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In her book Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School C.J. Pascoe examined masculinity and its ties with sexuality through a one and a half year long study at an American high school.
Pascoe aimed to understand the relationship between gender and sexuality as they are imbedded in social institutions, focusing on high school as the social institution. Pascoe foremost focused her research on high school boys but also included girl's opinions and behaviors in order to claim that masculinity is not only acted out by boys but also by girls. Pascoe states that adolescent masculinity can often be seen as dominance that is presented through sexualized discourse and not only through behavior.
During her one and a half year visit to the high school Pascoe found that there were multitudes of ways on which boys acted out and embodied masculinity. One very common way for the boys to assert their masculinity and heterosexuality was through using the word 'fag' (commonly used by boys but not girls). The word 'fag' was used in order to portray heterosexuality and masculinity of the boy using the word. The recipient of the word 'fag' was thereby feminized and given a homosexual status. If the boy called 'fag' failed to pass on the term, simply by lobbying it to another boy or by asserting himself in another masculine way, he was seen as embodying the term. In contrast, the word 'gay', was used by students (both boys and girls) to name something or someone that was deemed, lame, unfair, or not cool.
Pascoe found that the use of the word 'fag' was both gendered and racialized. Boys, much more so than girls, referred to other boys as 'fags'. White boys were also much more likely to use the word 'fag' than were African American boys. White boys were also more likely to be called 'fag', especially if these boys cared about their looks or engage in dance or drama. African American boys, on the other hand, were 'allowed' to both care about their appearance and engage in dance. Pascoe describes this difference as one in which African American culture highlights and values hip-hop culture in which appearance and dance are valuable assets and skills. Instead of using the word 'fag', African American boys often teased each other for being or acting 'white'.
One way for boys to assert their masculinity and heterosexuality was to use the word 'fag'. Other ways included bragging about sexual conquests, appearing physically strong, manipulating or controlling girl's bodies, taking a homophobic standpoint, harassing other students, appearing sexually active and showing sexual interest in girls. Often the flirting with girls was quite violent and degrading which often neither the boys, the girls, nor the school personnel considered inappropriate. Pascoe thereby argue (other examples are included in the book as well) that the high school itself, with all of its traditions (such as prom, dances, and competitions), encouraged heterosexuality and were quite passive in opposing sexism and homophobia. At times teachers and other personnel also engaged in homophobic language or compulsory heterosexual discussions in order to teach the students or to engage with them.
Pascoe also, at length, discusses the sexual policing of the students (by teachers and other staff) at the high school. African American boys were more policed than white boys were and were actively discouraged to touch girls as they were performing choreographed dance. It also appeared as if African American boys were reprimanded more than white boys for almost identical behavior. This, Pascoe believes, depends on perceptions of African American boys and men as 'hypersexualized'.
Dude You're a Fag is a very interesting and fascinating book. Pascoe is meticulous in her attention to details and her critical analysis of the high school and the behavior students and teachers engage in. Her ability to 'read between the lines' is a strength that is noticeable throughout each chapter. Pascoe also describes how masculinity and sexuality is not only depicted through individual student's manners but is more often acted out in groups, and is also noticeable in the school structure and activities.
Pascoe describes her approach to the boys by adopting a 'least-gendered' identity in which she downplays her femininity and highlights behavior that is popularly masculine in order to be able to gain rapport. She briefly discusses how this strategy gained her access to different groups of boys and relaxed them to speak with her. She does not, however, mention if she adopted the same strategy when interacting with the girls. More details about her strategy (if she used one) when interviewing the girls would have been interesting. Also, did she notice much self-editing from the girls and boys? Pascoe discusses one incident in which some boys told each other to mind their language because they believed Pascoe to be a teacher. Did she notice any other such behaviors?
Despite these questions, Dude You're a Fag is an intriguing and at times disturbing book to read. It is well written and is suitable for a wide range of readers. The book does however contain language that is quite discipline specific and warrants some previous knowledge of feminist studies and men's studies, especially since Pascoe discusses quite a bit of theory. The book suits both general and academic readers and would be of great use in college courses.
© 2011 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from University College Dublin, Ireland, and recently earned her Master's Degree in Women's studies from the same university.