On Fighting Patriarchy: Why Bros Falling Back Isn’t Enough

This is an analysis of “Bros Fall Back,” a zine which has become rather influential among the Philadelphia anarchist scene. While the critiques put forth in “Bros Fall Back” are aimed at the Philly punk scene, we also see them as touching on problems which are prevalent (albeit in very different forms) in the left, and in society as a whole, and we will consider them from this larger standpoint in this essay. Moreover, because the zine barely mentions race, the state, and capital (except in a very abstract and confusing way towards the end–“the politics of being cool”), we will not deal much with these other categories here, although we realize that patriarchy (which normative sexuality is the product of) cannot be overthrown without simultaneously overthrowing the material basis of those other three categories (this we are saving for a much longer, more in-depth piece which goes beyond the purposes of this one). Interpersonal politics are not a minor detail that can wait until after the revolution, and while we agree with the authors of “Bros Fall Back” on this, and on a number of other questions, (1) we disagree with the way that they conceptualize and attempt to challenge oppression and identity.

The Bro

The authors of “Bros Fall Back” identify “bros” as people who reflects power and privilege in the ways that they occupy space. “…groups of people can ruin shows by taking space away instead of moving within a space that we can all inhabit. For the sake of simplicity we can call these people bros.” “Sometimes these bros literally take space, like when they physically attempt to control a space with their bodies, and other times it happens through language and all those more subtle ways of displaying power” [our italics]. The authors conceptualize masculine power and identity as a displayed behavior, as a way that “bodies” “move” or speak, which takes up space and marginalizes feminine identities. This behavior is even described as a form of “social capital.” While this may have some truth to it, the authors ultimately fail to understand gender identity and power as resting on a political and economic structure, which rules over all of us regardless of whether the “bros” are taking up space or not.

It is true that masculine bodies tend to move through spaces in a way that reinforces patriarchal power. However it is also true that feminine bodies tend to move through spaces in quite the opposite manner, yet this also solidifies patriarchal power. The problem does not lie within one particular set of bodies, or even within the amount of space they occupy (some bodies would like to take up more space, while others prefer not to). The problem lies within the structure of everything that falls behind all our bodies. The way that bodies are orientated in space follows the lines of a historical totality of oppression and exploitation. This is the real basis on which identity is formed, and to which different forms of identity correspond.

Because they fail to consider this larger structural reality, the authors of “Bros Fall Back” end up with a vulgar sociology which deals with outward appearances only. In the beginning of the zine the authors state: “A bro is someone who assumes that any space they enter is meant to cater to augmenting their personal experience. They don’t give a fuck, even at the expense of everyone around them.” There is another section towards the middle of the zine which lists other bro traits: “auto-pilot asshole, macho chauv, normy, thoughtless, inconsiderate, absentminded, attention hungry, ignorant/insensitive sense of humor, desires to be influential,” etc., etc. The authors focus on a set of clearly perceptible attitudes and behaviors, but are unable to account for “everything that falls behind” the identity in question, which is not clearly perceptible on the surface.

The zine treats a form of identity and power as a self-evident, fixed category, as if there were social relations which we can mark off as the exclusive realm of one particular set of bodies. This makes it difficult to think of identity categories as historically contingent. Identities acquire the stability of self-understood forms of social life before we have even deciphered their historical character. For us, the point is not to abandon identity all together, but to re-conceptualize it in a way that reflects the relationship between subjectification and identification, on one hand, and history and mass struggle, on the other.

Stuart Hall argues in “Who Needs Identity?” that the study of identity is not necessarily just for subjective, individualized purposes. The identification process, Hall says, is an ongoing process of formation, which constantly molds people according to social circumstances, in which they never fully “fit.” In this way, the active process of identity formation is not only a historical production of personhood, but also a means for regulating and disciplining bodies, so that they “fit” into a social structure.

Gender identity under capitalism is produced and reinforced by 1) alienated labor (divisions between productive and reproductive labor, super exploitation of feminized labor, and other forms of gender exploitation); and 2) the state (intra-class violence, policing and imprisonment, cultural stigmatization, reproductive discrimination, and other forms of gender oppression). These are the economic and political causes of capitalist gender identity categories. These are the realities we must strategically and collectively fight against.

Destroying the Problem?

While the authors of “Bros Fall Back” uphold a sociological and cultural critique of oppression and identity, they fail to understand oppression and identity in a structural and historical sense, and thus fail in the crucial realm of struggle. The authors make it clear that they aim to destroy the hierarchy of power that is organized around the “bro” identity. This identity is certainly a site of tension that needs to be attacked and destroyed. Yet in identifying this, the problem has become thicker. The problem of the “bro” forces us to take aim at the system that generated not only the identity in question, but all identities as we know them.

There is one page in the middle of the zine which says “destroy the problem” over and over again through the whole page. But instead of developing tactics and a strategy to actually destroy the problem, “Bros Fall Back” instead perpetuates a politics of resentment, call outs, and guilt. One example, from the section entitled “lol @ yr intent”: “Whether or not you meant to reflect the dominant culture that we hate, fall back and own up to your mistake.” The author attempts to “destroy the problem” by telling the “bros” to “fall back” and “own up.”

Even if the “bros” were physically destroyed, and not just called out, the economic and political structure that created them would still be fully intact. Because they treat identity in isolation from its historical development, the authors seek to destroy a particular product of patriarchy—the bro—but not the actual formula of that product; they try to attack the result of a long process of development, but not the process of development itself.

From the section towards the end of the zine, “Riot hurl (it at your enemy’s skull)”: “The phrase ‘girls to the front’ is a feminist failure. It claims that dismantling patriarchal dynamics in a show space is the responsibility of non-male people, those who most frequently get fucked over by it. This isn’t much different than an attitude of victim blaming, shaming folks that can’t assert themselves in male dominated spaces and indebting non-males with work that belongs to their oppressorbros need to take it upon themselves to commit to undoing years of patriarchal socialization” [our italics].

We disagree with the idea that “dismantling patriarchal dynamics” is the work of the oppressor, because it oversimplifies how oppression is structured, maintained, and ultimately challenged. No matter how many “bros” or “male people” “fall back,” move to the back of the room, become “aware of racialized tension,” and undo their “socialization,” this does not challenge oppression, but only inverts and reifies its logic. The question of the role of men in the struggle against the system of capitalist patriarchy, is still left unanswered.

This is a common problem in narrow subcultures. They exclude certain groups that they see as bad, try to separate themselves from those groups, mark which identities and behaviors are toxic and oppressive, and which ones are authentic and non-oppressive, and are content with this. Rather than posing a challenge to oppression, they reproduce the problem which they imagine themselves as having exited from, perpetuating a dualistic identity framework that mirrors the structure of class society itself. This framework is judgmental and does not take kindly to bodies that are Other to them.

Ironically, this model of identifying, labeling, and regulating bodies is a means to box in and condition groups of people. Whether a group is good or bad, oppressed or oppressor, is not the point. The point is that alienated logic is used to challenge alienated behaviors and identity categories. Under this model, identity becomes a trap for all involved, whether “bro” or non-bro, because instead of serving as a site of struggle against the historical totality of oppression and exploitation, identity becomes a fetish, an end in of itself.

Conclusion

This short essay has outlined key failures in the approach of trying to get “bros” to “fall back.” The authors of “Bros Fall Back” grasp the immense divisions in our society, but instead of identifying their historical causes, instead of finding political and organizational ways to confront these divisions, the authors instead fetishize the divisions, and reify them, which leads to shallow scene politics. They ultimately fail to pose a challenge to the problem they seek to destroy. The task of waging war against oppression is certainly a noble one. But this task cannot be accomplished through the approach laid out in “Bros Fall Back.” We recognize that this essay is only the start of a much larger conversation that has yet to fully take place. Much more practical engagement, reflection, and research is needed.

Writings that Influenced this Writing

Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler
Black Skin White Masks, by Frantz Fanon
Queer Theory, by Annamarie Jagose
Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed
Who Needs Identity?, Stuart Hall
Patriarchy and Accumulation on a Word Scale, by Maria Mies
Capital: Volume 1, “The Fetishism of Commodities,” by Karl Marx
Privilege Politics is Reformism, by Will

—Kim and Arturo

(1) The beginning section of the zine entitled “Safe Spaces” is a solid critique of the concept of “safe spaces,” which the author criticizes as idealistic, although based in real social needs. This is a section of the zine that we are in full agreement with the authors on. They are also right about this point too: “ ‘bros fall back’ tries to abandon the myth that a space primarily composed of non male people is a solution of any kind.” That is very true. “Non-males” can still reproduce patriarchy. Unfortunately these useful points are overshadowed by the less useful ones.

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11 thoughts on “On Fighting Patriarchy: Why Bros Falling Back Isn’t Enough

  1. I think this is a very earnest political critique of what happens in “political scenes”. I put that in quotations because these scenes are not political and highly allergic to political thinking and method. I think what the authors are doing are trying to ground this in reality and actually give otherwise, social zine, some teeth. To which I think that the authors are highly sympathetic to the “Bros Fall Back” zine, because they took it seriously enough to write a political critique of it.

    Thanks Kim and Arturo,

    Besos y Abrazos

    Z.B.

  2. repost from a fb thread: u guise…… is there anyone doing any sort of write-up on the immense amount of facebook flame wars that erupted after the zine came out? i think the most salient part of bros fall back zine was that the people it sought to identify and call out felt threatened and were perhaps for the first time ever made to consider their behavior as not acceptable (and then argue for or against it). and a lot of them seemed specifically angry that there was no solution offered for them, they felt that the zine was a personal attack, and that if people were upset with their behavior, why didn’t they try to help them change? which is an entitled sort of reaction that the zine summarily pointed out as behavior it was tired of. the entitlement reaction so many “bros” made after the zine came out was that very method of “taking up space”… but i do agree, what’s the solution in calling out bros when you don’t feel like offering a solution out of it? will a bro listen to you try to explain how centuries of intersectional oppressions enabled and entitled them to be the way they are? in so many flame wars, lots of them inevitably didn’t “give a fuck” and didn’t want to deal with hearing all that mess, hearing how their behaviors could possibly be tied in any way to larger structural oppressions––that their existence as they understood it thus far could’ve been in any way bad when all this time they’ve been a contributing member to their punk scene. i think it’s off the mark to suggest the bros fall back fails at offering solutions and historical contexts––it doesn’t care to. likewise, i think this article takes lots of (what i considered) its poetics too literally––this was deliberately not a theoretical critique in a traditional academic format (like this article is). to me, bros fall back zine was a trolling program with no other purpose than to instigate. i think it’s important to recognize there was no actual identifying of who bros are, just *behaviors* bros perpetuate (thus signified as bro behavior), and the people who took issue with those behaviors invariably identified themselves as bros by complaining that they felt personally attacked or that their scene was attacked. Anyway, I don’t see a bro or non-bro, but bro behaviors.

    • i think a point ‘bros fall back isnt enough’ is trying to make is the following:

      ‘bro behaviors’ are a symptom. trying to destroy the symptom does not make the problem go away.

      i find the following excerpt from the above most helpful/succinct:

      “A historical system of oppression is not the result of oppressors being socialized in this particular way or that way, behaving in this way or that way. Even if oppressors “fall back,” move to the back of the room, and undo their “socialization,” this does not challenge oppression, but only inverts and reifies its logic. No matter how many “bros” or “male people” “fall back,” “commit to undoing years of patriarchal socialization,” or become “aware of racialized tension,” this never undermines oppression in the slightest.”

      i think kim n arturo are arguing that oppression is not made up of a bunch of loud people taking up space; that’s how it may take shape at a punk show (how the symptom may present), but that isn’t what powers the motor of oppression, so to speak. bros don’t take up space, or rather, bro behaviors aren’t expressed simply because bro behaviors were expressed previously. banning bro behavior doesn’t stop the thing that made bro behavior arise in the first place.

      • I hear what people are saying about how Bros Fall Back was never meant to be “political” or “historical.” Or was actually a “trolling program,” as Eighteen argues, and was successfully able to instigate the “bros.” But as Zora argues, that is a sign of the weaknesses of the zine, not a justification for them.

        Bros Fall Back has started a discussion that goes beyond Bros Fall Back. The Bros Fall Back zine has some important points in it, yet most of the zine is a product of a very narrow social scene that is “highly allergic to political thinking and method,” as Zora points out. This is a problem, not a virtue.

        Eighteen points out that Bros Fall Back “was deliberately not a theoretical critique in a traditional academic format (like this article is).” First off, are you arguing against theory? I honestly am curious. Second, do you see a difference between “theory” and a “traditional academic format,”? Neither Kim nor I are academics, scholars, or part of a university. I like to do research when I have the time, and take theory seriously, but I don’t see “theoretical” and “academic” as interchangeable.

        I would actually argue that Bros fall back does have a method and a politics, as limited as they are, and does try to theorize and offer a historical context, as much as it fails in doing so. At times in the zine it is super snarky and troll-like, but at other times it takes itself more seriously. Our critique has a footnote that points out some useful parts in the zine. There is also a very abstract part towards the end of the zine, entitled “the politics of being cool…or whatever,” which the published critique doesn’t really touch on.

      • in response to arturo…

        I just find it extremely tiresome for this article to come for BFB as though it is truly attempting to destroy something within itself as simply existing and having been introduced to “the scene.” I think the article’s take on and dissection of what the zine supposedly is and is not doing just totally overlooks the fact that it ascribes to no particular organizational format or literary technique. You are the ones situating it as being a response to a very specific scene (which is not to be denied) , but sort of not assessing the fact that many people who were long alienated by these very types of scenes (aka scenes where white supremacy, misogyny, colonialist, homo/transphobic behaviors create violent, minimizing, and unwelcome spaces) felt very validated by the zine’s content in and of itself. Check on tumblr, bring it up to people who stopped going to shows a long time ago and aren’t even in that “scene” anymore.

        Why do you call this a sign of weakness of the zine? What do you think the Goal of the zine was? Why are you contextualizing this zine as though it were an object with a purpose––why must it have a rubric of success assigned to it? Why is this article so objective in the first place? You remove/silence your personal experience with the zine by being objective through theoretical analyzing. That irritates me. That’s why I conflate your theorizing with academia. To say that the zine fails at doing something, at destroying the bro, that it has weaknesses because it can’t strongly enough situate itself within a historical context offering solution…. I just find this treatment so obsessed with the rational. (Btw I have no clue what you are specifically asking me when you ask if I’m trying to argue against theory. What is Theory to you exactly?)

        I think it’s strange of this article to singularly focus on patriarchy since you assess that because the zine does not explicitly incorporate an overt intersectional tone in its rantings, it does not also offer an intersectional experience. I think that to come out the box saying you recognize it doesn’t talk about those things, and then make your beef/analysis of it as a failure focus on patriarchy (and its nature by the history of its construction) is just weird yo. Where are you situating YOURselves when you are writing something like this?

        I read that zine and I felt validated IMMENSELY, especially the part about “what it means when we have punk shows” talking about racism and gentrification, being a native Philadelphian and feeling extremely guilty/angry/complex ways on punks with no check on white supremacist/colonialist behaviors moving into and operating scenes in black neighborhoods. Nobody never had that conversation before with me, and here it was articulated in a zine. I had no impulse to read that one section and then look at the rest and say “well this zine is whatever actually cause it’s not really telling me anything about why punks move to impoverished/underserved areas of the city, where like, white supremacy/colonialism/capital or whatever is probably the main factor.”

        I think it’s useful to run shit through the theory grinder and try to get to at the salient things within, but in this instance I don’t think it’s useful to make BFB about one thing (patriarchy) in this case and simply acknowledge that it’s wrapped up in all this other stuff. The other stuff is too entangled to isolate, especially since it’s written by multiple authors from flagrantly subjective positions. And to say that it barely mentions race and capital and then to focus on patriarchy confuses me––your article reads like you centered your analysis on the riot hurl piece (the only place the word “patriarchy” even comes up it seems) and then left everything else (like the piece talking about racialized tension & white supremacy and the piece right after it talking about labor/capital) out for some other time. What’s up with that?

        “Even if there are no ‘grrrls’ at a show, bros need to take it upon themselves to commit to undoing years of patriarchal socialization. None of us are likely to witness anything more than a temporarily liberatory environment where we aren’t subject to displaying and receiving patriarchal authoritarian, controlling behavior. Filling a space with ‘grrrls’ won’t eradicate patriarchy and bro behavior, no one is safe from repeating and projecting what’s picked up from bro culture. […] ‘bros fall back’ tries to abandon the myth that a space primarily composed of non male people is a solution of any kind.”

        I just think y’all are off the mark with this whole thing. You’re making it about something “else”, something specific when BFB is not specific and should not be assessed as a failure under the specific guidelines/contexts you deliberately establish around it. Subjective/objective, emotional/rational… Explode the binary approach. 😛

  3. Hey! Just getting around to reading this. Sorry for the delay. This is a really great start on a much-needed critique of sectarian, subjectivist feminist circles around the US. I think you clearly identify that a static approach toward male gendered people implies a static approach toward gender itself. Great points! I am wondering what you think of the more nuanced approaches toward patriarchy within the left, for example Barucha’s “Patriarchy in Radical Movements and a Call to Men” (I can forward if y’all don’t have it – don’t seem to see it available online anywhere).

    Also I’m wondering if you’ve thought at all about the relationship between organizing within a “scene,” friends circle, informal groups, etc., and instances of heightened interpersonal conflicts, sexual assault, and in general other fucked up-ness? For example, do you think it is a methodological problem — organizing your friends, or putting friendships and romantic relationships first, (versus political relationships first) — that tends to leave groups vulnerable to messy and/or entangled political relationships?

    I’ve been thinking through a lot of this stuff myself so I really appreciate what you all are laying out here. Great work and looking forward to reading more!

    • Eighteen, i think this is a good definition of theory: a system of ideas intended to explain something.

      Eve, I read the piece by Barucha a few years ago, but dont seem to have a copy anywhere. Think you could forward it? I think that piece would be useful to look back at when we get a chance to sit down and write more in depth about how to dismantle race and gender oppression through class struggle. I remember thinking the piece was a useful reflection on challenging internal patriarchal behaviors and dynamics in an organizational and strategic way.
      And yes, 100% agree with you that when radicals and militants develop organizing projects based more on friendship, than politics, this tends to lead to high personal conflict when political disagreements emerge, or conversely, a glossing over of significant political differences. Lots to think about here. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Pingback: Bros Fall Back | Sprout Distro
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