Picture a car driving down the 401, somewhere between Ottawa and Toronto and on its way to Waterloo. In the car, a young(ish) woman with pink(ish) hair is sitting in the passenger seat, staring out the window trying to hide the fact that she’s holding back tears. That’s me, sometime in the somewhat recent past. I’m trying to explain to my father what my research is about, so I do what I normally do when talking to people who don’t know what fandom, fic, or shipping is: I talk to him about the John/Sherlock ship and the fandom that believes that John and Sherlock could end up together, romantically and canonically, in BBC’s Sherlock.
Alternately: Bromance in the NHL and the homosexual paradox of sport
One of the things I love/hate about how NHL teams and athletes market themselves (and, to be fair, basically any dude-ish media) is The Bromance. A bromance is "an emotionally intense bond between straight men" (DeAngelis, quoted in Robinson et al, 94), and research on bromances -- and participants interviewed about their bromances -- make it clear that it is straight men (or "mostly heterosexual," as a few of Robinson et. al's participants identified) who use the term to describe their relationships.
I love marketed bromances, because they're great ship-fodder. You're going to tell me these two men are such close 'friends' that you can't call it a friendship; you have to call it a bromance? They do everything together and are maybe a little codependent and they love each other so much sometimes people wonder if maybe they'd like to be smooching? Well, well, well, isn't that wonderful. Let me write some fic.
I also love real bromances between actual dudes who love their bros, because they're delightful celebrations of friendship, especially between people who've been told their whole lives that loving their friends is (whispers) gay. As Robinson, Anderson, and White's study on bromances in undergraduate male athletes in the UK tells us, the emotional support and intimacy they gain from these relationships is highly necessary, especially since a cultural landscape of many different kinds of homophobia means that friendships between straight men “never achieve the level of intimacy to which they should have been entitled” (95). When straight men (and they're almost always straight men) identify as members of a bromance, they're re-claiming the homosocial intimacy, love, and affection that our homophobic culture has denied them, and that's a beautiful thing.
But I also hate bromances.
As someone who has a lot of feelings about identifying as bisexual, bromances feel a hell of a lot like erasure. For those bromances where the couple engages in physically intimate acts (cuddling, kissing, hugging;..), emotionally intimate acts (saying "I love you," offering moral/emotional support, giving gifts, love language-y things...), sexually intimate acts (threesomes, sex with men, mutual masturbation...), and/or lives together, it's hard to see the addition of the b to romance as anything but a homophobic desire to be in a homo-romantic/-sexual relationship while refusing to reconcile queerness into their identities. I can't help but wonder why bisexuality, pansexuality, or the umbrella of queerness aren't options for these men who are otherwise happy to be in intimate relationships with other men.
(I know why: bisexual erasure, homophobia, and biphobia -- and a healthy dose of misogyny in the form of the fear of being feminized -- but I still wonder.)
It's not my job, though, to tell individual dudes how they identify, so: be in your bromance. If calling it a bromance is what lets you love that guy with all your heart, call it a bromance and love him as hard as you can. I'll come to your bro-edding and cheer when the officiant declares you bro and bro.
But it is my job to explain why it's frustrating when the NHL calls the relationships between their athletes bromances. Men's hockey, especially professional leagues like the NHL, exists within the context of what Brian Pronger calls the homosexual paradox of sport: the entire industry is built on looking at and desiring men's bodies, while constantly and emphatically denying the possibility of homosexuality. It's homoerotic and homophobic all mixed up into a giant pile of unpleasantness.
In hockey, this paradox is particularly twisty because hockey's also all wrapped up in relationship narratives: teammates, lineys, Cs and As, d-pairings, road-roomies, rookies and mentors, leaders in the locker-room, and so on and so on. We want so badly for our favourite hockey teams to be made up of close, intimate relationships (because hockey's all about the team), but the social rules of men's team sports in North America mean that we often have to serve those relationships up with a side of homophobia, which is what the b in bromance is for. That is the bromantic corollary of hockey's homosexual paradox: close teammates are a necessary and central narrative, but so is the avoidance of queerness.
The NHL can call attention to a close relationship and make it clear that everyone's straight, not to worry, as long as they deploy bromances. It's why they market this image of Brent Burns and Joe Thornton naked and clutching their genitals in the context of their "Best Bromance" fan poll.* Bromance names their relationship as one utterly devoid of potentially homosexuality.
It helps that the men in this image are grinning, proudly facing the camera (unashamed of any potential secrets) and not (barely?) touching -- they're happy to look at us looking at them, without fear that we'll see anything we're not supposed to.
You can do this with less nudity and more emotional intimacy, as well: you can post a montage of the relationship between Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, set to Queen's You're My Best Friend (a super straight song...), open it with a prom-picture pose, and pretend to be shocked when people answer "BFFs? You be the judge..." with "Boyfriends!!"
You can, like the Colorado Avalanche did, literally post a a video of Tyson Barrie reading his heartfelt Valentine's day card to Gabriel Landeskog, where he says, "I love you. Yours, always, Tyson," and not have people wonder if one of them's going to come out soon, because it's all understood to be good fun in the name of bromances.
You could argue that these are healthy expressions of homosocial affection between men -- and if these were independent individuals, and not planned media strategies, I might agree. Instead, what the NHL is doing is using the "no homo" of the bromance to stabilize the homosexual paradox of sport, in service of hockey's need to highlight the intimacy between their athletes.
That is, hockey's homosexual paradox causes anxiety about what is too queer, especially because it's so important to show how close their athletes are, so bromance comes along to balance it out, to say: they love each other, no homo.
Lucky for me, there are people who take the invitation of these marketed bromances and write wonderful fanfiction that turns bromance into romance and destroys the carefully constructed wall of "no homo" with an emphatic "Yes, homo! For god's sake make it gay." -- and that's a topic of another blog post (and my dissertation).
Anderson, Eric. "In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity." SUNY Press, 2010.
Pronger, Brian. "The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex." St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Robinson, Stefan, Eric Anderson, Adam White. “The Bromance: Undergraduate Male Friendships and the Expansion of Contemporary Homosocial Boundaries.” Sex Roles, vol. 78, 1-2, 2018, pp. 94–106. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0768-5
*There's nothing inherently queer about male nudity, of course, especially in the sport context where locker-room nudity is to be expected. However, nudity and intimacy together, especially in the context of the teammates who are frequently naked together in the locker-room, can cause some anxiety about queerness. There are rules for locker-room conduct while queer, such as those described by Pronger in 1992: "one's gaze should be surreptitious; one should not allow one's hands to linger too lovingly or too long on one's own body; and there should be no physical contact with the naked men by whom one is surrounded" (191), but teammates also have to balance those rules with the culturally expected physical intimacy (butt slaps, hugs, casual nudity) of hockey locker-rooms, where too much avoidance of those activities are just as suspicious or awkward as doing them too much. As Anderson explains, the best way to conduct yourself in a locker-room after you've come out is "to do nothing different than you have done before coming out" and let homophobes exile themselves from the locker-room, because otherwise you risk further marginalization by no longer participating in that culture and community (170). However, the specter of queerness may haunt those interactions, especially with homophobic teammates, so it can be a lose-lose situation for gay, bisexual, or panseuxal men in the homoerotic/phobic culture of hockey.
Van Jones says “When it gets harder to love, love harder.”
It’s a good rallying cry against an administration and a growing population of angry white supremacists whose ideology is hate.
What does it mean, though?
When it’s hard to love, be harder in your love?
It’s tempting. Hard love is safe love: armored, protected, invulnerable. Hard bodies don’t take the mark of impression: when you’re scratched or poked or pushed, a hard body won’t show a wound. This is what it means to be hard.
In becoming harder, we risk hurting those we don’t mean to hurt because we won’t feel it when we do.
If we’re hard and directed at our enemies, at those who won’t respond to anything but hardness, I say: be hard. But what of the bodies next to us? If we’re hard, we must be aware of the soft bodies around us. That is the work of being hard.
Hard things are so easily made brittle. Brittle love is shattered by the slightest tension, the smallest push. Brittle love is the “but” that follows: “I’m not racist, (but I want to say something racist),” or “I defend your right to protest, (but be nice about it or I’ll stop),” or “Hitler was bad, (but punching nazis is also bad).”
...because they want us to be hard and brittle, those who construct the spaces of the world so that coalitions are hard to form. They want us with sharp edges and corners that will press into the bodies of our siblings, so they can point to us and point to them and say “they did that to you,” and wipe their hands clean, as though they weren’t the ones who pushed us into each other.
So be hard, if you want. If hardness is what you have, be as hard as you can. Love as hard as you can. But care for the soft ones. Remember how to bend.
It hurts too much for me to be hard.
When Van Jones says “When it is hard to love, love harder,” what I hear is: When it is hard to love, love the harder way.
The harder way to love is to be softer than the hard world.
Van Jones says that we should love hard like the mama bear defending her cubs. She defends her cubs not because she is hard to the world, impenetrable, but because she is so vulnerable. Because she feels the pain of her cubs as pain to herself.
She is so afraid of the harm that the hard world will bring to them that she will do anything to protect them. She will feel their hurt as hers: it is hers.
Loving in the hard way means being soft in a hard world. It’s the love that turns our bodies pliant and vulnerable, that causes us to feel the hurt of others as ours. Janelle Monáe says: “Any injustice done to you is one done to me. It should be one done to all of us.” This is what it means to be soft.
Being soft risks being too malleable. The impressions of walls and edges and fingers and eyes on soft, loving bodies remain, but so do our bodies. You can see what’s left behind after moments, years, centuries because we carry those impressions with us. If we’re too malleable, the heat of the hand that kneads our flesh can change our shape.
Because they want us to be so malleable that we feel all pain as the same pain. That we feel the pain of the loss of privilege as sharply as we feel the pain of centuries of oppression. So they can point to themselves and say “we hurt, too” and we have no choice but to comfort them. We must not let that hand shape us. It has a hand in our shaping, but we decide, in the end, what shape to take. We must remain soft without being malleable. That is the work of being soft.
Don’t let them shape you, but don’t let that make you brittle, either.
Stay soft, but become firm: be harder to move. They can press and push and lean their weight down on us and we’ll feel it, but we won’t move. Where a brittle love must choose between moving and snapping, soft love accepts the weight, shifts, takes a new shape, and stays firm.
We plant our feet in the ground. Scarlett Johansson says “Let the weight help get your heels stuck in.” If you’re too hard, too brittle, the weight will break you. If you’re too malleable, you’ll flatten enough for them to walk over you. Be soft but firm: feel the weight of their eyes and the press of their hands in your skin, keep the wound as a reminder to the world. Stay.
Feel the pain of your siblings as your own: it is your own.
My love will be so soft. When they push me into your bodies, it will be an embrace.
When love is hard, love harder: be soft, be firm, stand in the hard world and let it hurt you, and do not move.
This week I am finishing up the first submission to my ethics review board, and let me tell you it has been a difficult and frustrating experience -- and I haven't even had to revise and resubmit yet. See, the thing is that ethics boards are used to talking to scientists -- social or, um, science scientists -- and although I've used the 'word' "ethnographish" to describe my research, it's more ish than ethnography. The interminable forms I have to fill out have questions like "will you be lying to your participants about anything?" (which made me question every study I've ever participated in) and "will you be using biological samples?" and while, yes, it's easy to answer those ones because the answer is a resounding "no," it's just one more hint that the people who wrote these forms never considered the kind of research I do.
Luckily for me, smart people have written about this elsewhere, so I at least know that I'm not alone. But that doesn't change the fact that institutional review boards are slow to change and I've had to try and shoehorn my project into a form meant for a very different kind of research.
I want to write my dissertation somewhat collaboratively. That is, I want to invite my fandom friends (many of whom are Real Life Friends, now), to comment on my writing and offer their own thoughts in response, in addition, or in opposition to the things that I say. It's important to me that I do what I can to decentralize my dissertation. I know I won't be able to remove myself from it entirely, or even significantly, because, well, it's my dissertation that I'm producing in order to receive my PhD. But I do hope that I'll be able to acknowledge the ways that my fellow fans have a part in the creation of my writing: the ideas, the orientations, the connections, the fandoms are only in my work because of them. I'm not going to be sending out a survey, or casting a wide net for respondents, either. The fandoms I study are ones that I'm calling "intimate fandoms" (thanks to Lauren Berlant and Aimée Morrison for tackling the ideas of intimate publics and online intimate publics respectively so that I don't have to), which means that they're small, reciprocal groups of fans who create and maintain boundaries around their group in order to immerse themselves in the fictions that they are interested in telling. That is, these groups of fans are mutual followers (they follow each other back) and they talk to each other one-on-one. They use idiosyncratic tagging so that people in the know can find the material, but people doing a general search won't just stumble upon their work. They have particular interpretations of canon that they're uninterested in proving because it's more fun to just believe them and go from there. These aren't massive groups that organize fan campaigns, or even that show up en masse to conventions: they're groups of friends online who play in a shared fictional world. No one is a bigger expert on these groups than the people in them, and I can't write this dissertation without including my fellow fans, my friends, my mutual follows, in the process.
It's hard to fit that into an ethics clearance submission, though. I'm not running a study, and I'm not even conducting interviews or surveys -- I'm just asking for feedback. If I were doing this with Official Colleagues, I don't think the question of ethics clearance would have come up. Partly because academics accept that providing feedback to our colleagues is part of the job, and partly because we all work in the same system, so the idea that I am using them in a study just doesn't make sense. And I'm not arguing that I shouldn't have to get ethics clearance, because I do think that is necessary. I am, study or not, using the labour of people who will not be compensated in the academic system for their participation. I am broke, so I'll be offering people gifts of fanfic and homemade crafty things in return, but I'm asking for more work than those gifts are worth. My research will be improved by their participation, so ethics is necessary.
What isn't necessary, though, is trying to cram my very simple objective (which is to get feedback from experts) into a process designed for medical research, psychological research, and other kinds of human testing that may or may not include biological material. Despite not actually interviewing or surveying anyone, I've had to submit a list of interview questions. Questions that I'm never going to ask anyone, but that I spent several hours writing. I've had to talk about risks to my participants in a form that assumes those risks are things like psychological damage or injury, rather than "Well you might have an online mob descend on you, but probably not because probably no one is ever going to read this but I guess that's something that could happen. I guess also you might get bored?" I'm expected to be able to answer where my field is and how I'll be "holding" my "interviews" and although "electronically" is an option, that doesn't encompass the different ways that I'll be getting feedback from my participants. I could get a direct message on tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. I could get an email. I could get a comment on this blog. I could get tagged in someone's blog post. I could get any combination of these depending on how that particular respondent feels most comfortable talking to me. So I can't actually give a procedure, because it's literally just "I am talking to fellow fans as though they are also experts, which they are." And experts talk to each other without a procedure.
So I'll submit this proposal, and I'll revise and resubmit as I need it to, but I'm really looking forward to a time when those of us doing ethnographish research are actually invited to get ethics clearance. I'm pushing through, but I know there will be people who consider getting it, see the way that the form just sort of assumes their research doesn't need ethics clearance, and accept that as an answer -- and that will do harm, in the long run. Because I do need ethics clearance for this research. I need to make sure that I'm not abusing my position as a scholar and a friend to milk the intellectual labour of my fellow fans, and I need to make sure that other people know that what I'm doing is above board. I trust myself not to be a jerk to my friends, but that doesn't mean that they trust me, nor that other scholars should.