Normally, flying in an airplane is a horrible, brain-destroying experience that makes me feel like several hours of my life have been stolen from me. However, on the flight back from Wyoming (which left from Denver, because Denver is apparently next to Wyoming), I amused myself by watching the interaction between the three bro-ish fellows in the row in front of me and the girl who was in the row in front of them.
Say whatever you want about bros, but they are often a very handsome lot, and this trio was particularly good-looking. As I gleaned from their conversation, they were headed back from a bachelor party. This was particularly fortuitous, because they all mapped perfectly onto characters from the Hangover franchise. There was a tall, blonde, aloof Bradley Cooper type, and a medium-sized blue-eyed sober-minded Justin Bartha type, and a weedy, awkward, socially inept, Zach Galifanakis type.
I started watching them when Justin offered to buy a drink for the girl in front of them, who was wearing a green hoodie and high-waisted cutoffs and, honestly, looked about sixteen years old. As far as I can tell, she was dismayed because Southwest only takes credit cards, and she didn’t have one. She was a little reluctant to take his money, but I think he used some sort of drink ticket, and for some reason (probably because it wasn’t freely fungible for money and as such didn’t feel as crass) that was more acceptable to her.
After that, the girl and the three guys struck up a long conversation. She talked about how she rides horses on her parents’ farm, and how her horse had recently foaled, and they talked about their weekend (she was very impressed that Bradley had bought a $500 ticket just so he could spend 36 hours partying with his friend Justin).
I was fascinated by the encounter, because she was obviously very young looking, and these guys, although handsome, were three very dissipate thirty plus year olds (all of whom consumed multiple drinks during our two-hour Sunday evening flight). It was interesting to watch the mating calls of people who are roughly my age but not from my hipster-leaning social group. I’ve always been somewhat partial to the bro-types, because there’s something a bit refreshing about their confidence. For instance, hipsters don’t really flirt, because flirting means being comfortable with ambiguity: when you flirt, you have to accept that neither you nor the other person is being exactly clear about where things will go or what your intentions are.
And there’s something very open about the bros. They have enthusiasm. For instance, when she was talking about her horses, they seemed really into it. It’s obviously a sort of display–they’re trying to appear friendly and charming–but it’s a display that doesn’t contain irony or subtextual posturing. For instance, they started teasing the girl about the names of her horses–the horses had really human names, like Anna or Jim–it didn’t sound like they thought they were better than her, or like they were trying to score points.
So I was like, wow, have I been wrong about the bros this whole time? Are they a gentle, charming people?
But then the girl got up to go to the bathroom and, while she was gone, Zach leaned over and, in a low, smarmy tone of voice, said something like, “Hey, I bet she’d really be stoked if you offered to show her around San Francisco. Tell her to come up. Hell, why don’t we all ride horses together. We could all ride horses on the beach,” and then he made the fist-punching gesture, that functions as the universal symbol for ‘Let’s tap that’ and they went through a round of sniggering.
At that point I was all like Ahah! They’re exactly what I thought!
But then they came back, and she started showing her pictures of her foal, and they oohed and ahhed over it and seemed so genuinely touched that I was like, huh, I don’t know, maybe this enthusiasm isn’t what’s being faked…maybe it’s the smarminess that was fake….
After the flight ended, I watched to see if there are any further developments, but the girl went off to baggage claim and the bros immediately headed to the airport bar to see what was going on with the Warriors game. What I’d interpreted (and what one of the men had explicitly described) as sexual predation was, really, probably nothing more than an airplane flirtation.
In the end, I think this story probably reveals more about my own tendency to try to fit a narrative onto things. Because what I saw, ultimately, was four tired people who were crammed into a plane together and engaged in an hour or so of conversation that was, undoubtedly, enlivened by a mutual attraction. And, as in all conversations, there was an element of performance (would they have been interested in her horses if she hadn’t been so pretty? Would she have shown the horses to them if they hadn’t been so handsome?) but there was also an element of human connection–displays of emotion that, although partially a result of sexual attraction, were also genuinely felt.
And yes, when the girl was gone, the guys did feel the need to paper over the things they’d said and done by attributing them to an explicit sexual motivation, but, ultimately, that seems more a matter of socialization than of character. Like me, they act differently around people they’re attracted to. But, unlike me, they exist in a social system where certain behaviors are only acceptable in the context of sexual attraction. In this case, I’m left wondering if bros flirt not so much to get with women, but because flirtation is one of the only contexts in which they’re allowed to be enthusiast over non-masculine things.