Bro Culture, Fitness, Chivalry, and American Identity

This is a foundational text of American Bro Culture: two large men shooting the shit about lifting weights, working in references from everything to guns to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to football in the process. The subject of the day is the squat, and whether one of the two participants - Echo - neglects this essential lift.

It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, the Platonic ideal of the gym conversation, guys being dudes at a staggeringly elite level. I encourage you to watch at least a couple of minutes of it, if not the whole sixteen minutes and forty-nine seconds, because it’s essentially the Rosetta Stone for understanding a huge piece of American masculinity.

For those don’t spend a lot of time in these corners of Instagram and YouTube, or the actual physical spaces that underlie them, this specific form of American manhood might be hard to see as anything other than a parody. But if you hang out in combat sports gyms, on military bases, and at construction job sites, or if you watch Joe Rogan clips on YouTube and follow the algorithm down the rabbit hole, this type of masculinity - what it means to be a guy - is absolutely ubiquitous.

It’s easy to write off this type of bantering, competitive male interaction, and the cultural spheres in which it takes place, as Guys Being Dudes and nothing more. Why think too hard about it? Its participants generally don’t, with some notable exceptions.

I think it’s important to dig into this for one major reason: because this specific form of being a guy - and the physical and online spaces where it’s created and reinforced - lies at the foundation of grasping both the current state and future of a whole swathe of American culture and politics.

This way of understanding what it means to be a guy, the particular masculine code and set of virtues it espouses, the heroes it holds up for emulation and admiration: none of this appeared in a vacuum. All of it is deeply rooted in the past couple of decades of American history, in everything from the constant imperial wars overseas and their long-term effects to the rising gap between those with college degrees and those without. There are longer-term precedents and archetypes at play as well, and I’ll talk about them, but this all crystallized in the very recent past. It’s a genuinely 21st-century American development, and I want to explore what it means.

Let me start by establishing my Bro Credentials. I’ve spent my entire adult life in gyms of various kinds - grungy, dimly lit places that catered to powerlifters, echoing with the clangs of dropped iron; slick and way-too-expensive athletic clubs, where they got mad if you dropped your weights; and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gyms where just looking at the floor could give you a staph infection or ringworm. I have strong opinions on sumo vs. conventional deadlifting (prefer conventional), gi vs. no-gi grappling (no-gi, it’s faster and feels more dynamic) and the benefits and drawbacks of CrossFit (great variety, fun workouts, extreme injury risk for most participants). For years, writing about mixed martial arts was my job, and I spent most of my 20s doing Muay Thai and Dutch-style kickboxing, some of it with world-class coaches and training partners. I got leg-kicked by a UFC champion one time; it hurt, a lot.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I’ve spent a lot of time in the physical spaces where this kind of Bro Culture is at its most potent and prevalent. I’m fond of it; I like the clang when you put a loaded barbell in a squat rack, I like the way low-grade cleaning products smell on jiu-jitsu mats, I like the sound it makes when boxing gloves hit a heavy bag or you kick a pair of Thai pads.

I’m an aging Suburban Dad now, and I have no illusions about either that or my physical abilities, not that they were particularly impressive even at my “peak.” Still, there’s nothing I miss more than sitting around and shooting the shit with my buddies before a sparring session or between sets. The camaraderie of a gym is hard to replicate. Men of this age, particularly Bros, are notoriously bad at forging and maintaining friendships. Gyms are an important antidote. You meet interesting people from all walks of life: professional fighters, financial analysts, stoner college students, military veterans, cops, unemployed metalheads, and that one big southpaw guy who’d done karate for years who always wrecked me when we sparred, but whose name I can’t remember, probably because he punched me in the face a bunch of times. That’s not awesome for your long-term memory, but it was really, really fun.

Bro Culture, as with everything else these days, isn’t restricted to physical spaces; it also exists online, especially on YouTube and Instagram. Podcasts are major platforms for creating and sustaining its heroes. It’s possible to exist in an entire online ecosystem built to cater to Bro Culture, only occasionally stepping outside its safe and familiar confines, surrounded by videos of jacked dudes talking about squats and MMA and guns.

A post shared by Joe Rogan (@joerogan)

Bro Culture isn’t a monolith, nor is it a coherent entity, any more than Wellness Culture or Media Culture or Literary Culture or whatever are in 2020. It has its subcultures and tensions and oppositions: Idiot meatheads juiced out of their minds on Trenbolone coexist with doctors of physical therapy who author scholarly studies of movement patterns, absurdly large strongman competitors appear alongside wiry Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guys, clean-eating vegans and beer enthusiast football fans. But they almost all share a view of manhood that’s rooted in some form of physical capacity, whether that’s pure size (bodybuilders), strength (powerlifters and strongmen), the ability to fight (MMA and BJJ guys), or all-around athletic capacity (Crossfitters, tactical training enthusiasts).

Beyond this baseline theme, all of them are more or less tightly tied together by the social media tendons of this vast online world. They come together, sorted by YouTube recommendation algorithms and Instagram’s explore tab. If you watch a video to improve your bench-press form, you’ll be taken to subsequent links on nutrition, powerlifting, bodybuilding, and tactical firearms training, on and on down the rabbit hole of this loose network of social media channels.

Jocko Willink, he of the soliloquy on squatting above, might lead you to the bowhunter Cameron Hanes, who might take you to the tactical training gurus Pat McNamara or Tony Sentmanat, and from there to former MMA fighter and Green Beret Tim Kennedy. These influencers, whom you’ve probably never heard of, have hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers. They dominate this field, appearing in each other’s videos, going on each other’s podcasts, and extending their reach into this broad audience of potentially interested people. All roads inevitably lead to Joe Rogan and his incredibly lucrative empire of podcasts and YouTube videos.

A post shared by Tony Sentmanat (@realworld_tactical)

Bro Culture isn’t limited to men - there are plenty of prominent women in various subfields and roles, like the extraordinary powerlifter Stefi Cohen or the fitness entrepreneur Meg Gallagher - but it does skew heavily that way, enough so that exceptions like Cohen and Gallagher are notable.

The assumed subject of this culture is a straight, young-ish (18-40) dude who’s kind of into fitness of some kind, whether that’s lifting weights, a little jiu-jitsu, or what have you. He probably played sports and currently enjoys watching them. He’s familiar with but not super dedicated to video games and likes beer and maybe some weed from time to time. He may or may not have a college degree, but either way has a solid but not extremely high-paying job. He probably lives in the suburbs, exurbs, or a rural area, rather than a dense metro. He’s probably but not necessarily white. He’s disproportionately likely to have served in the military, and if he hasn’t, he knows people - family or friends - who do or did.

These various demographic, and therefore cultural and social affiliations, don’t exist in isolation from one another. Put together, they form a relatively stable melange, an ecosystem with its own influencers and heroes, values and principles, and connections to other social, cultural, and political phenomena.

It’s rooted in physicality and the body, self-ownership through activity. While it doesn’t necessarily eschew the life of the mind - Jocko Willink, for example, constantly discusses and advocates the reading of books on his podcast - that’s simply not the main focus for self-actualization or identity. If you want to talk about intellectual pursuits, you can do it while pulling 500 pounds or beating the hell out of a heavy bag.

Some aspects of this are obviously new, like social media and the role of influencers. But others aren’t. Fitness culture, one of Bro Culture’s constituent pieces, has been around in various guises for a long time; weightlifting came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, Crossfit in the 2000s, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the last decade, but other manifestations - like respectable men’s Muscular Christianity around the beginning of the 20th century - have been around for much longer. Bare-knuckle boxing was a manifestation of rough-and-tumble, working-class manhood in later 19th century America. That working-class manhood revolved around taverns and drinking, gambling on fights and races, a combination of activities familiar to any self-respecting Bro today whether he participates in them or not.

One parallel that’s particularly striking to me, though I wouldn’t take the comparison too far, is with medieval chivalry.

Hear me out.

The popular conception of chivalry, as a moral code guiding the behavior of honorable knights, is flat-out, laughably wrong. That’s a creation of 19th-century authors like Walter Scott, and the popular fantasy authors (basically up until George R.R. Martin) who built on their worldview in the 20th.

In reality, chivalry was all about one particular version of Guys Being Dudes. Chivalry could refer to a few different things, but the most common meaning was simply battlefield deeds, executed with some style. This, what knights referred to as “prowess,” was at the core of the broader ideology of chivalry: raw, bloody, physical performance, violence done effectively and to an agreed-upon aesthetic standard. The second major concern of chivalry, honor, grew directly out of the first. Honor wasn’t an abstract concept to medieval knights; it was a possession, a recognition of their particular status and place in the social hierarchy, which they were well within their rights to violently defend and assert through their prowess. Piety was the icing on the cake, but no knight really doubted that God approved of their actions.

An oral culture, passed around during training sessions and drinking bouts and feasts and military campaigns, produced this culture and inculcated new knights into it. A whole universe of texts, the kinds of things knights read or had read to them, sent the same message, like this 12th-century poem called Girart de Vienne:

When I see the whinnying war-steeds plunge

With worthy knights into a battle’s crush,

And see their spears and cutting blades well struck,

There is nothing on earth I love so much!

These were dudes who loved getting after it, and for them, getting after it meant blood-soaked deeds on the battlefield. It’s not that there was nothing more to it - sure, there were some bits about romance and ladies, debates about religiosity and moral actions, exhortations to do better - but the core was always physical, male violence. And it obviously wasn’t for everyone: Knights were members of a hereditary military aristocracy, and their possession of chivalry was what set them apart from dirty peasants.

Two aspects neatly parallel modern Bro Culture: first, the emphasis on physicality and the body, and how that provided both a sense of the self and secured social status; and second, the restricted, bubble-like world that produced and emphasized it, with its fictional and real heroes, its stories about great deeds, its values, and its models to be emulated. Your average knight would absolutely identify with and appreciate this impossibly toxic meathead sentiment:

Obviously, there are pieces that don’t neatly parallel, the biggest ones being the hereditary and explicitly military nature of chivalry. You don’t have to be a soldier to be a Bro, though it doesn’t hurt. And - much more important - you aren’t born into being a Bro; you become one, by doing worthy deeds of prowess.

That’s a quintessentially American value: the idea that anybody can make something of themselves if they work hard enough, move enough weight, run fast enough, practice enough to shoot a tight grouping, make the right sacrifices. The physical meritocracy (and its potential rewards of fame and fortune) is open to anyone willing to do whatever it takes to climb the ladder. Even the least intellectually gifted meathead can make something of himself if he does the workouts, takes the right gear, and builds his audience on YouTube and Instagram. Don’t forget to like and subscribe, and smash that follow button.

In a moment of stagnant social mobility, rising inequality, and incredible uncertainty around the future, this strongly visual message of self-betterment and improving one’s socioeconomic status through literal sweat can resonate deeply. It’s all within the individual’s control, if they simply work enough - an antidote to all that uncertainty, everything that’s so obviously beyond an individual’s control and reckoning, no matter how misleading and incomplete the formula actually is.

That’s especially appealing to the many millions of American men who don’t have college degrees (many more of them than women, given the gendered trends in undergraduate enrollment) who are effectively locked out of professional-managerial culture and its straightforward path into the comfortable upper-middle class. Accomplishment through physical prowess is thus a means of building both a sense of self and community.

The connections to this particular moment in American culture and history go much deeper than that, though. This whole edifice of Bro Culture grows out of the broader rise of influencers, performative self-branding through social media, and the construction of identity through consumption.

With the right protein powder, shilled by your favorite strongman, you too can deadlift 800 pounds, or at least tell yourself you’ll get there someday. With the right brand of CBD tincture, which sponsors your favorite Crossfit athlete, you won’t feel that burning pain in your rotator cuff after you clean and jerk too much weight with suboptimal technique. By religiously listening to the right Bro-approved entrepreneurship podcast, hosted by some guy who happened to get booked on the Joe Rogan Experience during a slow week, you too can buy a McMansion in an affordable suburb.

Much of what happens in Bro Culture is driven by lifestyle consumption: ads for sunglasses on Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take podcast, brand partnerships between supplement companies and YouTube stars, tactical holsters for concealed-carry that an ex-Marine with a million Instagram followers wants you to buy. It’s self-actualization through sponsor codes.

The tactical lifestyle craze, a natural outgrowth of this particular slice of Bro Culture, is the logical endpoint of all this. It’s where entrepreneurial late capitalism and influencer trends meet imperial wars, the militarization of the police, and the emergence of Gun Guys as a default protected class within American society. You’re not a Crossfitter anymore; you’re a “tactical athlete,” doing varied types of interval, cardio, and strength training so you can be a more effective soldier or cop or firefighter or whatever, or you just want to feel like you could be one. The physical training is only part of this, since you can prominently declare your tactical affiliations with a variety of lifestyle products, ranging from coffee mugs to American flag stickers for your car to, naturally, firearms.

Take this little slice of reality as an example:

That’s Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man who shot three protesters with an AR-15 in Kenosha last August, following his release on bail. (I’m reminded of an offhand comment from the rapper Vince Staples, that wearing Oakleys the way Rittenhouse is here is basically a durag for would-be white supremacists.)

More pertinently, Rittenhouse is wearing a Black Rifle Coffee Company t-shirt. If you spend time in these particular circles of Instagram and YouTube, Black Rifle Coffee Company is ubiquitous. It’s loudly and proudly Veteran-with-a-capital-V-owned, with the tagline “Fresh Roasted Freedom.” It advertises widely, forging partnerships with a variety of influencers: You can get 20 percent off your BRCC order with the code JOEROGAN at checkout, of course. Maybe you’d like the Thin Blue Line roast.

Just as much as its coffee, whose quality I can’t speak to, Black Rifle Coffee Company is selling the tactical lifestyle. They offer a staggering variety of T-shirts, hoodies, hats, mugs, thermoses, and stickers, many of them prominently branded with the eponymous “black rifle” of the brand. There are a lot of American flags and pieces of law-enforcement and military iconography, signifiers of the in-groups to whom the consumers of BRCC’s products belong, want to belong, or for whom they want to signal their support. BRCC has explicitly labeled itself as a coffee company for conservatives, an active participant in the culture wars. If you don’t like Starbucks and its effete, refugee-supporting, liberal tendencies, buy some Black Rifle product instead. If you like Trump, you’ll be at home with BRCC. Don Jr. endorsed them.

After the picture of Rittenhouse in the Black Rifle Coffee Company shirt appeared, its founder Evan Hafer quickly disavowed the youthful shooter. Even for an explicitly MAGA coffee company, supporting a teenaged AR enthusiast with blood on his hands was a bridge too far. But Rittenhouse had already been shaped by the world BRCC and its fellow-travelers have made. He got the message, loud and clear: You too can become a hero, or at least dress and drink coffee like one, by purchasing the right products, watching the right videos, and following the same Extended Bro Culture influencers. Don’t forget to like and subscribe.

The Veteran-owned piece of BRCC’s appeal isn’t a coincidence. They’re selling a position in the culture wars, a sense of belonging, but also a particular vision of what it means to be American, a man, and an American man. A staggering number of this part of Bro Culture’s key figures are veterans. Jocko Willink, perhaps the best known (and least openly political) of the bunch, was a Navy SEAL officer; he was actually the commanding officer of the famous sniper Chris Kyle during the Battle of Ramadi in 2006.

After retiring, Willink turned his SEAL experience into a career as a leadership consultant, motivational speaker, media personality, and energy drink salesman. His intensity, built on his military service, is legendary: His exhortations to do hard things regularly, to live by a code, and take responsibility for oneself, resonate with millions of people. And Willink is far from the only one to do so, turning overseas service in imperial wars, especially as a special forces operator, into a key component of his entrepreneurial appeal. This isn’t a judgement on his military service; it’s a statement of fact. Being an undeniable badass is a the core part of why Jocko Willink is a quintessential Bro Hero.

Imperial wars overseas always come home eventually, and they do so in complex ways. The fact that millions of people listen to Jocko Willink, buy Black Rifle Coffee Company merchandise, and dabble in more extreme fringes is a product of decades spent elevating not just military service writ large but violent combat overseas against ill-defined Others. For every Jocko Willink, there’s an Eddie Gallagher, the SEAL who was convicted of and then recently pardoned for war crimes after becoming a cause célèbre for large swathes of the online right.

If these are the heroes Bro Culture puts forth - special operators accustomed to high-intensity, high-volume fighting overseas, who then develop enormous media platforms - it’s obvious what message Kyle Rittenhouse and the innumerable police officers, tactical fitness enthusiasts, and more run-of-the-mill viewers and listeners will take. Millions of people listen to Joe Rogan when he talks to Jocko Willink, Tim Kennedy (the Green Beret and MMA fighter and increasingly open right-wing figure), or Cameron Hanes (who advocated for Eddie Gallagher’s release). They’re warriors. Joe Rogan isn’t a soldier, but he’s a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a former competitive kickboxer, a bowhunter, and a firearms enthusiast. If these are the people at the core of Bro Culture, a culture that directly touches tens of millions of American men, then there are bound to be knock-on effects. If they’re constantly telling their listeners to be ready, to be tactical, to be prepared to fight and to be good at it, that means something.

This is why I think Bro Culture, or at least its extended reaches, deserve more scrutiny and attention. The code of American manhood that’s developing out of this social-media melting pot has some aspects that bear watching: A love of firearms centered on tactical usefulness (for use in what context, exactly?), a vision of muscular physicality, self-defense as a personal obligation, an unquestioning hero-worship of military culture, and far too often, a deep suspicion of people who don’t subscribe to this precise view of being a guy. Support the Troops, and if you don’t, you’re not really a man at all. If cops - quintessential subjects of Bro Culture - are told that they need to be bigger and stronger and quicker on the draw, that they’re basically Troops, and that the targets of violence deserve what they get, what’s the likely outcome of tense interactions between police and the people they’re supposed to serve?

I’m deeply ambivalent about Bro Culture. Martial arts and fighting are enjoyable activities, but I have no illusions about what getting my ass kicked feels like. Lifting weights makes me feel good, but I’m never going to accomplish anything physical beyond what I can deadlift in my garage. I’m not bothered by firearms, though the tactical stuff seems absurd. I’m not averse to the general concept of being “gas-station-ready,” to throw down if somebody threatens me at a convenience store, but I’m not sure that living life on constant edge in a world of perceived threats is healthy, realistic, or good for society. I’m sensitive to Jocko Willink’s constant emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work; I think it’s good to do difficult things, and challenges should be embraced, but I don’t think that’s the key to organizing American society and politics. Joe Rogan should be drastically more critical of his guests and the nonsense they often spout, but I definitely don’t mind him, and actively enjoy much of what he produces: It reminds me of the conversations I used to have at the gym.

I don’t know. I guess I’ll always retain my Bro affiliations. I like picking up heavy things and watching YouTube videos of giant dudes carrying enormous stones and talking shit while they do it:

But this kind of Bro Culture is also intimately connected to the emergence of a new kind of American ethnonationalism, rooted in its peculiar conception of masculinity, its collection of lifestyle products, its worship of guns, and its aversion to self-reflection. Maybe you can just have the big dudes lifting stones without the drive to pardon Navy SEALs convicted of horrific war crimes; but then again, maybe the algorithms make them impossible to separate.

I don’t know the answer to that - I’m not sure anybody does - but I know the broader context concerns me. I know that Kyle Rittenhouse drinks Black Rifle Coffee and wanted to be seen wearing Black Rifle Coffee merchandise because it signaled his affiliation, that he saw it advertised through these avenues of Bro Culture, and correctly surmised that drinking and wearing its gear was part of the identity he wanted to cultivate. I know that a big piece of Donald Trump’s appeal to this demographic, which was genuinely considerable, was rooted in this bluff, not-thinking-too-hard-about-it sense of being a dude. I know that there are millions of other men, mostly young, who inhabit these same online and physical spaces, who are being fed this same vision of American-flag-rifle-coffee-branded masculinity. Racism isn’t real, bro; just fire up the barbecue, grab a kettlebell, put in the work, and watch the game. America is already great, we’re making it great again, and fuck any weakling who says otherwise.

I don’t know. The barbell in my garage is waiting. Maybe the answers will present themselves after the next set of deadlifts.