The Unbearable Bro-ness of Being

If you still don't believe that Hemingway was totally "bro," then bleach your eyes on this.

So, Hemingway was a douchebag. I think we can all agree on that. The argument has long since been made that Ernest Hemingway was a hard-drinking, emotionally-unstable, misogynistic prick, and there’s a fair amount there to support it. While I do think that Ericka Taylor’s recent post puts his douchitude into perspective, it’s no excuse. Of all the macho stereotypes and resultant unpleasant side-effects ever brought forth by Patriarchy, few did more to further them with their writing than Ernest Hemingway. And understand, I say that having a borderline fanboy obsession with his prose.

I grew up reading Hemingway. I come from a rural blue-collar background. I grew up either reading about or surrounded by working-class guys who were taciturn, moody, and less than prone to introspection. I always remember feeling like the odd kid out, the sensitive boy, a feeling which stuck around even after I’d joined the Army, where I was looked at askance for being the one enlisted guy in my unit with at least a partial education. I always remembered feeling resentful that the blows of life, the cruelties, never hit my peers as hard as they hit me; I felt like the only person depressed from the absence of my spouse, or feeling responsible for the sufferings of the people we encountered. I felt like this until I came back from deployment, or came home to my parents’ on leave, and saw my friends drinking, saw their marriages crumbling, saw them trapped in collapsing relationships with their grown kids and realized that these men were just as fucked as I was. Just as fucked as many of the men in Hemingway’s stories.

Notice: I say “many”. Not nearly enough.

We were talking in workshop recently about the trope of philandering males in fiction. Now don’t get me wrong: it’s a trope because it’s true, and I get that. But the concern was raised that it does lack depth. It seems to me that while the roles for women in society have changed very positively in the last fifty years, the same can hardly be said of men. Sure, there are some good steps in the direction of embracing power- and income-sharing, but for the most part there’s still this very dudebro, anti-intellectual, anti-emotional bent that I think forms how a lot of young men develop in our culture, to say nothing of the more alarming rejection of male agency seen at the other end of the spectrum. And we see it reinforced in a lot of our fiction. The Sun Also Rises. Less Than Zero. Fight Club.

Women are the real victims in our society. Make no mistake about that. In terms of employment, reproductive freedom, and day-to-day messaging, women have it worse in every way that matters. That said, it does concern me to see an entire culture of casual chauvinism that has left all the men I know reduced to stunted boys, but expects them to behave in any other way to those that they care about. And then so we see these values reflected in our writing, or worse yet, simply never explored.

I once told a friend that I preferred writing female characters, because a good strong female character is more emotionally honest than a male in the same trying circumstances. To a certain extent, I still believe that’s true, but it’s gotten me thinking: what about that? I feel like there need to be more stories about guys like my granddad, or about my fellow vets, guys who were raised to believe in a notion of the American Man — the Marlboro Man — an image which was either a lie or which has left them emotionally crippled, unable to deal in terms like grief, longing, or empathy. These are all traditionally “female” sentiments, but wearing a Carhartt and smoking a certain brand of cigarette doesn’t stop you from feeling them. They’re human sentiments. If one believes a lot of popular writing however, either commercial or literary, the choices of role-model for a young man are either macho colonialist Great White Hunter, Randian titan of industry, or sparkly Mormon vegetarian “vampire.” It’s a false choice: bro or emo, Ernest Hemingway or Edward Cullen, and I don’t really buy into it.

I guess my thing here is this: how can we expect men to behave like anything other than sexist pricks, and not examine the cultural valuations that churn them out that way? I think if we’re to forge a redefined, postmodern American masculinity, it needs to start in literature. There are already some positive attempts, to be certain: The Man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the protagonists of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Fitzhugh Martin in Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith. But I do think it’s only the start of a dialogue that needs to be had. You can’t raise consciousness without raising consciousness, after all.

If you want good men, then teach your boys to be better. If you want good sources, then write better men. Or at very least, more believable ones.


  • Kathryn says:

    I love this post. However, I think the Edward Cullen / Hemingway dichotomy is a bit of a false one. Take a closer look at Twilight (actually, don’t; it might hurt your brain—my sister had me watch the movie with her a few weeks ago and I’m still hurting). That guy is actually an abusive asshole who (1) threatens his girlfriend, (2) takes her car apart when she wants to see a male friend, (3) sneaks into her room at night to watch her sleep, and (4) after they get married and while they have sex the first time, he hurts her so badly she’s covered in bruises and can’t completely remember what happened.

    Bad Twilight messages aside (seriously, a generation of teenage girls think this is romantic?), I think you make a lot of good points here. Sexism does hurt both sexes, and I think it would do a lot of good for everyone if our society moved away from this love for and dominance of the alpha male.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I’ve been walking around saying or thinking “the unbearable bro-ness of being” for about 5 days in a row. Now, everyone in my family’s saying it, especially my son. The unbearable bro-ness of being. I even want to keep typing it.

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