The Bro Is Still Kicking After All These Years

The Worst Guy Ever may be under siege in real life, but onscreen he remains powerful for groups of male friends navigating new challenges for masculine identity.
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Vinny Chase and the Entourage crew. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Vinny Chase and the Entourage crew. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

It’s the end of the bro as we know him.

In recent years, the bro has been called out for his privilege, for his sexism, his racism, and the rhetorical ubiquity of the term that defines him. It wasn't always this way; around 10 years ago, at least in my middle school, "bro" was the ultimate compliment for the unassured teen boy: "Nice goal, bro" and "sick Air Jordans, bro" were par for the course. Being called "bro" was the linguistic equivalent of convincing your mom to buy you $70 Abercrombie khakis: It conferred group identity, acceptance, and distinction—precisely because it made you so indistinctive.

How times have changed. Nowadays, the bro moniker is more likely to be linked to sexual assault on campuses and in the military than it is casual camaraderie. The bro is contributing to racism on campus and misogyny in country music. He is, according to Vice, the "the worst guy ever."

In this cultural climate, many industry analysts believed that last week's release of a feature-length Entourage movie was box-office suicide. Entourage, which ran for eight seasons on HBO and capped at an audience high of 8.4 million viewers per episode, was a show about bros, marketed at bros. Its appeal stemmed from the fun it derived from conversations between men, as well as the glamorous Hollywood industry it portrayed—in particular the easy-on-the-eyes vapidity of its disposable female characters. But few television shows have made real money from big-screen adaptations. And Entourage suffered harsh critical backlash in its final season; in Slate, Eric Thurm argued this was due to a shift in television criticism that favored political meaning over entertainment value. At the heart of Entourage's downfall? "Its highly objectionable ethic of bro-ness." A feature-length elaboration seemed primed for failure.

"Bro" was the linguistic equivalent of convincing your mom to buy you $70 Abercrombie khakis: It conferred group identity, acceptance, and distinction—precisely because it made you so indistinctive.

Yet Entourage's box office performance has been all right—almost $18 million by the last count—thanks mostly to young men. Over the weekend, Variety reported, 64 percent of the Entourage ticket buyers were male, with 90 percent being under the age of 50. (In my theater, this wasn't the only audience, but it was the most audible.) Cultural critics have declared that the bro is irrelevant in our society. So why is the retrograde cult of Entourage still hanging on?

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A joint study of Entourage by Monmouth College and the University of Missouri-Columbia last year shows that tidings of the bro’s death may have been premature. According to the researchers, the bro’s negative characteristics are, in fact, more appealing than ever. In an era when traditional gender expectations are shifting, it seems viewers are drawn to the bro's more offensive qualities to offset their anxieties over the changing role of men in real life.

To study how modern audiences identify with the Entourage crew’s masculinity, the researchers simulated a casual post-television discussion. A total of 30 individuals were split into eight focus groups, which were then all corralled in front of a wide-screen television (with snacks) at a Midwestern college. All groups were "representative of the series' target audience": Entourage fans, many of whom came with their friends; and the vast majority were white, male students in their twenties.

The purpose of the charade was to gauge how real dudes felt about individual Entourage characters now that white masculinity is "in crisis." Historically, men have not openly discussed societal pressures or expectations—that dearth of conversation is the reason why conventions like the Being a Man festival and Male Psychology Conference have sprung up in the past year. But participants in the study were comfortable discussing gender expectations because, the researchers argued, they were asked to "discuss masculinity in the context of their evaluations of the characters."

In an era when traditional gender expectations are shifting, it seems viewers are drawn to the bro's more offensive qualities to offset their anxieties over the changing role of men in real life.

But just how do you define masculinity? According to the study participants, look to unwavering confidence, the ability to provide for a family, and physical strength as proof of the manly essence. However, the participants selectively applied this definition to Entourage characters—none of whom matched all the criteria. Jeremy Pivens' foul-mouthed super-agent Ari Gold was seen as "powerful" and "driven." But excuses were invented to explain how qualities that did not fall into the initial rubric of masculinity made him more of a man. His "insanely offensive" racial slurs, for instance, were just meant to be funny; his marriage, which always comes second in the series, was a necessary casualty of cutthroat Hollywood culture. This indicates, the researchers wrote, that the "negative aspect[s] of Ari’s character offers them the chance to momentarily experience the pleasures of dominant masculinity."

The viewers had blinkers on for Ari's traditional, bro-y masculinity. But they were far more critical of Eric "E" Murphy, Vince's responsible manager, and the only one who ever pursues a long-term relationship. Though "E" was considered the "role model" of the group ("the kind of guy you want your kid to grow up to be," according to one perceptive participant), the participants frequently undercut his manliness. He was too short, though E is about the same height as Ari. He took too much care with his appearance, though, as anyone who ever watched Entourage might note, they all do. These problems, the researchers concluded, were "barriers" that the participants set up to "stave off the encroaching feminine elements in this contemporary form of alternative masculinity."

By comparison, the feminine side of Johnny Drama, a failed actor who enjoys cooking and manicures, was merely chalked up to being funny. Drama's over-the-top behavior provided "comedic relief from the anxieties caused by society’s demands that traditional masculinity give way to alternate forms." It appears that viewers either prefer to be served a traditional masculine character, or laugh off a nuanced, newer one. In some ways, though Drama tends to degrade women and act like a buffoon, his interest in cooking and male grooming—and his emotional investment in his brother—makes him one of the show's most modern characters.

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The Entourage study is hardly representative of how all groups of tight male friends behave. Yet the way its fans police acceptable and unacceptable behaviors amongst its characters reflects real social pressure fostered in all-male groups. Research on sexual storytelling in male-dominated military settings has found that these groups facilitate conversations that lead friends to prioritize male-male friendships over male-female friendships, which are perceived to be "dangerously feminizing." Womanizing behaviors, on the other hand, facilitated these friendships. So Entourage is hardly to blame for a pre-existing "bros-before-hoes" culture in certain circles; but, as this study confirmed, discussion around it can't be helping, either.

And social pressure for men to act like bros often manifests in water cooler topics like the latest (feature film-length) episode of Entourage. Linguistic analysis suggests that men form group identity through "indirect" discussions of sports and other soft topics. This small talk fosters closeness among men while also patrolling the boundaries of how men in the group could and should act outside of it. Which kind of sounds like your typical episode of Entourage in the first place.

Entourage facilitates a sad cycle of bros consoling bros. But the mourning period will likely be brief: Entourage attendance was strong ($7 million) when it opened in the middle of last week; but it's tapered off since due to stiff competition from the Melissa McCarthy-driven comedy Spy. This weekend it will likely be be crushed by a fellow, slightly more literal, dinosaur: Jurassic World.

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