I love you, bro! No homo, though.

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. 

A screenshot of the NHL Fan awards category "Best Bromance" from 2018, which includes the winners Burns and Thornton, and other nominees: Matt Martin and Mitch Marner, Jack Eichey and Sam Reinhard, and Brady Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, and Kevin Hayes.

A screenshot of the NHL Fan awards category "Best Bromance" from 2018, which includes the winners Burns and Thornton, and other nominees: Matt Martin and Mitch Marner, Jack Eichey and Sam Reinhard, and Brady Skjei, Jimmy Vesey, and Kevin Hayes.

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.

The ESPN cover for the 2017 Body issue, with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns posing naked, holding their genitals to block the camera's view. They both have extensions on their beards to make them absurdly long, and they are flowing in the wind, exposing their nude bodies. Both men are grinning, and you can see Burns' missing teeth.

The ESPN cover for the 2017 Body issue, with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns posing naked, holding their genitals to block the camera's view. They both have extensions on their beards to make them absurdly long, and they are flowing in the wind, exposing their nude bodies. Both men are grinning, and you can see Burns' missing teeth.

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!!"

A screenshot of a video posted to the Montreal Canadiens' official YouTube account, titled "Habs Bromance: Galchenyuk & Gallagher Best Moments." The title image shows Galchenyuk posed with an arm around Gallagher, with a cityscape skyline in the background and the word "bromance" in pink flowy text. 

A screenshot of a video posted to the Montreal Canadiens' official YouTube account, titled "Habs Bromance: Galchenyuk & Gallagher Best Moments." The title image shows Galchenyuk posed with an arm around Gallagher, with a cityscape skyline in the background and the word "bromance" in pink flowy text. 

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.

A screenshot of the above-linked tweet from the Colorado Avalanche official twitter account. It reads "...then Gabe & Tyson read them to each other. #Avs360" and the preview image shows Landeskog in the background smiling at Barrie, who is holding a red card in the foreground.

A screenshot of the above-linked tweet from the Colorado Avalanche official twitter account. It reads "...then Gabe & Tyson read them to each other. #Avs360" and the preview image shows Landeskog in the background smiling at Barrie, who is holding a red card in the foreground.

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.