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 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 oppressor… bros 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.
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.