My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (2012), by sociologist C.J. Pascoe, is a discourse on the exploration of schools as a socializing institution for boys concerning the formation of their masculine identities. Pascoe’s discussion was based on the results of 18 months of ethnographic research that took place in a racially diverse middle-class suburban high school in northern California. The goal of her study was to “explain how teenagers, teachers, and the institutional logics of schooling construct[ed] adolescent masculinity through idioms of sexuality” (4). Through Pascoe’s research, it was demonstrated that the construction of powerful and controlling masculine and heterosexual identities, regardless if the masculinity was in male bodies or female bodies, determined the degree of acceptance and popularity experienced by those who successfully created that identity. Furthermore, some students, who were not successful in creating this version of hegemonic masculinity, or else rejected it, were many times marginalized or stigmatized, and even sometimes victimized by the members of the majority and controlling group. This study leads to implications on how educational facilities, as major institutions of socialization, might work to educate both faculty and students beyond the confines of narrow stereotypical gender-norm definitions and provide a greater understanding and acceptance of alternate gender possibilities. Freeing youth from these narrow confines of gender identity will promote a greater degree of opportunity, acceptance, equality and social justice for our youth and the future society that they will shape.
Pascoe’s masculine gender norm analysis centered on what she termed the ‘fag discourse’, the process by which boys reiterated “repeated repudiation of failed acts of masculinity” and an assertion of masculinity by “engaging in heterosexist discussions of girl’s bodies and their own sexual experiences” (5). She discovered that the fag trope did not refer to homosexual desire, but instead was in reference to a boy who was emotional, expressive, incompetent, noncompetitive, physically weak or unable or unwilling to dominate girls, for example. The fag discourse’s purpose was to ‘police masculinity’ by ‘shoring up contemporary definitions of masculinity’, and she discussed this fact throughout the book. The fag discourse was used in the construction of a masculine identity and consisted of boys attaching the stigma of the fag to other boys, while at the same time deflecting it away from themselves. Most boys also used girl’s bodies in the creation of their masculine identities through shared stories about girls and sex that were completely devoid of positive feelings of love or romance, but instead were about mastering and conquering girls’ bodies, and sometimes in a violent manner. The formation of a masculine gender identity was a process by which boys continually rejected the specter of the non-masculine man while also demonstrating that they did indeed possess masculine power and control, and this happened by means of insults and violent speech, and sometimes, violent actions. Pascoe also addressed the institutional sexism that ‘River High’ (pseudonym) promoted through programs and policies that reinforced both heterosexual and masculine dominance. Messages sent by school policies and programs, classroom discussions and activities, and the students themselves all worked together to reinforce ideals of heterosexism and masculine power and domination. The resulting hegemonic masculinity that emerged was generally understood as power and domination over others. The creation of powerful, dominating masculine heterosexual identities simultaneously reinforced the feminine quality of passive submission, while it also created marginalized and stigmatized groups of students who did not identify with and fall within the narrow definitions of a controlling masculinity or submissive femininity.
What was clear in Pascoe’s work was the dynamics of group formation and interactions, and the power that was conferred to the majority and dominating in-groups, because they had the relative power to define what constituted normal versus abnormal thoughts and behavior. The dominating in-groups consisted of those who identified with either hetero-normative behaviors, and those who identified with masculine behaviors. The school institution set up a formal structure for the foundations for hetero-normativity through the sanctioning of different competitions, dances, homecoming rituals, and other sexist and hetero-sexualizing activities. Teachers at River High reinforced heterosexuality by using heterosexual metaphors in their instruction, and by making sexist and heterosexist jokes. It is interesting to note that sexual orientation did not necessarily distinguish one as non-conforming though. Students confirmed to Pascoe that if a boy was labeled a fag, it did not indicate that he was gay, because a gay person could be athletic, for example, and therefore not a fag. Rebecca, a ritualist, who was gay and identified as masculine, sometimes faced the same type of labeling and policing that boys did when she stepped outside the boundaries of her masculine role. Her friends found it difficult to accept her secondary deviance and teased her for it. Also, the Basketball Girls, who were innovators, and of which some were gay, self-identified with a typically powerful and controlling ‘masculine’ style and behavior, and these girls were popular, being not only accepted by the larger in-group, but celebrated with their popular ‘pimp’ identity too. What was sanctioned and reinforced, by the majority in-groups at ‘River High’, were either hetero-normativity or masculinity, but not necessarily the need to be ‘straight’. The school institution acted in a way that created an organizational culture that enforced and reinforced a hegemonic hetero-normative and dominating masculinity that existed there, while stigmatizing those they considered ‘others’.
Those students who identified with neither white hetero-normativity nor masculinity were the non-conforming out-groups. Social deviance in the instances of ‘feminine’ boys, the politically active non-normative Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) group, and those who were identified by others as possessing a ‘non-white sexuality’, were stigmatized. Ricky, a retreat-ist, and an openly gay boy who violated most gender norms, was severely harassed and physically assaulted at ‘River High’, and because of the lack of institutional support, he eventually dropped out of school. The GSA group, were rebels, who were a politically organized group who worked to change the school’s culture regarding sexual and gender norms. The members of this group did not necessarily identify as gay or to stereotypical ideals of masculinity or femininity, but rather encouraged individual notions of sexual and gender expression. African-American young men were frequently and unfairly disciplined for what the administration perceived as overly aggressive heterosexist behavior, as was the case concerning bodily contact during school dances. The social deviants who did not conform to the majority controlling in-groups, experienced not only physical violence, but also structural violence in the form of discrimination, harassment, unfair disciplinary action, and therefore also psychological harm.
What Pascoe discovered is that many aspects of the high school environment worked to form social cohesion by shoring up stereotypical ideals of hetero-normativity and masculinity while at the same time marginalizing and stigmatizing those who did not identify with or fit into those categories. The creation of a powerful and dominating masculinity also co-created a feminine identity of passive submission where women possess a great deal less power than men. Furthermore, the creation of this hegemonic heterosexual and masculine identity simultaneously constructed marginalized and stigmatized groups of those who did not fit into this stereotypical gender ‘norm’. Understanding this process of identity creation through gender socialization is useful to help us see how the current hegemonic force shapes and maintains a position of masculine power through actions that should be recognized as forms of bullying and harassment. It is through the understanding of how hegemonic groups gain power through the creation of certain social sanctions that we may also realize how to intentionally re-create societies that encompass a greater degree of understanding, compassion and justice toward all.
Pascoe’s study provides a useful way of thinking in a more inclusive manner when thinking about sex and gender. Understanding that gender is a process, rather than a social identity associated with specific bodies allows us to recognize that there are opportunities for positive change. It will be by understanding beyond the stereotypical binary gender system of dominating males and masculinity in opposition to submissive females and femininity that the dismantling of hegemonic power and domination will take place. This allows us to devise and implement institutional practices, professional development, plus student education, in such a way so as to promote social integration of all students resulting in sexual and gender equality.
© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.