Man to man: An analysis of the bromance trope

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This year, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I gathered some friends to watch one of my all time favorite movies, “4th Man Out” (2015) which centers on a gay man, Adam, whose three best friends are stereotypically straight (they use “gay” as a derogatory word, employ strategies to meet women in bars, etc.). Naturally, his coming out to them doesn’t go well. After a few days of acting strange around Adam, however, his best friend Chris rallies the other two to better support Adam as he comes out to his family, and, ultimately, they help Adam find love.

While there is an element of romantic love, “4th Man Out” really focalizes the dynamic between the two friends, hence the title. Over the course of the movie, all four of the gang discover something new about themselves in the course of helping their friend with the bumpy road that is coming out, particularly in a small town. Although this is a relatively progressive movie for its time, there is room for critique, particularly in terms of cast diversity. But for what it is trying to accomplish, “4th Man Out” does a lot to demonstrate men supporting a male friend through difficult times, which makes it one of my favorite bromances.

But for what it is trying to accomplish, “4th Man Out” does a lot to demonstrate men supporting a male friend through difficult times, which makes it one of my favorite bromances.

According to Sammi Dittloff, a graduate student in media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Miluakee, what sets bromance apart from buddy comedies is bromance “seems to allow more intimate relationship to form between characters, sometimes even incorporating aspects of a romantic comedy” whereas buddy comedies “might have focused more on action and manly tendencies.”

By this definition, “4th Man Out” is a clear bromance. The vast majority of the plot centers on Adam and his friends struggling to support each other and often running into difficulties negotiating the bounds of masculinity in the process, a common and historic problem in bromances, dating back to some of the earliest films in the genre, such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005).

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From the start, these two films have a lot in common. Over a game of poker, the men in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” bond by talking about sex they’ve had with women. Andy’s (Steve Carell) failing to participate adequately in this banter exposes him as a virgin, and, by extension, fails to uphold the standards of masculinity in the eyes of his coworkers. Upon learning that Andy is a virgin, they insist he needs to accept their help in meeting women, instead of dropping the subject as too personal or entertaining the idea is a choice that Andy has made for himself. This conversation is also single-mindedly focused on mindless sex, and when David (Paul Rudd) comments that his last experience with his ex-girlfriend was like “sharing a heart,” he’s accused of “ruining the vibe,” implying that graphic details about sex are fine but any emotional intimacy is too personal to share with the bros.

There is a lot about this movie that is dated now, such as Jay’s advice that Andy seek out women who are inebriated, but not to “confuse tipsy with drunk.” The way men discuss women in this movie is predatory and objectifying, and these men take it upon themselves to be the prototypical masculine from which Andy is meant to learn and emulate. Even David, the one accused of sentimentality, slowly reveals himself to be stalking his ex-girlfriend Amy (Mindy Kaling) who has changed her email address, phone number and home address in an attempt to avoid him.

Bonding over “getting” women through ethically questionable, if not predatory, methods is a hallmark of the bromance.

Bonding over “getting” women through ethically questionable, if not predatory, methods is a hallmark of the bromance. “Wedding Crashers,” which came out the same year as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” focuses on friends John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) who are divorce mediators and let loose by crashing weddings to meet women. In order to “seal the deal” by the end of the reception, John and Jeremy often flat-out lie to these women, using fake names and careers, as well as dancing with the children of the bridal party, and even using eye drops to look deeply emotionally affected during the ceremony with the express goal of taking women home with them.

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While “4th Man Out” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” both involve an aspect of the search for romance, “Wedding Crashers” begins with a strong and supportive relationship between men and devolves into a hunt for one particular woman to the detriment of their friendship. The bulk of the movie shows Jeremy in increasingly uncomfortable positions as his wedding “catch” grows attached to him, and when he tries to distance himself from her, she makes more and more extreme choices, culminating in tying him to his bed while he sleeps and then assaulting him. This, of course, is played for laughs. Jeremy openly expresses to John that he doesn’t feel safe staying there, but John will neither leave nor let Jeremy leave until he can make a connection with his love interest, Claire (Rachel McAdams).

The sexual assault of men for comedy is another unfortunate tenet of this trope. “The Hangover” (2009), which depicts a bachelor party in Vegas gone horribly wrong, features Rohypnol, better known as “roofies.” Throughout the film the characters pointedly call it “the date rape drug,” implying that their memory loss is particularly comical because it’s a result of a drug often used in cases of sexual assault. And of course, the premise of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” pushes the limits of consent with the pressure both his coworkers and later, his dates, put on Andy to have sex, even when he is clearly hesitant if not outright resistant. In all of these cases, these moments are presented as funny precisely because they’re a breach of traditional masculinity, because what kind of man doesn’t want to have sex all the time?

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If “4th Man Out” is among the most progressive of the bromances, and the 2005 hits are among the least, “I Love You, Man” (2009) occupies an interesting gray area. Some of the most troubling tropes of this genre, such as sexual assault and quests to sleep with women, are absent. The protagonist, Peter (Paul Rudd), proposes to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones), and realizes that while she has several close friends to call and share the news, he has nobody. The rest of the movie follows Peter looking for potential friends to be his best man at the realty agency where he works, his fencing studio, ultimately finding Sydney (Jason Segel) at an open house. Through this process, Peter demonstrates the difficulty in making friends as an adult man and even says, “I hate this. There’s no rules for male friendships.” In many ways, this perfectly encapsulates the issues that the other bromances skirt, namely, how to be emotionally intimate with another man while still maintaining one’s own masculinity without coming off as romantically interested.

Like the others, however, Peter does ultimately learn a great deal about masculinity from Sydney, who is cast as a caring friend but an extremely aggressive person. When Peter questions his outbursts, Sydney tells him, “I’m a man, Peter. I have an ocean of testosterone running through my veins,” implying that aggression is the natural state of a true man and that, instead of changing his own behavior, Peter should change his. Which, ultimately, he does.

Ultimately, there is a lot of good that can come from the increased representation of friendships between men that we’ve seen in the last 20 years, but there is still plenty to be desired from the cinematic bromance genre.

While Peter’s newfound aggression is depicted as a success, his budding friendship with Sydney comes to serve as an obstacle for his relationship with Zooey, which falls in line with “Wedding Crashers” as friendship and romantic relationships are shown to be oppositional rather than complementary (as depicted in “4th Man Out”). Zooey tells Peter, “I’m totally weirded out by what’s happening between you two … I feel like I’m losing you a little bit,” and in response, Peter has a talk with Sydney that is framed as a break-up. Eventually, when Zooey comes around and encourages Peter to reach out to Sydney, Peter doesn’t know how to mend their relationship and tells Zooey that he can’t just call Sydney because “guys don’t do that.” Navigating what is appropriate for male friends to do with each other is the core of this movie, and culminates in a touching moment in which Sydney and Peter say “I love you, man.”

Ultimately, there is a lot of good that can come from the increased representation of friendships between men that we’ve seen in the last 20 years, but there is still plenty to be desired from the cinematic bromance genre. In the effort to demonstrate the progressive notion that men can be emotionally intimate with their male friends, these characters test the bounds of masculinity and show each other what is acceptable, but this is often framed as what is right and what is “gay,” whether expressed overtly with jokes such as the “You know how I know you’re gay” dialogue in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or the tension between Sydney and Zooey in “I Love You, Man.” And through these plots, the failings of mainstream masculinity in the last few decades stand in stark contrast with the attempt at progress in the representation of platonic relationships. These men consistently step up and support each other through change, but it often comes at great personal and emotional cost, both to the characters themselves, as well for audiences who may be trying to learn how to form bonds with other men in a society that frowns upon male-male emotional intimacy.

 

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].