It’s that time of year again. People are popping the question, planning romantic evenings out (or in), stocking up on champagne, chocolate, and rose petals; love is in the air, everywhere I look around (go on, play the song; you know you want to!) Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day.
If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life, traditionally this is the time to make them feel special. I don’t want to talk about your significant other, however (although please don’t ignore them either; or use me as an excuse for ignoring them), I want to talk about another group of people, another type of personal relationship, that is ignored year after year; like orphans at Christmas, and ex-pats at Thanksgiving.
I’m not talking about singles (there’s always Serendipity, speed dating, that bottle of red, and next year). I’m not talking about you and your pets either (although apparently this is a thing: the ASPCA notes a spike in animal poisonings around February 14 thanks at least in part to lilies and chocolate). I’m talking about your mates: bromances.
Alright, so these bromances are probably not long-lost or ignored but they do offer a window into the emotional capabilities of men so long stereotyped virtually en masse as emotionally stunted and unavailable, including in their relationships with other men. Valentine’s Day does provide us (or probably more me) with the perfect opportunity to have a chat about this.
The bromance has surged in popular culture in recent years to such an extent that you could be forgiven for thinking this a relatively recent concept. Although Wikipedia dates the term ‘bromance’ (only) to the early 90s, Urban Dictionary’s oldest definition is from 2004. The ‘bromantic comedy’ genre (think I Love You, Man, Superbad, or I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) seems to be the latest incarnation of this trend capturing enormous audience interest.
Although the word might be new, however, the concept certainly isn’t. While we, from the vantage point of the twentieth century, share particular conceptions of what a proper mate should look like, what he should do, and where you should both socialise, these views are products of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; relatively recent, historically speaking. The myth of the emotionally stunted male abounds, and while there might be some truth to this, the discussions are often incorrectly couched. Men are not intrinsically less capable of intense emotional engagements anymore than women are intrinsically more nurturing or less aggressive.
In the nineteenth century it’s a whole different ball game.
Let’s meet Daniel Webster and James Hervey Bingham, by far the tamest ‘bro’s’ in E. Anthony Rotundo’s fascinating book American Manhood. Webster and Bingham met at Dartmouth and became fast friends. Fortunately for the historian, their correspondence survived, describing their intimate friendship. Webster wrote to Bingham describing him as ‘“the only friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections, the only participator of my most secret thoughts.”’ And on another occasion: ‘“I knew not how closely our feelings were interwoven had no idea how hard it would be to live apart, when the hope of living together again no longer existed.’”
Having trouble finding a wife, Webster even proposed Bingham and he grow old together, not only so that they would not be alone but so that they could age with someone they cared about: ‘“Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough; we will practise at the same bar, and be as friendly a pair of single fellows as ever cracked a nut.”’
Before you jump to any conclusions, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support the notion that this was a sexual relationship; it was just different from those we might recognise today. That this needs to be clarified is more a reflection of our own contemporary interests and concerns. According to Rotundo, Bingham and Webster also wrote to each other madly about the various women in their lives. It was just the case that their relationship with one another was equally important; a relationship with a woman did not necessarily supercede that with another male relationship even though it may have filled a different requirement.
Danno and Bingo (nicknames bestowed upon these guys by me as I’ve come to know them) were good mates, and experienced a relatively restrained relationship when compared to certain other youthful, nineteenth-century male companions uncovered by Rotundo. Importantly, however, their relationship was one based on emotional sharing and openness. They were not incapable of emotion, quite the opposite, they relied upon one another for strength in overcoming their emotional vulnerabilities or insecurities.
Bromances are not new in and of themselves. Although they may indicate a new trend towards the acceptance of a type of emotional potential in the twenty-first century male it doesn’t seem likely that men today will act in these very affectionate, intimate, or emotional ways with other women or men they’re not engaged in a relationship with. What they should give you an indication of, however, is how unnatural our assumptions are about men, and how conditioned we all are to either act or support very particular masculine roles.
This Valentine’s Day as you’re taking stock of your relationships, whether you are a man, with a man, or know other men, think about how masculinity is imagined, what hangups we all bring to the table, whether they’re innate and, just perhaps, how we might begin to get past them.
In case you wanted to check it out …
E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: BasicBooks, 1993).
In case you were wondering …
I’m chalking up the Serendipity reference to Valentine’s Day shame; we’ve all got one of these up our sleeves.
You’ve no doubt read the disclaimer on our website; the one about historians not being doctors so not being able to give medical advice: ‘Please consult with your doctor (not historians) for sound, practical, and accurate medical advice.’ That one. Well, in the same vein, romance expert I am not. I have the history covered, but anything aside from that, you’re on your own.
Having waived the disclaimer about, however, I’m feeling free(r) to casually dispense advice though, so: Ladies and gents, don’t hide a ring in a cake, drop it in a glass of champagne, dangle it from a ceiling, or bury it in a box somewhere. These seem like great ideas at the time but I think foraging for a ring is going to remove some of the sheen (literally and metaphorically) from your (potential) fiancée’s night. But that’s just me.
Of course, you heard that (incredibly original) little gem here on NursingClio first. We do what we can.
And finally …
Two (slightly more serious) points.
I’ve used ‘bromance’ here to talk about the relationship between two men without sexual attraction to one another. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the term is exclusive to heterosexual males, although that is probably the case in the examples used. As I understand them, bromances don’t have to take place between two straight men, they just mark a close platonic friendship. They also don’t necessarily exclude women, although this is a whole different conversation.
I do realise that ‘bromances’ today are fraught with a tension between homosociality and homosexuality. This too, however, deserves a blog post in and of itself. As always, we’d all love to hear your thoughts. If you’re keen to hear more about masculinity and friendship, we’ll see what we can do.
 Daniel Webster to J. Hervey Bingham, Feb 11, 1800 and Oct. 26, 1801, Writings of Webster, vol. 17 quoted in E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), p. 78.
 Daniel Webster to J. Hervey Bingham, Apr. 3, 1804, Writings of Webster, vol. 17 quoted in Rotundo, American Manhood, p. 79.