According to GayStarNews.com, the term “bromance” was coined in the 90s by skaters to describe close-knit relationships between male friends. The reality is that “bromance” stems primarily from two places: homophobia and the growing awareness of homosexuality in mainstream culture. While Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock have one of the most iconic bromances in modern entertainment, the alternative subculture that believes the two share a deeper homoerotic bond was never close enough to the mainstream to threaten the platonic perception of the same-sex relationship in Star Trek’s original run in the sixties. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the idea of “bromance” as a pop cultural phenomenon emerged in the nineties, just as society began to open up to the idea of gay marriage and homosexuality portrayed on screen.
People use “bromance” to completely close off the possibility of romantic or sexual same-sex interaction between two close male friends. It’s defensive and painfully self-conscious, trying to pre-empt the accusation of homosexuality before it can be lobbed. It is akin to “no homo” but made more palatable for self-identifying enlightened liberal audiences. It is akin to the phrases “man crush” and “girl crush,” used to refer to feelings of affection beyond the heterosexual norm towards a person of the same sex – feelings that are rendered harmless through the same linguistic process that makes the term “bromance” such a powerful tool for erasing homoerotic subtext. Close same-sex friendships have been around in fiction and the media since the dawn of civilization (check out Gilgamesh and his gallivanting male companion, Enkidu), but it is a special brand of insidious homophobia that takes these same-sex relationships and sanitizes them for the heteronormative audience.
The bromance comedy genre, which includes popular films like Superbad, The Hangover, and I Love You, Man, show the bromance has become laughable, juvenile, and ridiculous. But more than ever, the borderline between the underlying gay tension and the purely platonic label of bromantic friendship has become tenuous – the more hyperaware society becomes of the homoeroticism that is masked by the “bromance” label in popular entertainment, the more it threatens to burst free into unknown and unexplored territory. The fear, the unease, and the residual disgust with homosexuality that lingers in our cultural psyche makes the bromance a desperate refuge, with the walls between gay and straight desperately thrown up. We can see this defensive rejection of actual homoeroticism woven throughout these comedic, testosterone-fueled flicks, such as in I Love You, Man, where Paul Rudd’s character goes on a series of “dates” with men to find a best man for his wedding. When one of his dates misinterprets his intentions and actually kisses him at the end of the evening, the scene is played for laughs, and Rudd is shown with jaw agape, shocked that his same-sex outings might be seen as homoerotic. The underlying subtextual tension in the movie is that within these platonic man-dates runs the sub-current of legitimate homosexual dating practice.
In today’s celebrity entertainment, the bromance du jour is the “Larry Stylinson” phenomenon of the world’s biggest boy band, One Direction. The name is a portmanteau of two of the members’ names, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles, who have borne the majority of gay rumours surrounding the band. The rumours were so prevalent that Louis has gone to the media several times insisting that the insinuations are ruining his and Harry’s friendship, and Louis’ relationship with his girlfriend. It’s interesting to note that when browsing comments on articles regarding Tomlinson and Styles, the most common defense against accusations of romantic intimacy is “it’s just a bromance!” Early in their careers, before they became an international sensation, gossip rags gushed over the idea of Tomlinson and Styles as a couple, since they lived together and exchanged loving tweets with romantic endearments. Then on the cusp their American breakthrough, they were pushed under the cover of “bromance” as if to neutralize all of the homoerotic chemistry that fans had sensed between them and render it palatable for the American audience.
In the world of fictional entertainment, corporate executives have embraced the use of homoerotic subtextual tension to court fan interest in their products. The industry has become savvy at exploiting the audience’s enthusiasm for same-sex relationships on screen, whether they’re platonic friendships or ambiguously homoerotic and rife with tension. The bromance label provides refuge for these writers, allowing these series to embrace male bonding and intimacy without actually portraying homosexual relationships. It allows writers to exploit a significant demographic, mostly made up of straight and queer women, who enjoy mainstream series and movies predominantly for the same-sex relationship at its core. We can see it in the recent Sherlock Holmes reboot, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law wrestling half-naked on a train while Downey is dressed in drag.
We saw it in the popular series House, where the friendship between Dr. House and Dr. Wilson was a drawing point for many people in the fandom, some of whom seriously expected the two to get together by its end. The idea of bromance allowed the show’s directors to publish a sexually suggestive, full-page spread of Hugh Laurie spraying Robert Sean Leonard in the face with white silly string, and render it immediately harmless by adding a ‘b’ in front of ‘romance’ in the caption: “true bromance.” It’s coy, irritating, and homophobic – and most of all, its popularity seems to be propelled by the idea that being open about bromances, incredibly close relationships both physically and emotionally between male friends, demonstrates how open you are about homosexuality – as long as they’re not actually gay, of course!
The current MTV show Teen Wolf is an example of the “powers that be” becoming aware of, and tapping into, the sizeable portion of fandom interested in the idea of a same-sex relationship on the show. Creator Jeff Davis said in an E! interview that he never intended characters Stiles and Derek to be romantically involved. When Entertainment Weekly held a poll of readers’ favourite romantic relationship in a TV show, the magazine rejected write-in ballots for Stiles and Derek, because it’s ostensibly still a platonic bromance on the show itself. However, the fandom interested in this same-sex relationship is sizeable and vocal enough to have gotten the attention of the show creator and actors, who often acknowledge and even play up the homosexual subtext to please fans.
These spectacles of popular entertainment demonstrate the coy and evasive way corporate executives manipulate the perception of the tenuous line between platonic bromance and genuine homoerotic relationship. Perhaps one day this will-they-or-won’t-they dance will give way, and the damaging dichotomy of romance versus bromance will be erased, along with other manifestations of the repressed homophobia gripping our society.