Review by John Denora

Table of Content

C. J. Pascoe’s ethnography explores how high school influences individuals as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. The author highlights the difficulties boys face in high school, where conforming to masculine norms is crucial to avoid derogatory labels like ‘fag’. Through meticulous exploration, Pascoe delves into the dynamics of masculinity by examining the humiliations, fears, and anxieties experienced by these boys.

Pascoe’s eighteen-month study on the students of River High brought back memories of my own high school years. From the exciting pep rallies in the gym to the thought-provoking discussions in the weight room, Pascoe’s research shed light on the formation of gender identities and masculinity in high school. This research emphasized the significance of high school as a crucial stage in shaping values, principles, and opinions, where students develop and explore their understanding of gender associations (Pascoe, 2007).

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In her study, Pascoe examines the actions, customs, and discussions that contribute to the formation of gendered identities. According to her findings, a significant portion of everyday interactions within schools reinforces the idea that being male means being heterosexual and having power over women. Pascoe conducted observations in various classroom settings, including those considered “gender neutral,” as well as the Senior Government class and traditionally masculine environments like the auto shop class. She specifically focuses on the discourse surrounding homosexuality, which she refers to as the “fag discourse.”

Based on her observations, male students commonly referred to each other as “fag” in a non-sexual context, but rather in relation to their masculinity. Girls did not use this term and were not called fags either. During interviews, both male and female students agreed that “fag” was the most derogatory term used among guys. This emphasizes the fear of being labeled as a “fag” in public, which Pascoe refers to as the display of “compulsive heterosexuality.” The term “tomboy,” however, had positive connotations for both girls and boys. Conversely, girls who embraced their femininity had to be careful about being labeled as a “slut” or “‘ho,” while boys were praised for sexual promiscuity and even being called a “male whore” was seen as a compliment. Pascoe highlights that young men are desperate to prove their masculinity among peers, almost obsessively validating their manhood during high school. The only time when male students could escape the fear of being called a “fag” was during drama class.

This paragraph discusses a designated space for male students to freely express themselves in a non-stereotypically masculine way without fear of ridicule. It highlights that when men gather to discuss derogatory language related to homosexuality and the challenges of growing up male, they often overlook an important point made by Pascoe. According to Pascoe, this derogatory language does not just target men; women’s bodies are repeatedly used as a standard for men to measure their masculinity against.

When boys engage in male bravado by boasting about their sexual conquests or pressuring young women into having sex, it is women who are primarily harmed by this derogatory discourse. As Pascoe explains, when boys snap bra straps, slap bottoms, and pull hair, it is not driven by genuine sexual desire but rather stems from an incessant need to assert their supposed entitlement to girls’ bodies and consistently conform to masculine norms.

According to Pascoe’s interview with Dalton Conely, the term “fag” was historically used as an insult to assert masculine boundaries. Therefore, when one man called another man a “fag”, it did not necessarily imply homosexuality, but rather criticized his perceived lack of masculinity. Essentially, “fag” is not just a homophobic slur, but one that also challenges behavior deemed unmanly. Pascoe coined the term “gendered homophobia” in her book to portray the masculinity exhibited by male students on a daily basis.

Pascoe (year) emphasizes the school’s significant influence on shaping masculinities. She points out that teachers frequently ignored and failed to confront homophobic and sexist comments made by students. The use of derogatory terms such as “fag,” “gay,” or “dyke” went largely unpunished. Even more concerning than the critiques of the sex-ed program are the multiple occasions where “Heterosexual discourses were deeply embedded in the physical arrangement of the classroom, teaching approaches employed by teachers, and student conduct” (p. 39).

The evidence of the schools’ acceptance of heterosexism is apparent in various aspects. From the presence of pictures displaying boy/girl pairs on the walls to the exchange of homophobic jokes between male students and male teachers, their complacency is undeniable. A particular incident at the Winter Ball exemplifies this, when a boy and girl decided to leave early and two vice principals made a jesting comment, insinuating that they were heading to a hotel. It is my belief that if two male students had left in a similar manner, the administrators would have responded differently. What is perhaps most alarming is the perpetuation of dominance and violence against young women within the school, which serves to reinforce boys’ understanding of masculinity.

Pascoe (p. 95) suggests that certain behaviors demonstrate how heterosexuality is often seen as a type of ‘predatory’ social interaction, with boys persistently pursuing girls until one eventually consents. Male students establish their masculinity in front of peers by playfully harassing and physically engaging with girls. Interestingly, boys do not exhibit the same abusive behavior or conversation when not around other boys, which can be viewed positively or negatively depending on one’s perspective.

Compared to their behavior around peers, where they would posture, brag, and engage in one-upmanship (such as boys boasting about their sexual prowess in masculine spaces like the weight room), the boys exhibited a different demeanor when girls were present. Pascoe’s analysis of Shane and Cathy’s conflict during government class sheds light on the power dynamics between boys and girls. Despite the disruption it caused to her work, Cathy appeared to make no effort to intervene and often surrendered. Additionally, Pascoe explores the topic of female masculinity, which is not as socially marginalized as male femininity.

A group of non-conforming and empowered girls who played basketball included a lesbian Homecoming Queen, senior-class president, and members of the Gay/Straight Alliance. These resilient basketball players were unafraid to defend themselves against disrespectful or harassing males. While not all identified as lesbian, none adhered to the submissive and passive girl stereotype. There was an overall fascination, perhaps even some fantasy, surrounding women engaging in sexual activity with each other. However, even within the group of girls, the term “dyke” was absent and did not carry the same negative meaning as “fag”.

Pascoe presents anecdotes and quotations from interviews and observations, providing clear evidence for her analysis of the formation of masculinities in high school. Her suggestions for change are progressive but plausible. She suggests institutional changes while also describing boys’ behavior that could be seen as potentially dangerous misogyny. It is important to note that she does not blame students for the development of these masculinities. This candid look into high school realities should be read by researchers, administrators, teachers, and parents.

Understanding the behaviors and attitudes that boys feel compelled to adopt is crucial in order to prevent violence or isolation. However, these behaviors can become harmful and oppressive towards others, including both boys and girls, as well as men and women. One way to gain this understanding is through research conducted in schools, as demonstrated by Pascoe. Therefore, advocating for more studies in educational institutions and persuading Institutional Review Boards and principals to allow such research is important. This approach would provide valuable insights into the daily lives of children and adolescents. For further information, refer to Pascoe’s book “Dude you’re a fag: masculinity and sexuality in high school” (Pascoe, 2007, University of California Press).

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 Review by John Denora. (2019, May 02). Retrieved from

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