When you think about sources of probing cultural reflection, MTV is probably the last thing that comes to mind. But even though “Music” Television has degenerated into shock-fests and horrible reality garbage, a recent program gave me some startling insights into how pop culture views masculinity.

That show was “Bromance”, a reality show starring the all-too-appropriately-named Brody Jenner. You may know Brody from his role on “The Hills” (I didn’t), and that stint apparently made him rich enough for cars, penthouses and a license to be a total asshole. Despite his astronomical douchebag quotient, MTV tracked down nine dudes desperate enough to compete for his approval in a competition to find Brody’s “new ultimate bro.”

Since we hadn’t heard of a concept that silly since someone claimed MSA was relevant on the world stage, my own bros and I were eager to watch the program. But a layer of subtext piqued my interest: In our homophobic society, wouldn’t a show about a bunch of dudes attempting to secure the affections of another dude be “too gay”?

Well, apparently, MTV execs had the same concern, because the cast of “Bromance” goes to hilarious lengths to assert its heterosexuality. Within the first few episodes, the boys are sent on a quest to see who can bring the hottest woman to a lingerie party; they sit around a campfire telling tales of their sexual exploits; and a particularly creative bro constructs a miniature golf course in which one hits a ball into a cardboard woman’s gaping mouth, much to the raucous guffaws of all. As a woman, I admit that I should have been more offended than I actually was, but for the most part I inexcusably chalked it up to (dumb) boys being (dumb) boys. However, what really rubbed me the wrong way was the cast’s treatment of another contestant named Gary.

Gary was a dance instructor who was constantly forced to explain how “not gay” he was, even though he seemed to me like the only normal guy on the show. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast incessantly ridiculed him for such things as dancing (you know, his job) and for talking about how much he enjoyed the company of one particular woman whilst the other bros expressed how much they enjoyed screwing multiple women with abandon (a lot, as it happens). When Gary was at last “eliminated” from the show, he thought, like I did, that his presence may have been a mistake. “I don’t belong here,” he said. “I’m not a jock.” He was right — he came off as a caring guy who is, or should be, comfortable with himself as a man.

Of course, “caring guy” and “jock” don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and sometimes, “Bromance” doesn’t always portray it that way. The boys share many emotional moments, sharing their innermost feelings with each other and crying about their families on more than one occasion. While a bit tacky to see on national television, this is something I can get behind.

But it didn’t make sense, then, that they singled out Gary — especially as there were some genuinely bromoerotic moments on the program that made his alleged transgressions seem about as feminine as Bruce Willis driving a stick-shift using only his pectoral muscles. In the first episode alone, Brody kidnapped the contestants from their beds and assembled them in his living room in various states of undress, then hosted the first elimination round in a rather cramped hot tub. Actually, my friends and I began to suspect that Brody was genuinely homosexual and needed someone to talk to about his feelings.

I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at these incidents if it weren’t for the show’s creepy misogyny and selective homophobia. I haven’t even mentioned Mike, the show’s only openly gay character who appeared for a single episode before “deciding” to leave. I would have, too, as the poor guy was ignorantly accused of trying to hit on Brody at every turn. Here’s an amazing fact for heterosexual males: just as every woman doesn’t nosedive into your cock, you are not God’s gift to gay men, either.

“Bromance” reveals society’s discomfort with the shifting concept of masculinity. They hammered the point home about how manly they are in many offensive manners, then include Mike to show that they’re “sensitive” — while leaving him open to unacceptable ridicule. Gary, meanwhile, was the show’s sacrificial lamb; his presence allowed the boys to talk about their feelings while maintaining their manliness.

What “Bromance” — and arguably, American culture — doesn’t realize is that the concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine is constantly shifting. A woman attending college would have been unacceptably manly as recently as 50 years ago, while in some ancient cultures, homosexual intercourse was a sign of mannish virility. It’s impossible to be 100-percent manly, since the very idea of masculinity is mostly socially constructed — which is why in the end, I prefer men who don’t try so hard.

Eileen Stahl can be reached at efstahl@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.