominated the screens during this time.

One prominent theory for making sense of this trend is the contention by film scholars like Molly Haskell that the films of this era represented a “crisis in masculinity,” in which the old idea that masculinity in its own regard enabled the ability of the individual male to overcome the injustices of the world was no longer relevant to late 1960s and early 70s American culture, notably fueled by the American male soldier’s futile efforts in Vietnam. This lost, confused version of the male consequently complicated his traditional relationship with the female. I cannot think of a better articulation of this crisis than 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, where the bond between two men is literally the only thing they have to keep each other alive in a nightmarish New York City. Joe Buck’s silly appropriation of the cowboy persona does not only show how out-of-date the cowboy itself was at this time, but also the masculine identity associated with it, like the classical ideals of masculinity championed in John Wayne westerns. In Midnight Cowboy‘s sad and desperate vision of the male, women are viewed as undependable, fleeting, and even conniving, and all the while never satisfying the male with any sense of adequacy. Buck’s inconsistent and almost indecipherable flashbacks display how much the male at this time misunderstands the female. All that’s left here is the dependency on male companionship.

The bromance, of course, takes a far more optimistic approach at such companionship, and often contains more availability for the female to not only have a functional role, but an essential and defining one. What these new films represent is a sympathetic view of the difficulty the male has in making sacrifices and compromises in his life in order to make necessary room for both male and female companions in a fulfilling way for all parties involved. But perhaps more importantly, these films argue in favor of openly compassionate male bonding, which seems relevant in a culture where the image of the alpha male is increasingly rejected in favor of the new ideal sensitive and compassionate heterosexual male (e.g., Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man), which no longer seems like a compromise in masculinity in a culture where “metrosexuality” is part of the everyday language. Platonic male compassion is regarded as not only favored, but essential to growing meaningful same-sex friendships.

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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