By Jonathan Balmer
Why do some people insist Frodo and Sam (heroes of “The Lord of the Rings” series and a nearly unequaled example of loyal friendship) must be gay lovers? Why have phrases like “bromance” or “man-date” come into the popular lexicon? I have a theory.
For a long time, in many cultures, the social spheres of men and women were not quite as porous as they are now. Most time was spent, and most social bonding occurred, with those of the same sex. While I have little space to explain in detail, one should know that that slowly began to change starting perhaps with the greater acceptability of “Courtly Love” in the later Middle Ages (as argued by Louis-Georges Tin in “The Invention of Heterosexual Culture”).
By the 20th century, this cultic status of the male-female couple had grown so powerful the poet W.H. Auden could claim, “No notion of our Western culture has been responsible for more human misery and more bad poetry than the supposition… that a certain mystical experience called falling or being ‘in love’ is one which every normal man and woman can expect to have.”
Male-female romantic relationships started becoming the place for acceptable intimacy — and not only sexually.
This is why it is strange for us to see old Civil War pictures of men in “intimate poses”—holding hands, sitting in one another’s laps—positions which seem to us more indicative of a “couple” than “friends.” Modern western society increasingly put more stock in romantic relationships than in friendships –to the point where couples became almost the only social arrangement in which (at least some) public displays of affection were permissible.
Anyone who has ever been to a country where kissing as a greeting is common knows a kiss is not inherently sexual. Neither is a hug or holding hands. People desire affection and intimacy, naturally, it need not be a de facto sign a relationship is not platonic.
In many countries with a suppressed or non-existent gay-rights movement, same-sex public affection among friends is common because it is not presumed that such affection is the property of couples only (whether “gay” or “straight”). Gay couples fighting for recognition have sometimes contributed to the pervasive idea that affection is only for those in a romantic or sexual relationship.
Do not mistake my point. I am not saying society should shove every gay person back in the closet or that we should socially segregate men and women to regain same-sex friendship. Rather, I believe in recognizing that romantic or sexual relationships should not be the only possible source of love, intimacy, and affection in our lives. “The couple” does not have sole rights to that position.
It is wise to note the words of C.S. Lewis in “The Four Loves”: “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
“Bromances” are born out of the need for intimate relationships outside of those which are assumed to be (at least potentially) sexual. Therefore, the one socially acceptable way to regain same-sex, but non-sexual, intimacy is taken. A mock romance is created because a romance is where we assume the one place that love is acceptable. We call it the “Bromance.” It is an attempt to regain what was lost: intimate, platonic same-sex friendships.
St. Aelred of Rievaulx, 12th century abbot and writer of “On Spiritual Friendship,” held that true friendship was life-long. Sitcoms like “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” suggest that while significant others come and go, your pals will always be there for you.
But in our lives, we often seem atomized into individuals. Committed romantic relationships appear much more stable than any sort of “deep” or even “spiritual” friendship could ever be in our society where our job could suddenly move us across the country or world.
These medieval and ancient pictures of friendship seem impossible, or less likely, today. At the very least, considering the need the “Bromance” represents seriously is counter-cultural (and I would argue potentially very Christian, but that’s another topic entirely).
Ultimately, there is no zero-sum game here. Recognizing worth in romantic relationships does not mean friendships must be devoid of affection. It’s okay for “bros” to hold hands.