When Is a Friendship a Bromance? Two Tests
Recent studies and a classic novel offer some surprising answers.
Posted Feb 04, 2019
Not long ago, the Inklings society at Brown University invited me to give a talk on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I decided to speak on the topic of “bromance,” an emotionally and physically intimate, non-sexual friendships between men. And why not? After all, two of Tolkien’s main characters, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins, have one of the greatest bromances of all time.
At first, I thought that putting the talk together would be pretty easy, since Tolkien’s hobbits share a level of commitment that I seldom saw. As they endeavor to destroy the Ring of Power and save Middle-earth, Sam and Frodo develop an emotional closeness and physical intimacy that seemed truly rare in male friendships these days.
Books like Michael Kimmel’s Guyland and William Pollack’s Real Boys attest to how rare intimacy is.  Both show how masculine stereotypes make young men reluctant to open up emotionally, likely to assume a competitive distance from peers, and prone to avoid physical contact. Sam and Frodo have none of these issues, so I figured that that’s why we need them. That’s what I’d speak about.
Or so I thought.
The point should have been obvious, probably. I should have guessed what I soon found in several recent studies: that the actual experience of male friendship often doesn’t match the stereotypes which supposedly characterize those friendships. Bromance is actually quite common.
In Deep Secrets, for instance, Niobe Way shows how many adolescent boys share friendships defined by near-total openness and intimacy.  This intimacy begins to wane only as boys progress through high school and become young men. Even adult men, Way found, still desire intimate friendships long after they’ve lost them.
Way’s book was published in 2011. A pair of even more recent studies, published in 2015 and 2018, ratify Way’s findings while also extending her timeline as to when intimacy tends to exist in male friendships.  These studies suggest that such friendships persist well into adulthood and can be found readily in a large majority of college-age men.
Where did this leave Sam and Frodo? How would I talk about them at all? The sheer fact that they have an intimate friendship couldn’t set them apart from what these studies found. There would need to be aspects of the friendship between these hobbits that sets them apart from the studies’ subjects.
I gave the talk because I think that there are such aspects: that in challenging certain masculine stereotypes, Sam and Frodo don’t just anticipate recent studies. They also offer distinctive insights into what friendship is and could be. To try to show them, I compared how the 2018 study defines bromance and would “test” for it with how Tolkien might do so. (Even though he would, admittedly, find the word “bromance” pretty ridiculous.)
The subjects of the 2018 study emphasize how important emotional intimacy is. As Patrick puts it, “A bromance is someone who is literally there for you all the time. Someone you can relate to on an emotional level. Someone you can share secrets and pain with, and love” (98). The study’s subjects also reported on how comfortable they were about confessing this love. Jack, for instance, said, “I love him to bits, he’s my man crush” while Theo said, “I can happily say ‘oh, I love him’” (99).
That’s one easy way to distinguish bromance from other friendships: if you can say “I love you, man,” chances are it’s bromance.
Frodo and Sam share many emotional moments over the course of Tolkien’s epic, but one of the most telling moments occurs while Frodo falls asleep with Sam watching over him. Sam’s thoughts reveal much of the nature of their intimacy, and show how Tolkien’s test for bromance is both like and unlike what we find in recent studies. Here’s a sample of Sam’s thoughts:
“Sam looked at him…Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’” 
Sam studies Frodo with painstaking care. We often talk about being able to “read” our friends: about being able to tell what they think without them having to tell us. Here Sam sees far more. He sees how Frodo has been formed over time, the “chiseling of the shaping years,” a metaphor which suggests that the shaping has been artistic. Frodo is like a work of art, one that the artist—call it time, or experience—has taken decades to perfect.
Here’s one difference between Tolkien’s novel and the 2018 study. Where the study’s subjects focus on being able to tell everything to each other, Tolkien focuses on being able to tell things about each other. Want to know if your friendship rises to the level of Sam and Frodo’s? Tolkien seems to ask. Look at your friend’s face. Describe what you see there.
Another difference between the study and Tolkien’s novel is that it’s only now, while Frodo sleeps, that Sam declares love for him. Sam doesn’t declare love openly like Theo does. Even so, Sam articulates his reasons for loving Frodo far more finely than the subjects of the 2018 study. “I love him to bits, he’s my man crush,” is a cliché that communicates relatively little. It could be used to characterize thousands of relationships.
Sam’s thoughts and words couldn’t. Frodo has a quality that Sam can’t define precisely but that he feels he can perceive. He even wonders whether the quality—his friend’s ‘shining’—is really there or whether instead he merely imagines it. Frodo seems luminous, and seeming so is enough: Sam loves Frodo whether or not he really is luminous. The subtlety and humility here is beautiful—beautiful in a way that “I love him to bits” just isn’t.
What wonderful attention Sam gives to his friend. And what a wonderful admission that he can’t know him completely. Sam can see that Frodo is like a work of art, and he can do so partly because his way of seeing is itself artful. Tolkien’s novel encourages us to cultivate a similar way of seeing.
As I mentioned earlier, psychologists deem physical intimacy a crucial feature of bromance. The 2015 study, for instance, found that 37 out of 40 of its subjects (heterosexual male sportsmen) cuddled in bed with male friends. As Robbie says in the 2018 study, “You can lie in bed with your bromance, have a cuddle and just talk.” Patrick, likewise, says that “Part of my understanding of it [a bromance] is having a cuddle buddy” (100).
Frodo and Sam might also be called “cuddle buddies,” but in a very particular (and particularly instructive) way. In another scene from Tolkien’s novel, Frodo falls asleep, his head in Sam’s lap. Soon Sam falls asleep too, and Gollum—a tortured creature, a former bearer of the Ring, and the hobbits’ guide in the later stages of their quest—happens upon them.
Gollum’s reaction reveals something critical, not only about their friendship, but about friendship’s power to affect other people:
“Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing” (714).
If you know Tolkien’s novel, you know that having the Ring of Power for years corrupted Gollum. Frodo has it now, Gollum wants it, and at several points, he’d happily murder to get it back. Here’s his chance, when he happens upon these sleeping hobbits. Murder them, and the “precious” will be his once again. Only he can’t. Seeing Sam and Frodo in this intimate, vulnerable pose overpowers Gollum.
Friendship helps stop violence. And not only that. Friendship also helps turn Gollum—however briefly—into a creature nearly as peaceful as Frodo when he reaches out to touch his knee. For once, Gollum seems like a hobbit. Just as he sees Frodo as a fellow being instead of an enemy, so would Frodo see Gollum not as a wicked creature but an old weary hobbit. Friendship, Tolkien suggests, helps us to see beyond difference to an underlying likeness.
Here’s another way that Tolkien’s test differs from that of the subjects of the most recent studies. Those studies focus on the how physical intimacy positively affects friends themselves, not those outside the friendship. Tolkien does more than this. He shows how just looking at an exemplary friendship gives Gollum a new and better way of seeing: one whereby he wants fellowship instead of the Ring.
Are you sheepish about embracing your friends? Don’t be, Tolkien suggests. You might have positive effects on others, effects that you’d never imagine.
A third distinctive feature of bromance, in the 2018 study, is that friends don’t judge each other. As Beck puts it, “A bromance will never judge you … you’re just so relaxed around each other” (100). As the study’s authors put it, “these relationships are real, highly important to them, and lack any criticism” (104). Friends can tell each other everything because they don’t have to worry about being judged.
Being open with our friends is, of course, important. Whether friendships should be free of criticism is another question. To shed some light on it we can, oddly enough, look to a moment when Sam thinks that Frodo is dead. Frodo has been completely incapacitated by a monster called Shelob, and Sam now must decide whether to continue their quest or to seek vengeance on Gollum (who, having gotten over his moment of goodness, has tricked them into entering Shelob’s lair).
Here’s how Sam decides:
“…he could not go, not yet. He knelt and held Frodo’s hand and could not release it. And time went by and still he knelt, holding his master’s hand, and in his heart keeping a debate.
Now he tried to find strength to tear himself away and go on a lonely journey—for vengeance. If once he could go, his anger would bear him down all the roads of the world, pursuing, until he had him at last: Gollum. Then Gollum would die in a corner. But that was not what he had set out to do. It would not be worth while to leave his master for that. It would not bring him back. Nothing would. They had better both be dead together. And that too would be a lonely journey…
… ‘What am I to do then?’ he cried again, and now he seemed plainly to know the hard answer: see it through. Another lonely journey, and the worst” (732-733).
Note what convinces Sam to see the quest through when he considers setting it aside. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to catch and kill Gollum? Sam sees, in the end, that he ought not to do this, and he sees it when he sees that “[i]t would not be worth while” to leave Frodo to do so. Thinking about Frodo, and about their friendship, helps Sam to reject petty revenge in favor of what’s more noble, and more necessary: the quest.
When Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom, where the Ring can be destroyed, Frodo briefly betrays the quest and decides to keep the Ring. When he does, Sam gasps (945). What if we put Beck in Sam’s place? What would he say? “No big deal,” probably. “Do what makes you happy, bro.” Who would you rather have with you at the Crack of Doom?
The Lord of the Rings, unlike the 2018 study, suggests that friendship helps us to exercise good judgment. For the study’s subjects, bromance doesn’t inspire us to be better—to speak and to act as best we can. Rather, bromance lets us say or do anything without our friends speaking one negative word. While friendship frees those subjects from judgment, friendship with Frodo gives Sam better judgment.
That’s what I ended up talking about. Like recent studies, Sam and Frodo’s friendship shows how good it can be for friendship to involve intimacy. At the same time, Tolkien also prompts us to consider whether the art of friendship requires a good deal more than being able to say that you love your friend to bits. Tolkien’s test is harder to pass than that. Still, isn’t it more satisfying to try what isn’t easy?
 Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), and William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood (New York: Henry Holt, 1998)
 Niobe Way, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011).
 E. Anderson and M. McCormack, “Cuddling and spooning: heteromasculinity and homosocial tactility among student-athletes,” Men and Masculinities 18:2 (2015): 214–230; and S. Robinson, E. Anderson, and A. White, “The Bromance: Undergraduate Male Friendships and the Expansion of Contemporary Homosocial Boundaries,” Sex Roles 78 (2018): 94-106.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 652.