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Dude Youre a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School by CJ Pascoe is a comprehensible, teachable and stimulating exploration of the role that high schools play in producing hegemonic masculinity. Based on 18 months of participant observation research inside what is considered to be the typical high-school experience at "River High," the book takes readers behind the scenes of how youth construct and create gender and sexual culture, and scrupulously reveals the banality of homophobia, competition and humiliation, harassment and violence, and other gendered forms of suffering in American high schools. Pascoe's work shows that masculinity is defined predominantly through supremacy and control, and is then broadened through the use of what I would more readily call "fag epithet." This book explores this definition and furthering of masculinity as endorsed by both male and female students, the consequences of a strict gender system, heteronormativity within the school system, racialized masculine ideals, and acts of resistance to the gendered social order. The personal becomes the political.
Pascoe uses Judith Butler's original work applied in a present setting to show that the fag can best be seen as an "abject identity." According to Butler, individuals produce a gender identity within a microcosm by repeatedly summoning normative ideas of gender and through repetitive negation of those who are inaptly gendered. Much of Pascoe's findings indicate that interaction between students as separate from authority figures (faculty) as a way to maintain the fag as a threatening incongruity to the accepted, functional high school setting. The fag epithet is thus an aspect of gender monitoring, in which masculine boys single out and deride others who publicly fail at masculinity, heterosexual prowess, or might. It is the conscious effort of boys to not be labeled as a fag, so it becomes a common imperative to hastily force the term onto others in order to prevent the furthering of their own embodiment as the fag. It is important to note that Pascoe seeks to claim that "Fag" does not constitute an immutable or static identity attached to the specific boy who receives the title, but it is rather a fluid identity that is actively sought to be avoided: "the fag identity is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it" (54).
This labeling of others in order to avoid attaining the label themselves is the "fag discourse," a complex and liquid process that is paramount to boys' relationships with each other. The fag discourse seeks to strengthen ties between males and soothe social anxiety, which is needed to maintain comradery and togetherness in the brutal and lonely world of high school. A boy risks being a fag when he is emotive, warm or expressive; incompetent or noncompetitive; physically weak; and unable or unwilling to dominate girls: "[â€¦] boys reminded themselves and each other that at any moment they could become fags if they were not sufficiently masculine" (60).
This hegemonic masculinity is also seen as racialized in the context of the American high school throughout Pascoe's research. Masculinity as well as homophobia manifested themselves quite differently among the school's nonwhite population. Black students sought to achieve masculinity through fashion statements and dancing, two things that would have rendered a white student as a fag. It was more often among the black students to tease each other for being white than it was for them to use the word fag, and if it was used, it was specifically applied to homosexual men instead of effeminate men. The administrators of the school also enacted disproportionately disciplinary to the black students compared with the white students, as the black students behavior was often seen as overtly more hypersexual than the white students, even when the white students behaved in an arguably similar fashion.
Pascoe's most compelling contribution to the field of gender studies, in my opinion, is her illustration of the concept of compulsive heterosexuality, which refers to the ways that heterosexuality is asserted through acts of aggression and dominance. At River High, boys often discussed their sexual experiences with girls to each other in a "locker-room" setting, and these discussions were relayed to Pascoe as being detached from any positive erotic meanings, including their own personal pleasure, let alone love or romance. However, I think it should be taken into serious consideration the level of sexual or even personal maturity of these boys when analyzing the meaning of these stories. This in no ways invalidates Pascoe's claims; it just offers a piece of developmental psychology that is missing from her analysis. With that being said, it is still very important to consider how violent the boys were when describing girls' "abject bodies," with grotesque imagery of "ripping vaginal walls" and forcing girls to experience excruciating amounts of pain during sex that would render them sore and bruised-the "rape paradigm" that continues to plague and haunt the halls of our youth's place of learning.
This is where I step away from describing what I thought to be the most important themes in the book as I understood them in my own words, and move towards the story-telling, or the careful analysis of my own life. As you could tell in class and through our discussions via email, this book did not personally compel me. This is not to say that I do not find it to be current and typically salient. In fact, I do believe that a book of this nature should be read by administrators and faculty of all secondary-level schools, as it maps the intricacies involved in the relationships between sexuality, gender, race, and class, while at the same time remaining clean-cut and difficult to argue against. In no way do I venture to claim that her book is not necessary, it is just that I feel as if all of the themes and issues raised within her research are things that I have been discussing and reading about for years, and I am ready for something new. I suppose it is not unfair to say that I was bored.
I cannot pretend to tell a life story in a manner that is scientific. I will do my best, but the overlapping themes of Dude, Your'e A Fag and my story will be manifest.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when my wanting became a problem. I think it was at sixteen, five years ago, when I became a fatherless, willful and introverted girl, determined to leave for the Big City, for college, for a career and money and high-heeled shoes and shorn hair (aha! So I have had a secret love affair with some gendered ideasâ€¦. What girl hasn't?), and, most importantly, when I became obsessed with wanting the shining boy wearing his ironed shirt and smelling of new-car leather and salt and skin. It began with the boy. I fell in love.
But then I couldn't stop it, couldn't stop the falling or pleading or fighting or loving or wanting-especially wanting-all of him, even if things between us were agonized and wicked, even if getting what I wanted meant giving up everything I had, quitting school and my job, quitting friends and food, quitting my family, quitting waking up in the morning. I wanted a crooked bedroom where I could stay with him forever, knowing full well that I was becoming a clichéd "victim of the patriarchy"-with his aggressive tendencies and my submissive actions. I wanted for him to never leave me, please, I'll be different and better, I'll be who you want me to be, don't leave, I hate you, I love you, and please please please don't leave, we were addicted to each other, so it was said, and I wanted to make myself better, I wanted to be perfect for him, but I couldn't, and I wasn't, and then he broke up with me, and I was left there, having wanted my way into poverty in every sense of the word.
What did I really want? Why did I stay with him, even after openly admitting to his abusive tendencies (rape paradigm)? I don't know. But I do know. Mostly it has to do with grief and loss and anger, but there is also guilt that I was not a perfect "girl" in every sense of the word. I had to stay with and support this physical embodiment of masculinity because that is what girls do. Girls are contained. And everything is about containment. Even in a culture that would define girls as something completely opposite as what is evident in the heteronormative displays at River High, I think I would still feel out of place-maybe this also has something to do with carrying the stigma of "Bi Polar Disorder." But whatever it is, I still do not speak openly of such things, because we do not speak of such things, not resentment, not pining, not homesickness for a home I have never known. Not this sense that I don't know what the hell a human girl is. "I am an anthropologist in the field of girl."-I heard that phrase in a poem once and it resonated with me in a way I cannot begin to describe. But the truth is, in this moment, on this day, I am stranded in this place. And I will have to learn how to live here.