High school, the best years of your life with everyday shaping and molding you from a feminine boy to becoming a respectable masculine adult, in truth its surviving everyday without being called a fag. In C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography she examines the dynamics of masculinity carefully exploring gender conformity that’s extracted from a collection of humiliations, fears and anxieties among high school boys.
Within the eighteen months that Pascoe tediously studied the students of River High, she opened my mind to reminisce about my high school years. From the pep rallies in the gym to the weight room discussions, however, Pascoe’s research expressed a deeper meaning to the formation of gender identities and masculinity in high school. Since high school remains to be an important ground in concretizing values, principles, and opinions, it is in here that gender associations are facilitated and realized by students accordingly (Pascoe, 2007).
Pascoe outlines the behaviors, rituals, and discourses involved in the making of gendered identities. She argues that the majority of interactions going on daily in the school construct masculinity as being equivalent to heterosexuality and dominance over women. Pascoe spent time observing students in classrooms, which included “gender neutral” sites, the Senior Government class and traditionally masculine sites such as auto shop class. Pascoe writes of what she calls the fag discourse.
She noted that the male students would often call each other a “fag” for no reason pertaining to sexuality, but more to do with masculinity. Girls never really used the word “fag” and were never called fags. When interviewed, both male and female students said that “fag” was the worst slur guys could direct at each other. According to this discourse, fear of being called out publicly as a “fag” is the primary driving force behind what Pascoe calls the display of “compulsive heterosexuality”. Tomboy” was also a label with some positive valuation among girls and boys. The labels that girly girls had to watch out for were “slut” and “‘ho”, though sexual promiscuity was positively valued by/for boys and even “male whore” was regarded as a compliment. What Pascoe is pointing out is that young men are desperate to prove their masculinity with their peers, that when in high school it is almost a compulsive effort to prove manhood. The only time a male student can get a break from the fear of being called a “fag” was during drama class.
This was a setting for male students to behave in a “unmasculine” way without being teased for doing so. When men get together to lament the fag discourse and to talk about how difficult it is to grow up male in this culture, how painful it is to try over and over again to establish one’s manhood, we forget something that Pascoe, rightly, doesn’t. The fag discourse doesn’t just victimize men; indeed, men aren’t even its chief victims (Pascoe). Pascoe notes that time and time again, women’s bodies are used as yardsticks for men to measure their manliness.
When boys brag about their sexual conquests, or pressure young women for sex in order to have a story to tell “the guys”, it is women who are the chief victims of the fag discourse. When boys, as Pascoe describes, snap bra straps and slap bottoms and pull hair in order to display their apparent “right of access” to girls’ bodies, they do this not out of authentic sexual desire but because of this compulsive need to perform, over and over again, as masculine.
As Pascoe explains with Dalton Conely in an interview, the word “fag” was once used mainly as an insult to police the boundaries of masculinity. So if one guy called another guy a “fag” it is not necessarily to say that he is literally gay; it’s a charge that he is not being “a real man”. In essence the word “fag” is not only a homophobic slur, it is a homophobic slur that also attacks behavior as not being masculine. This is why Pascoe used the phrase gendered homophobia throughout the book to describe the masculinity the male students showed on a daily basis.
Pascoe begins by pointing out ways in which the school as an institution plays a crucial role in the formation of masculinities. She often noticed teachers routinely ignored homophobic and sexist comments made by students. Students were never really punished for using words like “fag,” “gay,” or “dyke”. What are less obvious and more upsetting than the criticisms of the sex-ed program are the varied examples of the ways that “Heterosexual discourses were embedded in the physical environment of the classroom, teachers’ instructional practices, and students’ classroom behavior” (p. 39).
From the pictures of boy/girl pairings on the walls, to the homophobic jokes between male students and male teachers, the schools’ complacency with heterosexism becomes undeniable. In one instance a boy and girl left the Winter Ball early, two vice principals joked “You two going to a hotel or what”? I feel that if two male students walked off that the administrators would have reacted in a different manner. What comes possibly as the scariest part: the dominance of and violence against young women that is continually acted out within the school to reinforce boys’ sense of manhood.
Pascoe gives examples of the behaviors that “show how heterosexuality is normalized as a sort of ‘predatory’ social relation in which boys try and try and try to ‘get’ a girl until one finally gives in” (p. 95). With playfully harassing and touching girls, the male students are showing a tendency in proving their manhood amongst their peers. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how we look at it) boys do not seem to act or talk in the same abusive ways to and about girls when they are not around other boys.
This is in contrast to the posturing, bragging, and one-upmanship the boys showed when in the presence of their peers (for an example, boys would exaggerate their sexual prowess in masculine places like the weight room). When Pascoe writes about Shane and Cathy fighting during government class, it points out the dominance boys have over girls. Cathy never really seemed to try and stop it, even though it disrupted her work, she would often just give up. Pascoe also explored female masculinity, which is considerably less stigmatized than male effeminacy.
There was a clique of “basketball girls” who opted out of presenting a desirable, feminine self, plus an openly lesbian Homecoming Queen and senior-class president, and some “gay women” in the Gay/Straight Alliance. The “basketball girls” were tough and more than ready to fight any males who dissed them (let alone tried to harass them). Not all were lesbian, but no one was shown as the smiling, giggling, docile “girl” role. With widespread fascination and more than a little fantasy about the thought of two women having sex, even the gender-variant “dyke” was not used amongst the girls, and had none of the sting the way “fag” did.
The anecdotes and quotations that Pascoe presents from her interviews and observations serve as clear evidence for her critical analysis of the formation of masculinities occurring within the high school. Her suggestions for change are progressive yet plausible. Pascoe’s suggestions consist of institutional changes and her descriptions of boys’ behavior (which we might perceive as truly dangerous misogyny in the making) are not judgmental, it is clear that she does not blame students for the masculinities developed. This insightful peek into the realities of high school should be read by researchers, administrators, teachers, and parents.
We must be aware of the behaviors and attitudes that boys are forced to adopt to avoid violence or isolation, which in turn become dangerous and oppressive to other boys and girls, men and women. We should spend more energy convincing Institutional Review Boards and principals to allow research to be done in schools, as Pascoe did. There is so much to be learned in the spaces children and adolescents spend most of their days. References Pascoe, C. J. (2007) Dude you’re a fag: masculinity and sexuality in high school. (US: University of California Press).