University of California, Berkeley - Researcher Cheri Jo Pascoe spent a year and a half hanging out in a high-school weight room, auto shop, and drama class, and she learned what frightens adolescent males most. â€œBeing called a fag is the specter that constantly lurksâ€ in the minds of high-school boys, explains Pascoe, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Social Change, UC Berkeley.
University of California, Berkeley - Researcher Cheri Jo Pascoe spent a year and a half hanging out in a high-school weight room, auto shop, and drama class, and she learned what frightens adolescent males most. “Being called a fag is the specter that constantly lurks” in the minds of high-school boys, explains Pascoe, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Social Change, UC Berkeley.
As a Ph.D. student in sociology at Berkeley, Pascoe wrote her doctoral dissertation on what she saw and heard at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta suburban school she called "River High". The University of California Press just published the new book, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, a book based on her dissertation.
During her investigation into how boys define masculinity, Pascoe found what she calls “fag discourse” and a corresponding value placed on sexuality, power, control, and domination. Pascoe formally interviewed 50 students, observed countless others, and spoke with teachers, counselors, and administrators. She heard male students imitate homosexuality humorously and use the “fag” epithet constantly as a way to shore up their own masculinity.
A boy could get called a “fag” for any sort of behavior deemed not quite masculine (though not necessarily feminine), including “being stupid or incompetent, dancing, caring too much about clothing, being too emotional, or expressing interest (sexual or platonic) in other guys,” writes Pascoe in her book. As a kind of corollary, boys asserted their masculinity — and repudiated the threat of the “fag” identity— by talking about girls’ bodies in heterosexist terms and bragging about their sexual experiences.
While Pascoe points out that such teasing may be a part of a normal American adolescent masculinity, homophobic taunting and homophobia have fed into recent tragedies, including the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and the murder in Fremont of Eddie “Gwen” Araujo in 2002. Pascoe acknowledges that those two incidents are unusual, even as she notes that “parents have started to hold schools accountable for allowing this sort of harassment to go unchecked.”
It’s a man’s world
Masculinity and its underpinnings have been Pascoe’s area of interest since her undergraduate days, when she wrote her senior thesis on pledging and other rituals at a fraternity. “They turned everything into a competition,” recalls Pascoe. For her master’s thesis in sociology (which she obtained at Berkeley), Pascoe interviewed boys about their definitions of masculinity, then delved deeper into the topic for her doctoral studies.
For her fieldwork, beginning in 2002, she sought out a high school with demographics that roughly reflected California’s and was not too close to the Bay Area, where tolerance for alternative sexual lifestyles runs famously high. The student body of River High approximated the racial diversity Pascoe was seeking: approximately 50 percent white, 30 percent Latino, and the remainder divided among Asian, African American, and other ethnicities. Most of River High’s approximately 2,000 students came from working-class families, though some came from middle-class or poor backgrounds. With its emphases on tradition, sports, and community, it’s an archetypical high school, says Pascoe.
Three days a week, Pascoe sat in on various classes to observe students in both gender-specific settings (weight room, auto shop, drama class) and gender-neutral ones (senior government class). She also attended meetings of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance as well as football games, school assemblies, and proms.
The River High boys she interviewed equated masculinity with “being powerful and having the ability to assert your will and control on the world around you,” explains Pascoe. On the other hand, “a fag was a person who had no power and no control and no ability to assert his will, and that was the worst thing you could be.”
A young, gay student Pascoe pseudonymously called Ricky was permanently stuck with the “fag” label. A talented dancer, Ricky’s mere presence could inspire violent comments from other boys.
“Not only could he not ”˜throw a football,’ he actively flaunted his non-masculine gender identification by dancing provocatively at school events and wearing cross-gendered clothing,” Pascoe wrote. “Through his gender practices, Ricky embodied the threatening specter of the ”˜fag.’ He bore the weight of the fears and anxieties of the boys in the school who frantically lobbed the ”˜fag’ epithet at one another.”
When Ricky requested help from the school’s authorities, he was ignored, in spite of the fact that there is a law in California protecting students from discrimination based on sexual identity.
School administrators looked the other way when some of the white students performed sexually suggestive routines during rehearsals of River High’s annual dance show. By contrast, vice principals gave African American male students strict instructions not to touch the girls in their routine.
“I found that the institutional racism echoed what the literature has already demonstrated, that African American boys, when enacting the same behavior as white boys, are more apt to be punished,” says Pascoe. “White boys are likely to be seen as using bad judgment or making a mistake, whereas African American boys are seen as intentionally misbehaving.”
Girls didn’t fare much better at River High. Sexual harassment was rampant. “Boys’ sex talk and predatory behavior has become so normalized that teachers don’t even recognize it as harassment but rather consider it harmless flirting,” writes Pascoe, who witnessed boys dominating their female classmates by jabbing objects at their crotches in the school’s hallways.
Pascoe herself wasn’t immune to offensive behavior. On one occasion, after Pascoe excused herself to go to the restroom, a boy followed her out of auto-shop class. He told his classmates, “I’ll be right back, guys,” and grabbed his crotch, as if to indicate he was going to have sex with the researcher. That experience was “really unnerving, because that’s how they treated other girls,” says Pascoe. After that occurrence, she started disarming offensive boys with pointed comments and humor.
The girls want to be with the girls
At River High Pascoe met two very different groups of girls who acted like boys. In most of the sociological literature on masculinity, “masculinity is defined as what men do,” says Pascoe. “When I was at the school, I thought that was problematic, because these groups of girls were engaging in these behaviors that I would define as masculine. In all of the sociological literature in masculinity, girls who behave in nontraditional ways are never addressed.”
The Gay/Straight Alliance girls were invested in social change, dressed in black or wore long, gothic dresses “to drag it up,” and fell very low on the social hierarchy. On the other hand, the basketball girls wore only boys’ clothing, spit, swore, and got in fights. Some dated other girls. “They were very cool, extremely charismatic, very good-looking, and extremely popular,” says Pascoe.
She also observed boys in drama class who “were able to put on makeup and play really tough sailors and were able to move in and out of these gender practices in a way that’s fun and fulfilling.”
In the two groups of girls and boys in drama class, Pascoe found a counterpoint to the hyper-masculine forms of expression in which most River High boys engaged. They “provide a way to start thinking about masculinity in a more productive, less damaging way,” she offers, saying that such expressions separate gender from power.
“I don’t want the message of the book to be ”˜masculinity’s bad and we should just get rid of gender,” says Pascoe. “I think people find a lot of joy in gendering themselves, and that playing with gender can be a really fun, gratifying thing. It’s part of sexuality and it’s part of identity and it’s part of people’s lives.”