I’ve written a lot about the pick-up scene – usually about the negative side of things – but there can be good sides to. One of the things that was the most helpful back when I was in the pick-up scene wasn’t what I was learning, but being part of a lair1 Now granted lairs had problems in and of themselves, but part of what made it helpful was that it was a place for guys to come together and generally be supportive of one another. There was an often shockingly diverse group of people – different races, ethnicities and social classes – who were coming together to learn and to share.
To be sure, we were coming together in the context of “We are doing this to get laid” and framed sex as an “us vs. them” mentality, but it was a support structure, with men supporting and encouraging other men.
And most men don’t have that. Most men don’t have many emotionally intimate connections in general, and even fewer with other men. Even more so, we have few connections with men where we can let our guard down and be our true selves. We put our emotional needs on our romantic partners and – often – on our female friends instead. Many men, even men with seemingly strong social circles, are often desperately lonely. What men need – more than almost anything else – is a place where we can learn to open up to one another.
Our health and relationships may actually depend on it.
The Loneliness of Being a Man
Something that rarely gets brought up is that being a man is often incredibly lonely. Our ability – and our willingness – to connect with others contracts as we get older. By the time we reach 30, we tend to stop making friends. Worse, we tend to lose friends at an increasing rate; some studies suggest we lose half our social circle every seven years. Our careers take us in different directions, responsibilites mean we have less time to spend with anyone outside of our immediate family, etc. Because we’re not able to spend the time it takes to maintain those ties – even if it’s just once every couple of weeks – those friendships wither and fall away like a diseased tree limb.
But while our social connections continue to shrink, our need for social connections continues to remain the same size. And while some of those needs are met by our romantic partners, it still leaves a void. We feel that lack, that emptiness and long to find ways to connect with others. Worse: we lack the tools to seek out those emotional connections. As we grow up, we learn the lessons of manhood: we don’t cry, we don’t admit weakness. We don’t talk about our feelings; we bottle that shit up and face the world with stoic resolve. If we let down our guard, it’s only so that others can make us put our guard back up. Our bros are there to tell us to man the fuck up and do what needs to be done. Asking for intimacy is akin to admitting to not being a man at all.
And so we go seeking those connections without ever explicitly admitting to it. We have our poker nights, our guys nights out, our fishing trips because we want that sense of community and brotherhood that we don’t dare ask for.
The great irony, of course, is the same things that brings men together is exactly what keeps them apart….
Where Men Can Perform Being Men
There’s a saying in social psychology: female friendships are face to face. Male friendships are side by side. Female friendships are often defined by the emotional connection. Women are more likely to sit around and talk about themselves when they’re with their friends. Men, on the other hand tend to bond around activities.. Getting people together to watch football or basketball, the camping trip, the “just the boys” vacation to Vegas, even just hanging out at the bar – these are are parts of the way that guys are expected to bond with their friends. The bonding itself may well be the end goal, but it is almost never the stated part of the proceedings; it has to come paired with a specific pursuit. It marries the intent of connecting with others with a suitably manly activity that makes the eventual opening up and expressing themselves permissible.
Most of the time, anyway. For many, the bonding is due to the activity and not because of any actual shared intimacy. In fact, for many men, the point of the activities is to avoid talking about “deeper” or “emotional” topics. You may be having a hard time… but you don’t get to whine about it. Yes, you may be feeling pain right now, but you don’t want to admit it. Not with the guys. Guy time is time to be guys. Any sort of opening up beyond the bare minimum is often seen as being too feminine.
Even at times when the desire to bond and connect is explicit, there is still that need for a performance of masculinity to make it acceptable. At various “manhood retreats” the bonding with others must be paired with or followed by masculine-coded pursuits. Sharing, trust and emotional connections are great, but you’d better make sure everyone remembers you’re a big swinging dick after. It becomes a perverse balancing act: trying to bond without the shame of acknowledging your emotions. Sure, talk about your complicated feelings towards breaking up with your ex, just be sure to beat your chest around the campfire after.
It’s the great paradox of male friendship; while we want to connect with our male friends, we don’t dare for fear of losing man points. Even amongst the people we supposedly trust the most – people we might metaphorically or literally take a bullet for – we are expected to continue performing the tropes of being a man. Any behavior that might be feminizing – or worse, gay – is subject to corrective abuse. The much mocked “men-only” screenings held in response to women-only showings of Wonder Woman may have been wrapped in absurdity, but it still contained a core of truth. Being a man means never putting down the tropes of manhood, even in the dark of a movie theater. Sit too close to another man and you may as well hand in your testicles.
Save that emotional shit for your wives and girlfriends, bro. After all…
What’s The Point of Opening Up, Anyway?
One of the oldest and hoariest cliches when it comes to relationships comes from how men and women approach problems: men want to do while women want to be heard and understood. And in fairness: this is often true. Part of the whole “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” bullshit stereotypes is that men are socialized to focus on actions while women are taught to be more connected to their feelings. So men grow up thinking that the answer to a problem is to fix the cause. Women grow up willing to commiserate and validate others who are having the problem.
Of course, what men often want is that same validation and commiseration. What we get is often… something less than we hope for.
The issue is less that our male friends don’t care so much as we rarely know what, precisely to do. When you want a little emotional support after your girlfriend has left you, it’s hard to ask for it. It’s rough enough dealing with the pain of having loved and lost. Not wanting to seem overly sensitive or dramatic over it makes it even harder to process. Hell, many times we may not even know the vocabulary to ask for what we want. Just as importantly, our guy friends aren’t sure how to respond. It’s easier to avoid the subject – or try to distract somebody – than it is to commiserate when neither of has any idea how to proceed. It ends up with the emotional equivalent of two porcupines trying to hug.
As a result: we quit asking. We bottle it up inside instead – despite the fact that the unacknowledged cost of this compartmentalizing is the damage it does to us. From the way our physical health suffers to attempts to self-medicate through alcohol, booze and sex, we tear ourselves apart because we simply can’t and won’t let our shields down long enough to try.
The other side effect of the way men and women treat intimacy is that men learn to lean on women for their emotional support. Men have emotionally intimate relationships with women – even strictly platonic ones – because women are actually taught how handle emotions. As a result: women are more capable of giving men what they actually want – emotional release. Women are asked to do the emotional labor for two – and bear the stress as well. Small wonder why couples with no friends outside the relationship rarely last.
The Cost of Shipping and Handling
Naturally, it doesn’t help that there are surprisingly few platonic relationship role-models for men out there. Most of the close friendships we see portrayed in movies and television have less to do with the emotional connection and far more about the suitably manly bonding that brought them together. The Winchesters of Supernatural come close, but it’s still a familial connection. Family may not end with blood, but it still what enables their relationship in the first place. The Sons of Anarchy may be able to openly say “I love you” to their brothers, but the story is still about the inherently manly MC. Their brotherhood comes at the cost of death, destruction and ruined lives.
In fact, one of the few places where you see intense male friendships is in Japanese pop-culture. Alexa Ray Correa’s book examining the JRPG Kingdom Hearts II points out that the major motivating arc of Kingdom Hearts isn’t about the protagonist and his nominal love-interest; it’s about finding and redeeming his best friend.
But the other side of the lack of intimate male friendships in pop culture is… well, romance. The introduction of an intensely emotional connection between two men becomes proof not that they love each other, but that they love each other. Fandom often loves to throw male characters together into headcanon couples; Frodo and Sam, Poe and Finn, Dean and Castiel and others all are often shipped together. Stucky – that is, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are especially popular as a couple; multiple hashtags and petitions have been circulated to make the fan-favorite pairing canon.
The popularity of such ships (fan slang for “relationship”) among fans isn’t surprising, nor unwelcome. After all, queer representation in pop culture isn’t lacking so much as virtually non-existent. You can practically count the number of happy queer couples on the fingers of one foot. Similarly, the dynamics of a lot of pairings, even hetero pairings, are unpalatable to a number of people; women, for example, tend to be portrayed as the passive agents in the relationship. A large number of people who want to see their love lives represented in pop culture are left grasping for crumbs. They mentally pair platonic characters as couples because otherwise there often isn’t anyone like them.
But at the same time, the vigor and insistence that, say, Cap and Bucky’s arc through Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War is romantic has the unintended effect of often downplaying the importance of platonic relationships between men. In a perverse way, rounding up close friendships to romance ends up reinforcing some toxic tropes of masculinity. It further codifies the idea that emotional intimacy is by definition romantic or sexual. In this mindset, all forms of emotional intimacy are de facto romantic. This, in turn, limits men, particularly straight men, in the relationships they have available to them.
Not because they are afraid of being – or being perceived as – homosexual but because they don’t want a romantic relationship, just an intimate one. They are told over and over again that this kind of friendship doesn’t exist. It’s eros or nothing.
Even the term “bromance” for close friends carries the “hee hee, we know what’s really going on here” attitude. And while it’s still great that those friendships are being acknowledged, they aren’t allowed to be just friendships. It still comes with the hint that emotional intimacy comes exclusively with attraction.
We Need A Little More Than Bromance
As the world trends towards more equity, social mores change and gender roles evolve, many men grumble there are fewer and fewer “men only” spaces. I actually think that this is a shame. The problem is that, more often than not, the people lamenting the lack of places where “men can be men” are complaining that they aren’t allowed to express the toxic performance of masculinity without consequence.
I think we do need man-only spaces… but we need those to be places where men feel safe. Not safe to engage in “locker room talk” or encouraging shitty behavior but safe to let go. To not feel the need to perform a specific, painful type of masculinity. To feel safe enough and secure enough to actually be open with one another. We need the space to actually express ourselves emotionally, to be vulnerable, to actually love our friends openly.
It’s not just hippy-woo talk; there are demonstrable medical and psychological benefits to bridging the emotional gap
If we want places for men to “be men”, then we need to make it easier and safer to be men. And that means letting go of those supposed “dude rules” that tell us what we are or aren’t allowed to feel or express. Men don’t need bromance: we need to be brothers.
- Yes, I know. But it’s what they were called. [↩]