The banter in my house has become bleak – or bleaker, let’s say – since my girls started middle and high-school. Sure, there have been tender, thoughtful conversations since they became teens; and, honestly, I’m a huge fan of the more “mouthy” stages of child development. (“There are no bad words, only bad uses,” the writer in me likes to cluck.) But the bros and the dudes and the no-effs-given attitudes are driving me crazy lately. Apparently, I have lots of effs to give.
“What’s good, bro?” my middle child asked her younger sister one day, thunking something down on the kitchen counter. The conversation continues with an exchange about makeup: “Yo, you wearing mascara?” Youngest asks, accusatorially. “Nah, dude, those are my eyelashes,” Older says, proudly. “Jealous, bruh, they’re sooooo long,” Youngest says back, before the two of them bang their bodies down the basement stairs – and I bang my head in a nearby bedroom.
The first time I noticed bro culture infiltrating my own home was when my girls began regularly watching actual bros, the Dobre Brothers, on YouTube. They were early tweens at the time, too young for social media (according to me) but too old to watch Moana again (according to them). From what I understood, the appeal of the young YouTube influencers was their ability to complete a series of backflips and pranks, often shirtless. (Titles of recent videos include, “Making EVERYONE BE MEAN To my Girlfriend For 24 hours! *PRANK*” and “Feelin’ Alright,” a music video featuring the bros lounging on luxury vehicles in loose robes.) Maybe my daughters simply had crushes? Or was it more likely that these careful young girls actually wanted to be these seemingly carefree young boys?
Bro culture these days appears to be a strange amalgamation of frat boy meets surf bum meets that guy who thinks we could solve cancer if everyone would just relax. On the surface, it might seem harmless, a celebration even of male kinship and jocularity. But underneath the “good vibes only” facade, I can’t help but detect a hyper-masculinity lurking in which abs (see: loose robes), status (see: luxury vehicles), and sexual conquest (see: girlfriend as butt of joke) reign supreme. So, it’s hard for me not to label bro culture as inherently sexist, defined as much by what it is (masculine = chill) as what it isn’t (feminine = shrill).
Which is why I suspect “yo mama” jokes have also become a popular gag in our family. Actually, joke is too generous a word. It’s more like a lazy non-sequitur. “Where did you put the salt shaker?” Yo mama. “Why is there a banana peel in your underwear drawer?” Yo mama. “Who are you taking to the fall formal?” You understand. Even my husband enjoys getting in on the absurdity. “Stop it,” I have to swat at him, trying very hard not to laugh, “you’re encouraging them!” The one time I tried a yo papa comeback – take that! feminist twist! — it was as if I broke their brains. It was the non-sequitur of non-sequiturs.
So, after weeks of trying and failing to let it go (see above: lots of effs), I recently tried confronting the issue head-on.
“Have you ever considered that always saying bro-this and yo mama-that is sort of sexist?” I asked. Youngest averted her eyes. Older fixed her face for a stand-off.
“I mean, it’s like your every word assumes a male gaze and a male audience,” I went on. Older thought for a moment, revealing nothing.
Finally, she shrugged, real even, real chill, “Huh. You’re right,” and pulled out her phone to indicate the teachable moment was complete.
Maybe I find this “person with the least amount of effs wins” philosophy so frustrating because it’s so familiar. When I was a teenager, I, too, thought it cooler to be one of the guys than a champion of girls – or even myself. My older brother was kind and creative and absurdly inclusive, but he also frequently reminded me that if I wanted to hang out with him and his friends I would have to continue on my lifelong quest “to quit being so sensitive” and “stop taking things so seriously.” It was then I understood that appearing low maintenance requires a ton of maintenance, an endeavor I would apply myself sensitively and seriously to for the next ten years. Such was the price of being a “guy’s” girl.
But if I could go back and tell my teen self anything, if I could tell my girls the same thing now (without fear of stink face), it would be this: caring is cool. And I don’t mean caring about looking like you don’t care but actually caring about whatever’s genuine to you: do backflips, play pranks, wear the mascara, create your own damn content rather than just consuming it. I’d say, Screw power by proximity. Explore your own power for the good of us all. Because, as the sage author and facilitator Priya Parker once observed, chill often privileges self-protection above actual connection.
Maybe there’s something gender-bending about my girls’ appropriation of bro culture that I’m missing. I’m willing to be wrong and old and out of touch about the matter. Mostly, I’d just like them to have language for their lives that centers their relationship to one another rather than to men – or even children. (Mom culture is its own beast.) Like why not sis culture or even sib(ling) culture, where we prize earnestness and intensity and greeting everyone with a hearty “what’s good, kin?” Ok, maybe that’s asking too much. Really, any subject change will do at this point.
I’m ready for the next parenting head banger.
Because this one is so bro-ver.
Erin Lane is the author of Someone Other Than a Mother: Flipping the Scripts on a Woman’s Purpose and Making Meaning beyond Motherhood. Find her on Instagram @heyerinlane.