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OPINION: The problem with ‘Bro Culture’

When I was at university, there were murmurs of a game being played by groups of young men, who were mostly white and in residences. The game was called 'Hunt the Grunt'. The aim? To win a bet. This is how it would be played: On a night out on the town - or on the two streets that constituted 'town' in Grahamstown - go to your preferred drinking hole. Search for the girl you find most unattractive. Publicly 'hook up' with her (or make sure that there are witnesses or evidence of your successful conquest). At the end of the night, compare your 'target' with those of your friends. The one who is decided to have hooked up with the 'ugliest' girl, 'the grunt', wins the bet.

A few weeks ago, I came across a video of singer Arianna Grande relentlessly fielding sexist questions during a radio interview, and that game came to mind. Not because these incidents are the same, but because they speaks to a particular culture that often flies under the radar: 'Bro Culture'.

The interview begins seemingly innocuously. Grande is asked: "If you could use makeup or your phone one last time, what would you pick?" She responds by questioning how the male hosts think that is really a choice girls have to choose between. From that point onwards, the interview descends into an incessant and unflinching sexist line of questioning, with the two male interviewers playing off each other's energy.

When Grande asserts that she likes to be without her phone and present over dinner, one of the interviewers follows it up with, "Ladies learn". Grande then interjects that "boys and girls can all learn". But after a tense discussion about how Apple's addition of a unicorn emoji is not exclusively for women, Grande eventually says, an uneasy smile fixed on her face: "I don't think I want to hang out at Power 106 anymore".

The video was eventually shared under headlines like 'Ariana Grande Flawlessly Shut Down Sexist Comments In A Radio Interview' as when asked about what she would like to change in the world, she states, "I have a long list of things I'd like to change… I think, judgment in general. Intolerance, meanness, double standards, misogyny, racism, sexism. You know, all that shit. There's lots we've got to get started on. That's what we need to focus on. We have got work to do," and pointing at one of the hosts, asserts "We'll start with you, though".

Nevertheless, the video makes for uncomfortable viewing. Grande never loses her cool. She does not raise her voice. Because from early on in women's lives, we learn to carefully navigate the line between 'nice girl' and 'bitch'. We are aware that this line is incredibly thin, because it can be so easily crossed. The pitch of our voices, the tone of our responses, and simply saying 'no' could mean severing it and bearing the weight of blame for the actions of others, on our reputations and bodies. We bear the burden of proof, and the scales are not weighted in our favour. So we become familiar with the necessary abbreviations to our behaviours and words that must be made, because the costs are high.

Just as we are making those realisations, boys are learning that they too face a line. Between being a 'real man' and one of the boys, or considered 'gay', effeminate and shunned. They learn how fragile masculinity is, and how it constantly needs to be proven. How it is perpetually in crisis, and requires a constant performance to live up to the heterosexual, male ideal. They become familiar with the necessary abbreviations to their behaviours and words that must be made, at all costs.

The question posed to Grande is no different from those women get frequently asked in the entertainment community. They are frequently asked about their hair and who they are wearing, more than their talent and thoughts on critical issues - a point Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg satirised earlier this year. There is something more insidious at play than simply marking this as harmless.

There was something instantly recognisable in that interview. It harkened back to games like 'Hunt the Grunt'. It spoke to cultures in boy's schools, university fraternities and residences. Cultures of male bonding over 'othering' bodies different to their own.

'Bro culture' refers to a specific kind of hyper-masculinity that centres on a performance of maleness for each other and a wider audience. The term is often used to refer to excessive drinking and fraternity life on US college campuses or in Silicon Valley.

It is a culture that is damaging for all genders, in the way it creates a certain script for young boys and men to follow to repeatedly 'prove' and give evidence of their masculinity, by playing out different kinds of dominance over other bodies through what appears as simple 'bonding'.

As Lelo Macheke states: "The practice of hyper-masculinity is often located in the sacred rites and rituals which are performed to unify boys."

To paraphrase a line from Sisonke Msimang's Ruth First lecture: why is it that so many instances of youthful (and often white) male bonding "have historically involved laughing at and then violating" other bodies? As Msimang accurately points out, "The objects of derision are often - but not always - women".

'Bro culture' and 'brotherhood' machismo and rape culture all intersect, spinning on a kind of masculinity that is relentless, violent and threatening. But it often appears and is portrayed as 'just fun', 'hanging out' and 'joking'. It can be as simple as endless, unrepentant joking at the expense of another gender, race or a body deemed different. "No harm done". But it can be as violent as beating, stabbing and kicking a homeless man to death in Moreletta Park, Pretoria. It is all on a scale of violent masculine performance - related, dangerous and toxic for all involved. When viewing things that can appear as simple as bonding or meaningless banter, we have to look deeper than their harmless appearance.

The imprint of this kind of culture of masculinity is everywhere and in many cases it is almost imperceptible. Not because it is invisible, but because it goes unnoticed. We have become well attuned to its cadences. We have adjusted to its frequencies and performances. It has become a normalised part of our everyday life.

But its effects are dangerous and toxic - they are violent even when they don't result in death. We have to question how we have been taught how to behave and perform the genders we were assigned at birth. Behaviours like sexist joking or 'hunting the grunt' with our bros, to having to try to shut down relentless sexism with a smile and coat our critiques in sugar for fear of being branded a bitch, diva or angry woman, like Grande. Because, in many ways, these performances are damaging to all who feel the force of the causes and effects of performing ourselves, whether these point to our gendered expectations of our identities, or other intersections of who we are.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.

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