Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School [REVIEW]

Highlighting the themes of masculinity and gender identity, C. J. Pascoe introduces her anthropological study of masculinity, “Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School” with an anecdotal scene depicting a performative popularity contest in a high school gymnasium. This single glimpse of Pascoe’s extensive, 18-months of field research showcases how high school students, especially boys, identify with and project sexual identity. It’s an internal and social process. And we soon learn that clothing, class status, gender, sex, race, tastes in popular culture and social standing all play a key role.

LGBT teens’ feelings, desires, and physical attractions run contrary to the heteronormative standards of American society. As such, LGBT youth often experience feelings of sadness and dejection that can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies (Russell & Joyner, 2001).

Pascoe asserts that achieving a masculine identity entails “the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity.” High school boys reaffirm their own masculine identity by spewing homophobic slurs at other boys and engaging in heterosexist conversations about girls’ bodies and their own often fictional sexual experiences. Based on observation, Pascoe believes that African American  boys were more likely to be punished for by school authorities for engaging in these practices.

Utilizing queer theory, feminist theory and sociological research on masculinity as a basis, Pascoe ultimately hypothesizes that masculinity should be thought of as a process rather than a social identity associated with specific bodies.

It’s important to note that Pascoe limits her research to high school, because it may be the organization in which understanding and appreciation of cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity can seem the most absent. After high school, students are more free to re-evaluate themselves and their understanding of others. Research shows that the college years are influential in the re-socialization of core values, yet very little work focuses on the ideological shifts that may take place in attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered population (Holland, 2013).

The research presented in “Dude, You’re a Fag” indicates that masculinity is an identity that respondents think of as related to the male body but has not necessarily specific to the male body. Interview and observations of students at the high school where Pascoe conducted her research indicate that students recognize masculinity as an identity expressed through sexual discourses and practices that indicate dominance and control.

Pascoe’s research focused on the roughly two thousand students of a high school with a diverse ethnic background. She gathered data using the qualitative method of ethnographic research, spending a year and a half conducting fieldwork in the school and connected sites, formally interviewing countless students, faculty and administrators.

In a similarly ethnographic dissertation, researcher Bryan Syder explores how high school wrestlers organize and make sense of their selves and their social worlds through shared cultural schemas, which to varying degrees are informed by larger discourses of masculinity. His findings suggest that wrestlers at Central share a common set of cultural schemas that they use to navigate their social worlds, construct masculine identities, and solve a number of problems, which range from their social marginality on campus to the common outsider accusation that “wrestling is gay” (Snyder, 2012).

An important part of Pascoe’s study was analyzing the usage of “faggot” in the high school. “Faggot” jokes were central in their social lives. The male students had learned that faggots were simultaneously predatory and passive and that they were to be avoided. So the bullying of supposed homosexual boys made the mannerisms of “faggots” something to be actively alluded.

According to Pascoe, highlighting the difference between the deployment of gay and fag as insults brings the gendered nature of homophobia into focus. Gay was a synonym for stupid. While “gay” and “fag” share sexual origins, it does not have the skew of gender-loaded meaning.

In chapter four, Pascoe analyzes the sexual one-upsmanship of high school boys in the locker room, chronicling conversations where in one boy (probably an athlete based on the location) will brag about his experience or knowledge of having sexual relations with a female, before another athlete tries to top the other boy’s story with increasingly graphic stories.

“Dude, You’re a Fag” doesn’t ignore the massive impact popular culture has had on the way boys talk about sex. Stereotypically, boys brag about their sexual exploits by showing off a girl’s underwear (Pretty in Pink), spend the end of their senior year talking about how the play to lose their virginity (American Pie), or make the cruel bets about who can bed the ugliest girl in the school (She’s All That).

So it may come to no surprise that a study on the television programs, films, songs, and magazines most popular with LGB teens suggests that heterosexuality reigns supreme in mainstream media. When LGB sexuality is depicted in mainstream media, it is often sanitized. LGB sexual talk is rarely sexual; rather it is primarily about the social or cultural components of being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. LGB sexual behavior is also rare in mainstream media, which tend to depict LGB individuals as non-sexually as possible. LGB sexuality in mainstream media exists, but is more about proclaiming LGB identity than actually living it (Bond, 2012).

Pascoe admits that many of the behaviors students recognized as masculine were sexist and homophobic and at best generally involved insulting others. However, she believes that there are steps that can be taken to help students with negotiating their own gender identities.

Not surprisingly, teachers play a key role. Whether or not they are teaching specifically about sexuality or gender, teachers need to be aware of how they contribute to the “hidden curriculum.” Teachers should try to garner masculine favor by allowing sexism or homophobia to go unchecked.

In conclusion, Pascoe ultimately puts the responsibility on adults to configure spaces that support youths’ variety of gender and sexual expressions. It is also up to adults to protect young people from teasing and harassment rampant in modern schools. Comparing racial identity to sexual identity, Pascoe challenges school authorities to protect students against sexual bullying the same way they protect students from racial bullying.

[You can order “Dude You’re a Fag” on Amazon right here.

Trailer for 2011 documentary “Bully”

In “Bully,” students are harassed for enacting non-normative gender and sexual identities. While race and issues with body images play a role in this film, the students who are bullied the worst are often the ones seen as gay or not masculine or feminine enough.

Bibliography

Bond, Bradley J. “Sexuality in the Media and Emotional Well-being among Lesbian,Gay, & Bisexual Adolescents.”

Harris Interactive and GLSEN (2005). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, A Survey of Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN.

Holland, Laurel, Todd L. Matthews and Melinda R. Schott. 2013. “That’s so Gay! Exploring College Students’ Attitudes Toward the LGBT Population.” Journal of Homosexuality 60(4):575-595

Pascoe, C. J. 2011. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Snyder, Bryan M. “Hard Work, Overcoming, and Masculinity: An Ethnographic Account of High School Wrestlers’ Bodies and Cultural Worlds.”