“I love you, man,” says the hero of our story, and his male best friend pulls him into an entirely unself-conscious hug, patting him on the back in a comforting yet manly way. “I love you too,” he says, a soft whisper in his friend’s ear.
Let’s say this hypothetical moment isn’t slash (despite what fanfiction writers may say). This is a bromance, a very similar phenomenon—just minus the sex. One assumes. Sometimes it’s hard to say. This is two men, closer than brothers, closer to each other than either is with the women in their lives. If they aren’t the main characters, they’re often “those two guys,” never seen apart from each other. If they are the main characters, their relationship will often be the driving force of the show/movie/book, rather than a romantic one.
Even though men have been in bromances forever—one can picture cavemen nudging at each other and giggling over a risqué cave painting—there’s been a huge upswing of these sort of relationships recently, mainly in TV and movies. Shawn and Gus plan out their two-yard pool in Psych, Sherlock and John chase criminals together in London, George Clooney and Brad Pitt (or their characters, but let’s be real, no on cares about the difference) don’t need to actually talk to have a conversation in Ocean’s 11, Turk and JD sing a song about “Bro Love” in Scrubs, Chandler supports Joey in all his acting endeavors, anything that happens in anything directed by Judd Apatow. These bromances dominate the screen big and small.
They’re there in literature, too, going back ages. Holmes and Watson, Batman and Superman. James and Sirius Black of Harry Potter fame, of whom their professors said “never saw the one without the other” and “Potter trusted Black above all his other friends.” The Lord of the Rings is made up of sets of bromances—Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Sam, Aragorn and Gandalf (though that one’s debatable) and that greatest of inter-species bromances, Legolas and Gimli, so close that Gimli leaves Middle Earth and goes to Valinor for love of Legolas.
Women reader love these characters, at least in part because of their bromance. Which is a little odd, given that it’s a genre that completely excludes women. Women don’t have bromances, we have friendships. Even friendships of the same caliber as bromances don’t get the same name, probably because female friendships have always been allowed to be extremely close without fear of appearing unfeminine. And the women surrounding men in bromances always seem to have a difficult time of it—“Maybe someday he’ll love me like that,” Carla sighs, only half-sarcastically, as she watches her new husband Turk hug JD with possibly more enthusiasm than he has ever showed about her.
And yet, we do love them, oh so very much.
That’s because, in my opinion, bromances show off some of the best qualities of a man. And not the hard, stoic, fierce alpha heroism that is great but, really, a little overwhelming, but the sort of things we want in a long term, healthy relationship.
After all, they’re already in a relationship. In a lot of these bromances, at least one of the men is some sort of womanizer. Barney Stintson, of How I Met Your Mother fame, is the ultimate ladies' man, with commitment issues as definitive as his great suits. Not great boyfriend material (in the early seasons, at least). But then you look at his bromance credentials—at least a decade of close friendship with Ted, with their short rift treated as a break-up—and you see that he is capable of long term devotion, which could conceivably be transferred to a woman. Bromances are not the work of a moment; they’re proof a man is capable of long term relationships.
And not only are they in a longterm relationship, they’re generally fiercely protective of it and their bro. Not always in the way an alpha hero might protect his heroine—with guns or swords or punches—but by sticking with their bro no matter what. “They’re just jealous,” Troy tells Abed when their friends make fun of their bond in Community, and that’s the attitude all bromances have. There is nothing more important to them then the maintenance of the bromance. Shawn Spencer, in Psych, who we’ve hardly seen worry about anything less than life and death situations, and not always even then, is visibly worried as he confesses to Gus that, “I got freaked that you could have a falling out with dudes you used to be so close to. And I figured it if could happen to you guys, it could happen to us.” If he’s willing to work that hard to protect his best friend and their friendship, clearly he will for the woman he loves.
Most importantly, though, the bromance shows a man’s sensitive side. No matter how macho, how generally alpha the man is, when with his bro he’s not afraid to say ‘I love you’ (as demonstrated in the eponymous I Love You, Man), to hug, to comfort, even to cuddle. Even before his character development away from his high school jerk jock persona, Troy holds Abed’s hand. Kirk unabashedly breaks down at Spock’s funeral. No matter how much Chandler makes fun of…well, all his friends, but especially Joey, when Joey needs comfort he’s willing to be serious. The bromance allows for social conventions about masculinity to break down and for us to see the gooey center in otherwise non-gooey men (or otherwise gooey men, too).
There are downsides to a real life bromance we don’t really address in our infatuation with fictional ones, though. A bromance can be ridiculously codependent, which means that no matter how much he loves you, he will always have someone else with a strong claim on him. Sherlock drives away all of John’s girlfriends, their bromance stronger than any relationship (though we’ll have to see what happens in the new season with Mary Morston). Sam moves in with Frodo even after he has his own family. Most of them will call their bro while on a date. There are always claims on his attention as important to him as you. And while that seems adorable in fiction, in real life, it’s a lot to take. Not to mention, in some of these bromances, one of them literally supports the other—Gus claims Shawn on his taxes; Troy pays Abed out of his debts. It’s a financial drain as well as an emotional one. They have a commitment that isn’t their girlfriend that they take just as seriously.
But especially in reality, where people are rarely as codependent as in fiction, bromances are effective barometers of just how much a man is commitment material. It’s the same as when, especially in romances, an alpha hero has a puppy or younger siblings that he clearly loves. It shows the heroine—and us—that no matter how tough he seems, how womanizing or unloving or brutal he might appear, there’s love in there. So we fall in love with him all the more.
Isabel Farhi is an aspiring editor and amateur fangirl. If she isn't reading romances, she's probably reading fanfics or waiting to go to the bookstore. Follow her on Twitter at @IzzyFarhi.