The week that Bros premiered in theaters, a steady stream of text messages lit up my phone like fireworks: “Have you seen it yet?!”
As a scholar of queer and feminist popular culture, I expect to see this sentence explode across my screen anytime new LGBTQ media content makes its debut. The messages urge me to do my duty as a responsible queer cultural critic: watch, react, respond! This time I could tell my friends wanted me to weigh in on the dominant discourse about Bros, at least among gay progressives: that Bros is pandering, conservative, “normative” drivel that does nothing to advance the imagined freedom of queer people everywhere. And I thought they would expect me to hate it.
But here’s the thing: when I finally got myself to the theatre (a week behind all the diligent gays), I thought Bros was, well, sort of amazing. And it was amazing in an altogether surprising way that the immediate, expected, and mind-numbingly obvious critiques of the movie—which denounced it for being about “white gay cis men,” for allegedly caricaturing more marginal members of the queer community, and for buying into the traditional romance plot— couldn’t let us see. For me, as a queer critic, this is a major problem. The response to Bros shows an imaginative vacancy of cultural criticism on the queer left, whose primary intellectual tool now seems to be the cudgel.
In her brilliant 2015 essay “When Nothing is Cool,” feminist literary scholar Lisa Ruddick pointed out that the queer cultural critic is now expected to be a chic “hater” of just about everything in order to earn their street cred as a morally superior, emotionally cool arbiter of taste who sneers at any hint of sentimentality, including the simple joys of identification and recognition. If that’s the case, I’ll say unequivocally: it’s a snooze for me y’all!
Today, we obsessively demand greater queer representation, then generally despise or trash practically every representation that appears unless it is produced by a highly idiosyncratic cadre of artists with whom we feel immediate kinship or solidarity, or who impeccably reproduce the politics we already think we share. We rail against rigid conceptions of racial, gender, and sexual identity, but then deploy the most unshakeable identitarian logics to everything we set our gaze upon (queers of color, yes! White gay men, no!). We claim to be the masters of irony, play, irreverence, and wit, as gender and sexual outcasts who invented countless forms of fabulous rebellion against the normalizing gaze of a heterosexist society, but our analytical eye is shockingly humorless, unoriginal, and moralizing.
As the world literally burns to the ground, we are still doing “drop dead elegant” ideological take downs of popular culture as though our lives depend on it. But really, I’m here to tell you, they don’t. Pose, Call Me By Your Name, Looking, and the Netflix revivals of The Boys in the Band and Tales of the City, are all queer media that I found deeply moving and transformative, even while at times flawed or misguided. Yet I rarely had the opportunity to enjoy them for too long in public because of the outpouring of irritated and cynical dismissal that followed each.
As I pored over the strikingly predictable cultural commentary on Bros, I wondered to myself: Is it possible to let a work of queer cultural production just exist as it is, rather than demand that it conform to our pre-determined idea of what proper representation could or should be? Better yet, could we wait for one breath and see how viewers different from ourselves might have surprising, unexpected, productive experiences of those cultural texts before we obliterate them? What does it look like to allow a film like Bros to circulate, collide with people’s imaginations, and make an impression before we decide in advance its ultimate meaning or impact?
Let me share what happened to this one very queer, Middle-Eastern American, immigrant, thirty-eight year old man when he watched Bros: I saw in Billy Eichner’s character Bobby my own affect and temperament displayed in a major Hollywood movie. I have literally never experienced this in my entire adult life. It was such an immediate and visceral feeling: being seen as a highly intense, energetic, and talkative gay male personality who is also desirable and valuable. I did not think of Bobby as angry, moralizing or annoying, though he sometimes exhibits these qualities (as do I on occasion); rather I saw him as someone with a nimble, active mind who is trying to find as many outlets for his energy as possible (as am I most of the time).
On the surface Bros may seem to be a love story about two conventionally attractive white gay cis men, but more importantly, it stages a sustained social and sexual encounter between two temperamentally distinct gay male types. On the one hand, the intellectual, ballistically verbal, and expressively intense gay man (Bobby); on the other, the highly contained, reserved, self-critical but outwardly controlled gay man (Aaron). Of course, the movie also associates these types with different kinds of bodies (the former lean, toned, and hairy, the latter big, muscular, and hairless).
While both men are clearly cisgender and physically “masculine” by the society’s standards, within the logic of some gay sexual cultures, Bobby’s “big” personality and thinner body immediately places him lower on the normative scale of gay male masculinity compared to Aaron, who’s flat emotional affect and physical volume make him a paragon of erotically desirable maleness. The movie suggests that both types can be desirable and valuable, but that in contemporary gay culture, the intense queen—the gay man that expresses his feelings, engages seriously with culture and politics, enjoys talking as a way of communing with others, and questions just about everything about gay and straight culture alike—is usually entertaining and intriguing at best, while unsexy, “nagging,” and irritating at worst.
Against this logic, Bros highlights how gay male intensity is also often really sexy, funny, exciting, and challenging. A lot of people like it, including traditionally “masculine” gay men. They may sneer at or dismiss high intellect, verbosity, and flamboyance, but still feel drawn to the power and confidence of gay men who exhibit these qualities. As Aaron confesses to Bobby in one of the film’s most emotional moments: “Who likes to be challenged all the time? But it turns out I love it.”
Moreover, the film shows how gay men “like” Aaron, who outwardly seem to inhabit so-called normal, idealized gay male masculinity, are also extremely intense and emotional in their own way. Far from being cool, calm and collected by comparison to Bobby, Aaron sublimates his own buzzing intensity into his obsessive gym regimen, highly athletic (even physically combative) sex, and recurrent self-doubt and anxiety. It turns out that despite his buff, Adonis-like exterior, Aaron is kind of a big baby.
Bros reminds us that all queer people are or can be “intense” (i.e. flush with feelings, desires, needs, aspirations, ideas, or motives). They simply express that intensity in divergent ways. This complex reality can only come into focus because the film creates the possibility of an ongoing conversation between the two men about their self-perceptions, desires, and personal histories. Most of the film’s content is composed of scenes where Bobby and Aaron text or talk at length. In these moments, the two exchange not only witticisms and banter, but also competing perspectives on their distinct social locations within gay male culture. In this way, the film compensates for a lack of actual, real-world public dialogue between gay men who are commonly separated by strict sexual hierarchies. It imagines what that dialogue might look like if two temperamentally distinct men spent meaningful time together.
I am a queer person of color, and both Bobby and Aaron are white. But I found their interpersonal dynamic completely relatable. It didn’t matter to me that Bobby wasn’t, as I am, Lebanese-American, because I felt a deep identification with his temperamental logic. There are moments when he says things that I have thought or said verbatim, just as much as there are moments when the character says and does things I would never dream of.
I have been on dates with men who look like actor Luke Macfarlane (Aaron), and men who look nothing like him, who have both said: “Wow, you are really intense!” in that way that actually means: “You’re dazzling and alluring but also terrifying and I don’t know what to do with you.” I’ve had sex with a beautiful fifty-something “muscle daddy” who admitted he’d never have given me the time of day in his thirties. This wasn’t because he didn’t find me attractive, he explained. Rather, he would have feared losing his street cred among the muscle boys if he acknowledged having the hots for a fast-talking, flamboyant intellectual like me.
It is rare to have such an honest exchange, if only because within the world of gay male sociality, where sexual currency is always at a premium, to have these conversations in earnest often marks you “unfuckable.” Why? Because complete candor suggests that one can see through ruse of idealized gay masculinity into the real vulnerabilities of another human being. And while so many gay men are desperate to been seen, they are equally terrified of the emotional consequences, including the perceived loss of emotional self-control, mastery, and toughness (and by extension, sexual power).
Bros has something important to say about its story’s temperamental types. It’s not worried that types exist; rather, it objects to the hierarchy of desire by which those types are organized. And in order to push back against a hierarchy in which people like Bobby (and me) are devalued, the film allows Bobby to take up space. You could see this as yet another example of the privileges of white masculinity. But you could also see it, as I do, as a way of allowing this particular temperamental disposition to display itself, so it can be recognized as distinct kind of personality, with a distinct type of history. Bobby often talks at length in the film, even indulgently, about his struggle with self-confidence, his feeling of never being genuinely erotically desirable, about his commitments to social change and the advancement of LGBTQ civil rights. Bobby is involved in the making of both the best and the worst aspects of gay culture, and he knows that his criticisms of that culture, and his erotic desires, are often contradictory.
I have felt the self-doubt that Bobby articulates when my intellect, my talkativeness, and excitability seems to de-sexualize me in the eyes of men I’m attracted to. It is a lonely, sinking feeling when the very qualities that feel like your super-power somehow become a wall between you and your desires. What queer person does not know some version of this struggle? But Bros creates moments when Bobby’s words—even his excessive ones—are greeted with a kiss, with an offered hand, or an invitation to some passionate fucking. Call me a utopian, but I’m grateful for a cultural representation of a smart, loud, talkative person getting some action despite, even because of, their intelligence.
Bros then, like Fire Island before it, admits something difficult: that even those of us highly marginalized by a dominant, white, male masculine gay ideal often desire that ideal, feel frustrated that there isn’t greater communion across our differences, and also sometimes hate ourselves for our politically suspect sexual fantasies. At the same time, it underscores that many men who appear to perform or achieve the fantasy of seemingly perfected masculinity sometimes hate the culture they’ve been admitted to on the basis of their sheer muscle mass. They struggle to articulate their own range of desires beyond or outside that culture. And yet, they often have difficulty letting go of the intoxicating high that comes with being a sexual ideal. We are all, it turns out, split subjects.
From one angle Bros can be understood as an expression of our cruel optimism for white, normative masculinity, especially in that it gives us our fantasy through the consummation of the romance between these two men. But then again . . . so what? Is the idea that we could simply reeducate our desires overnight any less cruelly optimistic? Isn’t it possible to recognize the problematic nature of the film’s utopian longing, our split subjectivity of both wanting and hating the masculine ideal, while also recognizing that there is no ultimate resolution or quick fix to this paradox?
Bros is not a masterpiece. It does not aim to represent everyone in queer community, break open the limits of its genre, or put forward an impeccable critique of the couple form. Nor does it need to. But it does capture the temperamental logic of us so-called loud, intense, intellectual, talkative queer people. And enough of us share this personality type for the film to speak far beyond the bodies of its two lead actors.
As films like Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, understand so well, human beings have wildly divergent temperaments, personalities, habits and preferences, ethical commitments, spiritual worldviews, geographical origins, even sartorial styles. Who knows, we may even have millions of versions of ourselves across an infinitely branching multi-verse! We are ultimately, different from one another all the way up, and all the way down, from the basic expression of our unique phenotype to our tolerance (or intolerance) for emotional conflict. The categories of “race, class, gender, sexuality and ability” we endlessly repeat like a mantra barely even begin to scratch the surface. The task of art and culture today is not merely to make up for the underrepresentation of marginalized groups, though this is certainly necessary and important; rather, art must make the genuine plurality and heterogeneity of human existence apparent to our senses in as many ways as possible. And so should our cultural criticism.
The desire to demolish every work of queer culture that comes our way for its perceived representational failures seems to me wildly ungrateful. It is a self-righteous dismissal of the genuine gift that art bestows upon us each time we encounter the imaginative work of one creator or another, which is simply the unexpected access we are given to someone else’s unique perspective on the world. Moreover, when we focus on the countless missteps of any given movie, novel, or tv show, we oddly ignore or overlook the actual diversity inherent to today’s queer media ecology.
While critics railed against Bros’s focus on a white gay male couple, they conveniently forgot that Lena Waithe had dedicated an entire season of Netflix’s Master of None to the everyday personal struggles of a Black lesbian couple. While writers decried the thin stereotypes of Bros’s supporting cast (though personally I found them playful, hilarious, and eminently recognizable as hyperbolic versions of people we all know!), no one mentioned the incredible range of richly developed, multi-racial lesbian, trans*, and non-binary characters in the Amazon Prime series, A League of Their Own. And while many predictably eye-rolled about the film’s upholding of the traditional couple form, there wasn’t a word spoken about the unconventional intergenerational romance between a butch lesbian and a transman in Aby McEnany’s brilliant Showtime series Work in Progress.
A queer cultural criticism and politics that operates from a space of abundance and possibility, rather than scarcity and recrimination, weaves a web of relations between an expanding network of queer stories, rather than shedding a spotlight on any single one in order to discredit or denounce it. As Barbara Johnson never tired of reminding us, to truly love art and culture, you must be willing to let it surprise you.
And indeed, after the credits rolled, I left the theatre surprised, even sort of in disbelief, that this little gay intellectual weirdo (me) could suddenly appear, be present, made visible in an odd and entirely unexpected way in a mainstream rom com.
But when I started to text all my friends back, letting them know my first thoughts about Bros, an even better surprised awaited me. My friends, it turns out, were not waiting for me to say no to Bros, or expound on all the reasons I potentially hated it. Rather each of them was eager to tell me that when they watched it, they felt they had finally seen my own struggle in matters of the heart on the big screen. That is no small thing.
Ramzi Fawaz is Romnes Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of two books including The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (2016), and Queer Forms (2022), both published by NYU Press.