In short, the ‘bro code’ is a code of etiquette, or a chivalric rule even, that is held between men. The popularization, and perhaps coinage of the term is generally attributed to the How I Met Your Mother, in which the character Barney Stinson, himself an epitome of the ‘bro’ archetype, expounds its in-universe origins and the various rules it purportedly contains. But the concept of it seemingly predates Barney’s version. Jerry Seinfeld had referenced a “male code” as far back as 1991 in his eponymous show, and elements of Barney’s bro code predate HIMYM. So what exactly is a bro code, and who really is a ‘bro’? We will explore this in our article.
What Is The Bro Code?
The original ‘bro code’ as described by Barney Stinson was a set of various rules regarding a bro’s conduct around other bros. Each of the rules or ‘articles’ as Barney calls them was introduced in themed episodes of the show, usually with humorous cutaways depicting the fictional history of the article.
The first article, “Bros before ho’s,” is one that clearly predates HIMYM, being already a popular phrase, even featuring in an episode of an earlier sitcom, The Office, where the character Michael Scott uses it in the eleventh episode of the show’s third season.
Like the first, many of the other articles have to do with dating, bro-ships, or both. A few of these have become popular ideas outside of the show, not unlike Article 1. Article 86, the ‘hot/crazy scale’ in particular became so popular in fact that it has apparently sparked scientific study, as some claim. Article 39, the ‘three days rule’ perhaps is, or was for a time, another popular idea in Millenial dating culture.
Concurrent with the defining of the bro code is a recognition of the bro himself. While the show did not concretely define who a ‘bro’ is, even extending bro status to women at points (Article 22, featured in season 1 episode 14 – where Robin becomes Barney’s wingman ), it is apparent that the general idea more clearly represents a specific subset of men – one that is more boisterous and playful, and who enjoys a more close-knit camaraderie with his male friends than most. A comparative observation can be made by harkening back once again to The Office, where Michael’s awkward “bros before ho’s” monologue posits him as the butt of the joke, and where while Jim and Dwight are definitely boisterous, and perhaps at points portray camaraderie, they are far from the bros that HIMYM’s Barney, Ted and Marshall definitely are – article 87 literally states that “A bro shall at all times say yes,” and the three follow through (portrayed in season 9 episode 4).
The Published Book
Coincidentally, by the time season 9 was out, show writer Matt Kuhn had published a real-life version of The Bro Code. In 2008, the 195-page tie-in tome had finally laid out Barney’s rules for life, friendship, and dating in tangible paperback print.
The book is clearly tongue-in-cheek and lays out in the usual Barney fashion a ‘brocabulary’ and a fake history of the bro code. But it is still of some note, because if nothing else, it represents through Kuhn’s voice, through his defining of the ‘bro’, and through his thorough explanation of the code, the idea of bro-hood and the bro code as understood at the time, and the larger cultural zeitgeist in which these ideas existed.
Bro-Code Beyond HIMYM
Barney Stinson and his Bro Code were very much a product of their time and geography. HIMYM was an American show that began in the mid-2000s, aimed at a demographic of the time young adult millennials. It ran in the wake of the first three American Pies’ success, and parallel to the releases of many of Judd Apatow’s fratpack movies. HIMYM’s own Jason Segel began his career with the Apatow production Freaks and Geeks and appeared in multiple Apatow films during his HIMYM tenure. So it tracks that Barney Stinson’s ‘bro’ is metonymically representative of ‘frat bro,’ and that his bro code is rooted in American college fraternity culture.
So how has bro-dom evolved since then, and how does Barney’s bro code hold up? For one, in the past decade or two, the ‘bro’ concept (brocept?) that gave birth to Barney has expanded into a much greater audience. A generation of young men outside of the US has grown up exposed to the fratbro movies of the 90s and 2000s, and the social media boom has to an extent homogenized slang. ‘Bro’ now belongs to the brocabulary of bros everywhere, and has undergone multiple semantic metamorphoses. And like the vague value system that gave birth to Barney’s bro code, the bro code of today (where it still exists), has become vague and means different things to different people.
Here, it is important to recognize that the idea of the ‘bro’ carries both positive and negative connotations. The term ‘frat bro,’ and by extension, ‘bro,’ has long been used to refer to cultures of misogyny in male-dominated spaces. For example, in an article for New York Magazine, Ann Friedman writes: "Bro once meant something specific: a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts with a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men."
But the thing is that while Barney Stinson more often than not glorifies aspects of frat bro culture, (as compared to, say, Todd Packer or Andy Bernard of The Office, the former being portrayed as a bully and a sleaze, and the latter’s frat bro values being used to set him up as the butt of jokes), there is a touch of camp and irony in there somewhere. Perhaps Barney Stinson sees all women as sexual objects (his attempts to feel Lily’s pregnancy-enlarged breasts come to mind), and perhaps the portrayal of his womanizing hints at a problematic discourse of conquest (The episode Perfect Week, for example). But his saving grace might just be that his characterization is executed in a sort of kooky, goofy self-aware manner. He is an exaggerated caricature, and the parts of him that have not aged well – the aspects that those such as Friedman might have contention with, are perhaps not the same as those aspects of the bro he most glorifies. Barney Stinson is a loyal friend, and there is an essence in him that champions the daring to live one’s best life and to build one’s bros up to be the best they can be while taking care along the way to not take life too seriously. This is perhaps the best takeaway from Barney Stinson, the version of the bro code that needs the most to live on – the commandment to be legen – wait for it – dry.
Written By: Girish P.
Edited By: Chirajita Gupta