Bruno and Bromances: Modern Masculinity Goes to the Movies

From the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 to Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's poignant 2009 Oscar acceptance speech on same-sex civil liberties, homosexuality and its ugly counterpart, homophobia, have been charged topics in the media for quite some time; but there's another act in town that requires our attention. Hovering somewhere between the heterosexual and the homosexual is modern male sexuality -- with its metrosexuality and bromances -- in all its ambiguous splendor.

The age of the dandy (or the man who emulates the aristocrat in action and dress) was set in motion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but its legacy stretches into the 21st. You may know him by one of his vintage monikers, the fop, coxcomb, fribble, fashion-monger, macaroni, or popinjay; or you may be more familiar with his modern incarnation as the metrosexual.

Metrosexuality is the not-so-politically-correct term coined by Mark Simpson in his 1994 essay "Here Come the Mirror Men" in The Independent. The portmanteau refers to the straight, urban man who cares as much about his appearance as the gay man supposedly does. In a deeper sense, however, the word describes the man whose sexuality is more linked to urbanism and consumerism than it is to either gender or sexual proclivity. A post-sexual, he is no longer homo or hetero, but just metro.

With the age of the metrosexual comes the rise of the bromance. Metrosexuality sprang fully armed from the head of sexual anxiety. Although the straight man often seeks solace from the world of women in his buddies, he quickly discovers that these waters, too, are fraught with ambiguity and terrors, sexually speaking. So what's the solution to this Catch-22 of Hellerian proportions? How can men inhabit extra-sexual territory? Through metrosexuality, of course. There are ghouls and goblins haunting the average man on both ends of the gender spectrum, and the metro mode provides a third option that eschews both men and women in the interest of self and stuff.

As early as 1948, literary critic Leslie Fiedler argued for a sophisticated version of the Peter Pan complex in which men in American novels run off with a male friend with whom they have a closeness that could be mistaken for something more, even if it's not overtly sexual. He claimed that they do this in order to avoid the responsibilities and realities of dwelling in the sphere of women. Today Fiedler's fascination with that complex, almost indescribable (although everyone's trying), relationship between men is still very much alive.

Many recent films gesture towards these issues in their exploration of the intricacies of male relationships -- all the Judd Apatow movies, for example -- and the peculiar dynamic that exists between straight men who love each other platonically in a world still coping with homophobia. Yet Lynn Shelton's Humpday (2009) faces them head-on and with subtlety and grace. That is, if Bruno is a gay brothel in hell, Humpday is a Times Square Peep Show into the homosocial psyche.

Humpday is an uproarious take on the confusion surrounding modern masculinity. Its protagonist, Ben (Mark Duplass), describes his marriage as a part of his life that has turned into an ogre and overtaken all the other parts. Instead of the old adage: just because he's married doesn't mean he can't bang the secretary, in Shelton's clever vision, just because he's married doesn't mean he can't make a gay porno with Andrew (Joshua Leonard), his straight male friend.

The thing that is so striking about the film's gay porno gag, however, is that these guys are doing it to prove their manhood. One scene finds them arguing over who will be "boning the shit" out of whom. They are not doing it because they are gay, but because they are not, and therefore find the proposition to be a frightening one. That's right, it's a case of gay sex to prove heterosexuality, folks.

In a similarly circular manner, Andrew and Ben describe what they plan to do as "beyond gay," as though they could venture so far into the gay sector that they would loop around and come out extra straight; or as if gay male love were a way of asserting the maximum amount of masculinity because it allows for the macho quest for dominance through sex without any women involved to feminize the experience. "Beyond gay" also makes it sound as though we have reached a post-homosexual, and perhaps even post-sexual, time--the fantasy of two men who want their relationship be the one sphere of their lives free of any psycho-sexual complications (even if they are planning on having sex with one another).

It seems that there are two opposing forces that are powering films of late: an intense desire to pay tribute to the unique relationship that exists between men and an equally intense fear that this relationship may contain homosexual undertones. The result of these warring impulses are films like Humpday that blow open the dread and disgust surrounding homophilia that Hollywood strives to keeps under wraps in its average bromance flick. In the end, Shelton's movie just may function as a mass therapy session for all the Judd Apatows of the world who live in terror of their bro-love.