The bros among us
Exploring bro culture at Chico State, why it hurts the community and how guys find their own way
Life’s been kind of weird for Jamie Waldear, a junior at Chico State, since he quit his fraternity but decided to see his lease through at the house until the end of this spring semester.
For example, he was recently sitting at his desk, writing an essay, and some of his ex-brothers came in and asked to use his room for a “journey”—an initiation ritual for pledges that Waldear, 21, preferred not to get specific about during a recent interview.
“I’m like, ‘Uh, OK,’” he said. He took his studies elsewhere.
Aside from stuff like that, it’s cool. Waldear remains good friends with the members and they still party together, sometimes.
“I’m all for hanging out on a sunny day and playing some beer pong,” he said. Part of the reason he quit the fraternity, though—he chose not to publicly disclose which one—was the routine of heavy drinking that developed over his three semesters as an active member.
“It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, and these guys are like, piss-drunk,” he said. “The fact that they were drinking to get messed up, and then they were a complete mess and a liability, that was a big turn-off.”
Waldear also saw changes in himself. He started to absorb the sense of superiority he says his ex-brothers feel over GDIs—God Damn Independents, as students unaffiliated with Greek life are sometimes called. What’s more, the community service Waldear had envisioned undertaking when he joined the fraternity never came together.
“Everyone was saying, ‘We don’t do enough philanthropy stuff,’ but not one active member would come clean up trash with us on the weekends. It was always just me and the pledges,” he said. “They weren’t willing to give 30 minutes to clean up trash around Chico.”
Waldear stressed that his experience doesn’t represent everyone’s; some frats are “more social” than others. He just wants to get on with his life.
He’s seen what it’s like when guys don’t move on, don’t progress while they’re in college and fail to find their way once they’ve graduated. Waldear can think of two alums still hanging around the frat house, and he says it seems like they’re struggling with who they are as adults—as men. At some point, the party culture, which extends far beyond Greek life and male students, came to define them. They became “bros.”
“They were so adjusted to this lifestyle, and then they find out people don’t act like that in the real world,” Waldear said.
Getting a running start on adulthood means developing senses of purpose and direction, which can’t be found by fully subscribing to bro culture. After all, one of its central tenets is not caring about anything. And while there are endless examples of motivated, earnest and thoughtful guys following their own paths here in Chico, many college-age men in our community haven’t figured themselves out yet. In the meantime, the entire community is affected by bro culture’s negative aspects: the raucous parties, the fights, the disrespect toward women, the alcohol-related deaths.
So, what’s behind it all? In speaking with young men and women in the campus community, there’s a consensus that the bro persona is rooted in insecurity and the human desire to belong. Waldear agrees:
“You create this character to present yourself as this person who’s on top of the world, super in control.”
Who are we talking about when we talk about bros? The CN&R posed that question to people in the campus community, and found that answers were highly subjective, but a caricature did emerge.
Almost exclusively, bros are white. They’re muscular, or at least clearly emphasize fitness and physical appearance. There are common fashion choices: backward baseball caps, neon or pastel tank tops—especially that tapered-cut style favored at the gym that exposes side-abs, nipples and armpit hair—flip-flop sandals or boat shoes, and those gaudy sunglasses (you know the ones). If he’s wearing a shirt with a collar, his collar’s popped.
Then there are behavior-based indicators. He grunts more than one suspects is necessary while pumping iron. He whistles when he sees an attractive woman on the street. He drinks—a lot. He’s probably in a frat. School is a secondary consideration. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care much about anything. His speech patterns and how he refers to women, homosexuals and minorities suggest he’s uneducated, even though he’s attending a university. He’s a loud, theatrical braggart, especially when he’s partying and especially after he’s won at beer pong, or video games, or darts, or really anything. He makes allusions to or readily discloses how many women he’s slept with, and he’s probably lying. He calls this pursuit “chasing tail.”
Chico State graduate student Jasmine Buck, who works for UMatter, a student-led program through Chico State’s Counseling and Wellness Center, offers simple directions for where to spy bros in action: “Go to the WREC, go downstairs, and there you go!”
Beyond such generalizations, the essence of a bro is difficult to define, even for men currently in college. Some, like Chico State senior and fraternity member Tyler Lyckberg, say brohood is a phase rather than a life-long identity.
“It’s this limbo period where you’re searching for self,” he said. “Bros are having a good time with their college experience, or at least acting like it. There’s this societal expectation that that’s what you do in college if you’re a dude and you want to live the experience to its fullest—hang out with your bros.”
Some describe it more as a readymade personality guys can assume when they’re unsure of themselves. Douglas Minton is a 22-year-old senior at Chico State who says that, in the past, he’s fulfilled the stereotype in uncomfortable social situations.
“It’s easy to fall into those bro stereotypes when you’re this age and around this group of people in a party culture,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘What’s the easy thing to do here?’ If you act this way and talk this way, you’ll make these friends.”
Taking that approach can make it easier to connect immediately at a party or during class, Minton said, but those connections tend not to run deep if the personality you’re presenting is a facade.
“It can be superficial; you’re staying very surface-level with your relations,” he said. “If you’re following what you’re supposed to say, how to act, what to do, who to be with, then you aren’t really putting in the work to find out what you like. You have that script written out for you.”
Minton has worked at establishing his own identity, which has involved finding a purpose outside of serving himself. His internship with UMatter has helped him take positive steps toward his goal of working in the mental-health field, and recently he was accepted into Chico State’s graduate program for marriage and family therapy.
Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at State University of New York, argues that bro culture is a recent phenomenon, an unprecedented life stage that occurs for men between ages 16 and 26 as society has pushed back the traditional markers of becoming an adult—marriage, a professional career, home ownership and parenthood.
Kimmel interviewed hundreds of high school and college men across the country for his 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. He observes that the population of “Guyland,” synonymous with bro culture, is made up of “mostly white, middle-class kids; they are college-bound, in college, or have recently graduated; they’re unmarried. They live communally with other guys, in dorms, apartments or fraternities. Or they live with their parents (even after college). Their jobs, if they have them, are modest, low-paying, low-prestige ones in the service sector or entry-level corporate jobs that leave them plenty of time to party. They’re good kids, by and large.”
Good kids having harmless fun, for the most part. While pretty much all of the common associations are negative, not everyone who looks like a bro is a hard-boozing, irresponsible and sex-driven maniac—far from it. The vast majority are well-intentioned dudes just trying to fit in by adopting the fashion, language and behaviors they know to be socially acceptable or think is cool. And in the briefly inflated bubble that is life in college, most students, not just white men, can get away with behavior that just doesn’t fly once they’re weighed down by heavier responsibilities.
But there are legitimate reasons for concern, Kimmel makes clear. Many of the negative behaviors and activities carried out in bro culture are borne of a desire to boost appearances of masculinity, despite very little understanding of what manhood means.
“These are the guys who are so desperate to be accepted by their peers that they do all sorts of things they know to be not quite right,” he writes. “They lie about their sexual experiences to appear more manly; they drink more than they know how to handle because they don’t want to seem weak or immature; they sheepishly engage in locker-room talk about women they actually like and respect.”
Tragically misguided or not, the actions of college-age men have real consequences. Consider the problems that plague downtown Chico and the south campus neighborhood—from parties spilling into roadways and physical violence to sexual assault and drug and alcohol overdoses.
And it affects more than the student community. On major party weekends, police respond to so many calls in the south campus neighborhood that they aren’t able to adequately cover the rest of the city. (In recent years the Chico City Council has passed a number of ordinances aimed at giving police more control over local alcohol consumption and partying, including a social host ordinance that holds tenants, landlords and property owners financially responsible for nuisance activities related to underage drinking on private property.)
And we all feel the reverberations of the alcohol-related deaths of students like 21-year-old Mason Sumnicht, a Sigma Pi pledge who died in November 2012, nearly two weeks after being admitted to Enloe Medical Center with a blood alcohol level of 0.468, more than five times the legal limit. Or Chico State nursing student Kristina Chesterman, who, at 21, was struck and killed by a drunken driver, 19-year-old Riley Dean Hoover, while riding her bike home on Nord Avenue in September 2013. Or, just this March, the fatal shooting of Travis Powell, a 22-year-old Chico State junior, at a house party on West Seventh and Oak streets.
It’s not like Chico State hasn’t tried to curb the party culture. Administrators have been grappling with how to do that since Playboy magazine ranked the university No. 1 party school in the nation back in 1987. They’ve taken numerous steps to suppress binge drinking since those days, including changing the date of spring break to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, a heavy drinking day, rather than Easter week.
But then, like a game of whack-a-mole, the new big day for drinking each spring became César Chávez Day (a national holiday meant to promote community service). The ugly truth is, some students, including Waldear’s ex-brothers, will use any excuse to get wasted.
“Remember that [power] blackout a few weeks back? They used that opportunity to literally get blacked out,” Waldear said.
One can’t fully grasp the bro stereotype without understanding how he regards women. (Not highly, it turns out.)
“What about girls? Guys love girls—all that homosociality might become suspect if they didn’t! It’s women they can’t stand,” Kimmel writes. “Women demand responsibility and respectability, the antithesis of Guyland. Girls are fun and sexy, even friends, as long as they respect the centrality of guys’ commitment to the band of brothers.”
Consider bro code’s No. 1 rule: “Bros before hoes.” BroCode.org, which, yes, is an actual website, defines a “hoe” as “any woman [who] is not your wife or any other direct family.”
Waldear has seen that meat-headed attitude toward women manifest itself in the way bros stare them down, check them out blatantly and make nasty jokes at their expense. “They see a good-looking girl on the street and they’ll cat-call her in a really grotesque manner: ‘Hey girl, whatchu doin’ over there? You got a nice butt, girl,’ or whatever.”
As a 25-year-old woman living in Chico, Buck knows exactly how it feels to be treated that way. She has been whistled at while walking past house parties and crudely propositioned at bars. When she doesn’t respond as expected, she’s called a “bitch.”
“I stand up for myself, and they don’t like that,” Buck said. “Being a strong woman seems to up the bro status, you know? They get even more bro-y and offensive when their manliness is called into question or they feel entitled and they’re not getting what they think they deserve.”
Chico State senior Olivia VanDamme, 22, is a sexual assault survivor and activist who spoke at an on-campus rally last month during Take Back the Night week about being attacked when she was a student at University of Oregon. She believes that language is an important component of bro culture, and recounted overhearing a conversation between two guys outside of Meriam Library as an example.
“They were talking about an econ test, and one was like, ‘Bro, how was it?’ The other was like, ‘That final raped me!’” she said. “I’m a survivor—that was a trigger; that was awful. Your econ test did not rape you.”
Bro code insists that guys get laid at every opportunity, to pursue sex with as many different women as possible. Kimmel asserts that this goes beyond pleasure-seeking and actually has very little to do with the women involved. Since bro culture revolves around impressing other guys, sexual conquests are a form of one-upmanship akin to dominating the beer pong table or beating down buddies in Call of Duty.
“It’s a way that guys compete with each other, establish a pecking order of cool studliness, and attempt to move up in their rankings,” Kimmel writes.
VanDamme saw this sort of bizarre competition play out with a male friend before she transferred from the University of Oregon.
“He’s this goofy, lanky kid who ran cross country,” she said. “I knew him before he joined a fraternity; he was super-awesome, just thrived on telling jokes. Now, his entire mindset has changed. He’s definitely a womanizer.”
The friend showed VanDamme his cellphone’s list of contacts, which he’d organized into folders by category of lay—girls down for one-night stands, girls he was interested in hooking up with more frequently, prospects he’d like to add to the rotation and, of course, friends with benefits. As VanDamme explained, he was in a contest with one of his brothers to see who could have sex with the most women, and the same one didn’t count twice, providing incentive to choose prospects over women he’d already been seeing.
Buck believes that, on all college campuses, not just at Chico State, drinking culture, bro culture and rape culture—the normalization and trivialization of rape and sexual violence—entwine and fuel one another. So, how can women steer away from it all? Buck says they can start by clearly outlining how they want to be treated.
“This can get very victim-blamey, but you teach people how to treat you by what you tolerate,” she said. “Women who tolerate men being offensive and derogatory toward them, being possessive, letting men control them, they feed into it.”
And while Buck shares the stance of the on-campus feminist Gender and Sexuality Equity Center, that emails from university administration cautioning women to stay in groups, carry pepper spray and avoid unlit neighborhoods doesn’t get to the root of the problem (guys shouldn’t be sexually assaulting women in the first place), she takes those precautions herself.
“I’ll be real. When I go out at night, I don’t walk alone,” she said. “I keep my cellphone charged, I carry pepper spray and don’t walk through certain areas.”
As a freshman in the dorms at Chico State, Lyckberg told himself he’d never join a fraternity. He didn’t think Greek life was for him. He did, however, miss the group support he’d gotten from playing baseball and basketball in high school, and spent his first year of college searching for a sense of belonging. And then he met members of Alpha Sigma Phi he considered campus leaders, men who demonstrated what it meant to be active college students.
“I felt like they were more than frat stars or party animals,” he said. “The thing that stood out to me about Alpha Sig is that it’s made of gentlemen, and the motto is ‘to better the man.’ This specific fraternity is about more than just going out.”
Early on, Lyckberg was concerned about Chico State’s hazing and partying reputation. (For fraternities at Chico State, the legacy left by the 2005 water-hazing death of Matthew Carrington is inescapable, he said.) But the following term, as a sophomore, he rushed Alpha Sigma Phi and has remained an active member since. And his Greek life experience has been almost entirely positive. He’s found meaning in cleaning up trash in Lower Bidwell Park, volunteering for the Boys and Girls Club, and his studies in mental health. Like Minton—whom he met while interning at Marsh Junior High School—Lyckberg plans on pursuing a career in counseling after graduating this fall.
“It’s satisfying knowing that what you put in benefits more than just yourself,” he said. “Not only that, but you learn a lot about yourself by helping others.”
Chico State counselor Juni Banerjee-Stevens says that finding purpose and place in a community is no small thing. If a college student falters during his or her quest for identity, it’s easy to feel lost and fall into destructive behaviors.
“We don’t know why we’re here,” she said. “That question hasn’t been answered. So, if that’s true, if there is no bigger purpose, then we have to figure out why we’re here on our own. We come up with our own reasoning, and those people who have a sense of purpose tend to struggle with anxiety and depression less.
“My favorite quote is from Nietzsche: ‘He [or she] who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ If your ‘why’ for living is surviving the school week so you can get drunk on Thursday, how long will that last?”
A problem specific to the men Banerjee-Stevens sees in the Counseling and Wellness Center is that they won’t stop and ask for directions. At least, not from their friends. Since men and women generally differ in how they get intimacy and feel close to people, she said, it can be harder for men to admit that they’re unsure of who they are, to express that vulnerability.
Lyckberg echoed her. College guys who apply themselves and engage in extracurricular activities or interning are stepping into their adulthood, he said.
“But I feel like some people here aren’t really adults,” he said. “There are a lot of people in their third or fourth year who don’t really have a sense of where they’re going and aren’t progressing while they’re here.
“Those people who are missing that sense of direction are the ones who get trapped in the party atmosphere and become these bro characters.”