Catherine Novak was surprised to hear her son telling his best friend that he loves him. Could this be the new show of masculinity?
“Yep, I’ll be over after dinner, bro. Love you.”
That was my 16-year-old son, Josh*, talking to Andrew*, his best friend since middle school. They frequently end their short phone conversations with “Love you”. The first time I heard it, I nearly sprayed my tea on the computer keyboard. Did he forget who he was talking to? Is this something that all the teenage boys say to each other? While the answers, it turns out, are “no” and “NO”, my son Josh often ignores convention, preferring to set his own trends. Is wearing your heart on your sleeve for your “bros” one of them?
Josh told me more about their friendship when we were on one of those long car rides where moms get to talk to their kids, “It’s not like we’re gay for each other, Mom, but he understands me like nobody else does”. Throughout the spring and summer, when Josh couldn’t leave the house because of a chronic illness, Andrew would come over, and they would watch hours of How I Met Your Mother. When Andrew was pining for a girl, he and Josh would dissect whether her constant Facebook messaging meant they were friends, or if she were just leading him on. Andrew has come with us on a big road trip, and Josh has gone with Andrew’s family to a posh Vancouver hotel. In many ways, they are closer than brothers. Why then, should a young man saying “love you” to his best friend at the end of a phone call be a shocking event?
The straight, white, middle-class, North American culture these boys belong to, while becoming more open to loving relationships of all sorts, is still uncomfortable with any show of emotion between heterosexual men. Nowhere are gender norms regularly upheld more than popular television and movies. There’s an archetype of the emotionally distant straight guy: think Dan Draper in Mad Men or Jeff Winger in Community, but there are a few shows are starting to challenge norms.
How I Met Your Mother frequently explores the rich territory of male friendship, especially as the anxieties of dating and marriage make guys evaluate their own relationship boundaries. It’s Friday night – do you go out with the guys or stay in and watch a movie with your girlfriend? How do you decide who has a bigger claim on your heart?
Josh and Andrew love to watch Community, which takes male closeness as far as it can go while staying within the “friends” category. Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) haven’t let adulthood get in the way of their BFF status. Secret handshakes, role-plays, goofing off, unquestioning acceptance — it’s all there, including a girlfriend feeling like a third-wheel in the TroyNAbed mix. Perhaps it’s telling that Troy and Abed demonstrate their friendship by acting like big kids. It appears that male affection outside of games is something that tends to get squashed at puberty – unless you are “weird” or willing to question some gender norms.
It usually takes a blood alcohol reading of “get a taxi” before most men will ever say “I love you, man” to their best friends. When guys get those feelings of brotherly love, at most it comes across as an awkward, bumbling man-hug – the one that only connects from the chest up, and features a chummy back thump. At least, that is how it has been for my generation. But anecdotally at least, Josh and Andrew are evidence that change is happening — that young men might be more open to their softer sides.
As Josh’s mom, who has watched him grow from a round-cheeked little boy who was generous with hugs to a teenager who is still generous with hugs, I want him to stay true to his loving nature. I want him to have the freedom that I have as a woman to tell his friends how much they mean to him. It shouldn’t matter how old he is, whether he’s gay or straight, on a battlefield or on the phone. Brotherly love needs a place in our culture, and I hope he is brave and strong enough to hang onto it.
Photo Credit: Pixabay
Gif credit: Bite
*because the boys are minors their names have been changed.