With summer movie season in full swing, there’s a good chance you will soon encounter one of straight-guy culture’s stranger traditions: the movie theater “buffer seat.” Sometimes, when two straight bros go to the movies together, they don’t necessarily sit together. Instead, they leave a buffer seat between them for optimal comfort. Or so they say.
The idea of the buffer seat was first introduced to me by a friend, a bona fide movie buff who mentioned he had several straight male friends who sit a seat apart from each other when at the theater together. I was incredulous, but the existence of the buffer seat was soon corroborated by a co-worker who admitted to using a buffer seat himself.
To gauge the buffer seat’s prevalence, I turned to Reddit, that bastion (and cesspool) of straight male culture. “I’ve never heard of this. Is that something people actually do?” Reddit user garboooo inquired after I asked the r/askmen subreddit about the use of these so-called buffer seats. The responses came fast:
- One commenter “usually” leaves a buffer seat when with a friend, “but only so [my friend and I] can both manspread and each get two armrests.”
- “I leave a [buffer] seat every time I’m not with my wife. I’m a large man. My shoulders will invade your seat space.”
- “Unless it is a crowded movie theater, I’ve pretty much always had a buffer seat between me and a friend of either gender next to me. As long as it isn’t a date why would you want to be fighting over the armrest/leg space, etc?”
- “Yeah, that’s where we put the beer.”
So while the buffer seat may seem like a bit ripped from a Judd Apatow flick, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that it’s employed with some regularity — though it often goes undiscussed by the very straight men who practice it, probably because that would force them to acknowledge its implicit homophobia and their own discomfort with platonic male-male intimacy.
The buffer seat stems from a heteronormative understanding of masculinity, according to Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA. “Things we associate with manhood — such as independence, self-sufficiency — lead men to believe they have to be far away from each other. Which is really kind of sad.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the buffer seat, take the example of men’s behavior in public bathrooms, where the unspoken rule is that you don’t use the urinal right next to a man who’s midstream — you leave a “buffer urinal” and let him pee in peace. (Unless, of course, the bathroom is crowded, in which case go ahead and cozy up next to him.)
Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College, says she’s seen men using buffer seats herself. Wade referenced Niobe Way’s book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection in her explanation of the phenomenon. Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, followed teenage boys through their high school careers, finding that as 14-year-old freshmen, they speak lovingly of their male friends. By the time they graduate, though, many boys have been socialized to say they don’t need or want male companionship. “These boys learn how to perform masculinity in this particular way, which involves not needing intimacy,” Wade says.
“So what you’re seeing with the buffer seat is this interesting contradiction — men want intimacy and closeness, so they’re going to the movie together, but the movie itself is a buffer against intimacy. It’s something they can do together without having to interact; without having each other as the object of each other’s attention.”
The buffer seat is an extension of that feeling. The physical distance it creates is meant to communicate — both to each other and to the rest of the theater — an emotional distance between the men sitting on either side of it.
“[The buffer seat] says, ‘Yes, we’re together. But not like that,’” Wade continues. “It’s about homophobia, but it’s not just about homophobia. It’s about this rule that men don’t need or want to be close to other people.”
Not that all men are unaware of the gender dynamics of the buffer seat — many Redditors suggested that the question itself was homophobic: “Do you think two dudes are going to catch the gay from sitting next to each other?” joked one. Another added: “If you leave a buffer seat then how are you supposed to make out with each other and give each other brojobs?”
But those who copped to using a buffer seat said that it had nothing to do with homophobia, instead citing physical comfort — a buffer seat allows dudes to manspread without fear of rubbing their shoulder or thighs against each other (accidentally, of course).
After all, if two beefy straight guys were to watch a movie together at home, they wouldn’t sit right next to each other on the couch. So why would they at the theater?
Wade is skeptical of this logic. If the buffer seat were solely a matter of size and comfort, she says, then large women would do it, too. That straight men wouldn’t leave a buffer seat on a movie date suggests the comfort defense is just a convenient excuse. “My educated guess is that a lot of men of all kinds do it, and they do it more often when they’re with their male friends as opposed to their girlfriends or family members,” she says.
In fact, smaller men are probably more likely to use a buffer seat, Wade continues: “The buffer seat is going to be used more often by men who are more insecure about their masculinity, which would seem more likely to be men who are smaller in stature.”
Williams agrees, saying the personal space excuse is, in part, a way for men to rationalize their homophobia: “Men and boys go through very elaborate machinations to ensure that they are real men, which is to say, not gay,” Williams says. “These buffer zones are kind of a performance of their desire to be understood as real men.”
For Wade, the buffer seat is common enough to deserve mention in her sociology lectures. She uses the practice as an example of how men “perform masculinity” and as an entry point to gender theory. “If I bring it up in class, a majority of students recognize it,” Wade says. “Students also recognize it as silly—the idea of going to a movie together and not sitting together.”
Whatever its prevalence, the mere existence of the buffer seat has the power to turn a bro-date to the movies into a fraught homosocial experience. Whether or not a man chooses to buffer, he’s making a public statement about the texture of his friendship. The decision of where to sit is a loaded one, Wade says.
“The statement to not put a buffer seat is an invitation to closeness, to intimacy. To put the buffer seat is exactly against that statement.
“The irony is that grown men, especially middle-class white grown men, have the least amount of friends,” Wade adds. “But they desperately want friends. … That’s why Judd Apatow makes so much money. He has all these bromances about how scary it can be for men to reach out to another guy.”