High school masculinity

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

This week’s reading was C. J. Pascoe’s riveting study, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. If you’re at all interested in gender, or the culture of schools, it’s a must-read.

CJ Pascoe - Dude, You're A Fag

Pascoe’s study took place in 2007 at a high school in an unnamed California town–I picture West Covina. She starts the book with a description of a high school assembly at which popular senior boys compete for a prom-king-like title. Two candidates do a “revenge of the nerds” skit that lays out every horrible notion of masculinity that contemporary America has to offer. The nerds can’t protect “their women” because of their physical inadequacy. They signal unmasculinity with their tight, ill- fitting, outdated clothes and high-pitched voices, and they signal gayness with homoerotic dance moves. The nerds become masculine and straight by working out. The skit also includes black-stereotype “gangstas,” who are hypermasculine and hypersexualized, threatening to white women until the former nerds defeat them. Other black characters “relieve the white heroes of the unmasculine practice of dancing.” The girlfriend characters are feminine and therefore helpless, but another female character gets cheers for being able to lift huge weights.

[M]asculinity is not a homogenous category that any boy possesses by virtue of being male. Rather, masculinity—as constituted and understood in the social world I studied—is a configuration of practices and discourses that different youths (boys and girls) may embody in different ways and to different degrees. Masculinity, in this sense, is associated with, but not reduced or solely equivalent to, the male body. I argue that adolescent masculinity is understood in this setting as a form of dominance usually expressed through sexualized discourses. Through extensive fieldwork and interviewing I discovered that, for boys, achieving a masculine identity entails the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity. Boys lay claim to masculine identities by lobbing homophobic epithets at one another. They also assert masculine selves by engaging in heterosexist discussions of girls’ bodies and their own sexual experiences. Both of these phenomena intersect with racialized identities in that they are organized somewhat differently by and for African American boys and white boys. From what I saw during my research, African American boys were more likely to be punished by school authorities for engaging in these masculinizing practices. Though homophobic taunts and assertion of heterosexuality shore up a masculine identity for boys, the relationship between sexuality and masculinity looks different when masculinity occurs outside male bodies. For girls, challenging heterosexual identities often solidifies a more masculine identity. These gendering processes are encoded at multiple levels: institutional, interactional, and individual.

Men exist within a social hierarchy, and they enact and embody different varieties of masculinity depending on their status.

Hegemonic masculinity, the type of gender practice that, in a given space and time, supports gender inequality, is at the top of this hierarchy. Complicit masculinity describes men who benefit from hegemonic masculinity but do not enact it; subordinated masculinity describes men who are oppressed by definitions of hegemonic masculinity, primarily gay men; marginalized masculinity describes men who may be positioned powerfully in terms of gender but not in terms of class or race… Very few men, if any, are actually hegemonically masculine, but all men do benefit, to different extents, from this sort of definition of masculinity, a form of benefit Connell (1995) calls the “patriarchal dividend.”

Pascoe does not just consider sexuality to be a property of individuals, but also as a set of power relationships that manifests in group settings.

A good example of this is heterosexuality. While heterosexual desires or identities might feel private and personal, contemporary meanings of heterosexuality also confer upon heterosexual individuals all sorts of citizenship rights, so that heterosexuality is not just a private matter but one that links a person to certain state benefits.

The social aspect of sexuality is especially important when discussing adolescents, whose selfhood is defined at least as much by peer cultures as by family or other cultural structures. Pascoe refers often to the way that the boys in her study behave night-and-day differently in groups versus one-on-one. She uses queer theory to look at masculinity as a contingent process, not a stable thing, “a field through which power is articulated… rather than as a never-ending list of configurations of practice enacted by specific bodies.”

[G]ender is not just natural, or something one is, but rather something we all produce through our actions. By repeatedly acting “feminine” or “masculine” we actually create those categories. Becoming gendered, becoming masculine or feminine, is a process. People constantly reference or invoke a gendered norm, thus making the norm seem like a timeless truth.

We enact gender as much by rejecting the “wrong” behaviors as we do by embracing the “right” ones. We define gender by repudiating “abject identities” per Judith Butler. The kids Pascoe studies do this repudiation constantly and showily, mostly through jokes.

Examining masculinity using Butler’s theory of interactional accomplishment of gender indicates that the “fag” position is an “abject” position and, as such, is a “threatening specter” constituting contemporary American adolescent masculinity at River High. Similarly, drawing on Butler’s concept of the constitution of gender through “repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame” elucidates how seemingly “normal” daily interactions of male adolescence are actually ritualized interactions constituting masculinity. These repeated acts involve demonstrating sexual mastery and the denial of girls’ subjectivity. The school itself sets the groundwork for boys’ interactional rituals of repudiation and confirmation, like those illustrated in the opening vignette [the “revenge of the nerds” skit].

There are some kids in Pascoe’s study who make themselves “culturally unintelligible” by deliberately stepping outside of predictable gender roles. Girls who adopt masculine traits can benefit socially from it. Boys who adopt feminine traits are severely punished for it.

Examining the use of the word fag as a trope reveals that it is not necessarily a static identity that attaches permanently to a certain (gay) boy’s body; rather, it is a fluid identity that boys struggle to avoid, often by lobbing the insult at others.

We don’t tend to think of schools as sexual institutions except to the extent that they are reining in their teenage students’ raging hormones. But schools do a lot to reinforce gender roles and normative sexuality. Sometimes they do it innocuously, by talking about heterosexual weddings as an example in a grammar lesson. Sometimes they attempt to exert control, for example with abstinence-only sex education classes. And sometimes schools make their values clear by omission, by failing to enforce rules against harassing girls or gay students, or by giving tacit approval to suggestive songs, dances and skits. While schools usually don’t address adolescent sexuality officially, teachers and administrators do talk about it informally, and often. Pascoe describes “River High’s unofficial sexuality curriculum” taking the form of homophobic jokes between teachers and (usually male) students. The unofficial curriculum discriminates by race.

While expressions of sexuality were often encouraged or at least tolerated for white boys, for certain groups of students, especially African American boys, they were especially discouraged.

Black students at River High have a status that is paradoxically both high and low. They tend to be popular and stylish, embodying hip-hop culture in ways that white kids are eager to emulate. But black kids are treated with suspicion by authorities and are punished disproportionately.

When white boys misbehaved, teachers excused them with a resigned “boys will be boys” response. However, when African American boys joked, spoke out, or otherwise misbehaved in the classroom or schoolyard, adults… assumed that they were doing so on purpose. This assumption of an adult intentionality results in harsher punishments for African American boys.

Pascoe talks about an all-black dance group called the Bomb Squad, made up of girls who were excluded from cheerleading. While the student body adored their dance routines, the school administration was reluctant to let them perform at rallies and assemblies.

River High’s school rituals mirrored society’s expectations of a dominant, white heterosexual masculinity and a sexually available femininity. Boys were represented in these rituals as heterosexually successful and physically dominant over girls and over weaker boys.

Pascoe devotes a large part of the book to parsing out “fag discourse,” the homophobic jokes that are a constant feature of social life at River High (and in much of the rest of America.)

Older boys repeatedly impressed upon younger ones through these types of homophobic rituals that whatever they did, whatever they became, however they talked, they had to avoid becoming a faggot.

Fag discourse is not simply anti-gay (though it is that.)

Fag is not necessarily a static identity attached to a particular (homosexual) boy. Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or interaction. This does not mean that boys who identify as or are perceived to be homosexual aren’t subject to intense harassment. Many are. But becoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity as it does with a sexual identity. This fluidity of the fag identity is what makes the specter of the fag such a powerful disciplinary mechanism. It is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it.

A few groups manage to escape fag discourse. Black kids aren’t labeled fags if they care about their appearance and are good dancers. Lesbians get a pass because of their cherished role in straight male fantasy. Girls generally are never called fags, and they don’t call people fags as much as boys do. Nearly everyone throws around the word “gay” as a synonym for “stupid,” which has the same homophobic origin as “fag” but doesn’t carry the same gender-loaded meaning.

Girls and boys often used gay as an adjective referring to inanimate objects and male or female people, whereas they used fag as a noun that denoted only unmasculine males. Students used gay to describe anything from someone’s clothes to a new school rule that they didn’t like.

Boys at River High use “fag” to keep each other in their place in the pecking order.

A boy could get called a fag for exhibiting any sort of behavior defined as unmasculine (although not necessarily behaviors aligned with femininity): being stupid or incompetent, dancing, caring too much about clothing, being too emotional, or expressing interest (sexual or platonic) in other guys.

Interestingly, a third of Pascoe’s interview subjects said they would never call an actual gay person a fag, out of a kind of compassion. They have a sense that homosexuality is a disability, like being “retarded.” How sweet of them. It seems these boys have adopted an attitude Pascoe cites from psychological literature as recently as the mid-1990s: that male homosexuality isn’t a pathology, but effeminacy is. Pascoe points out that gay men themselves have internalized this attitude as well.

The war against fags as the specter of unmasculine manhood appears in gay male personal ads in which men look for “straight-appearing, straight-acting men.”

If you have spent any time at all around teenagers, Pascoe’s findings will not surprise you, but it’s still discomforting to see them in print.

In my fieldwork I was amazed by the way the word seemed to pop uncontrollably out of boys’ mouths in all kinds of situations. To quote just one of many instances from my field notes: two boys walked out of the PE locker room, and one yelled, “Fucking faggot!” at no one in particular. None of the other students paid them any mind, since this sort of thing happened so frequently.

It strikes me as weird sometimes that we call anti-gay hatred “homophobia,” but Pascoe’s work shows how much American boys (and men) fear the threat of femininity.

Meanings of sexuality and masculinity were deeply embedded in dancing and high school dances. Several boys at the school told me that they wouldn’t even attend a dance if they knew Ricky [an outspokenly gay boy] was going to be there.

Pascoe reports that black boys don’t call each other fags as much as white boys do. Instead, their preferred emasculating insult is “white.”

Precisely because African American men are so hypersexualized in the United States, white men are, by default, feminized, so white was a stand-in for fag among many of the African American boys at River High. Two of the behaviors that put a white boy at risk for being labeled a fag didn’t function in the same way for African American boys. Perhaps because they are, by necessity, more invested in symbolic forms of power related to appearance (much like adolescent girls), a given African American boy’s status is not lowered but enhanced by paying attention to clothing or dancing. Clean, oversized, carefully put together clothing is central to a hip-hop identity for African American boys who identify with hip-hop culture… In fact, African American men can, without risking a fag identity, sport styles of self and interaction frequently associated with femininity for whites, such as wearing curlers. These symbols, at River High, constituted a “cool pose.” Dancing ability actually increased an African American boy’s social status… None of this is to say that participation in dancing made boys less homophobic… But like the other boys, it was a gendered homophobia that had to do with masculine gender transgressions as much as sexuality.

While black kids engage in fag discourse less often, they are punished for it more.

[I]n the few instances I documented in which boys were punished for engaging in the fag discourse, African American boys were policed more stringently than white boys. It was as if when they engaged in the fag discourse the gendered insult took on actual combative overtones, unlike the harmless sparring associated with white boys’ deployments.

Pascoe’s study is bleak, but not totally hopeless. She cites a few school spaces where there is less anxiety around gender and sexuality, where the kids give fag discourse a rest, and where they can playfully experiment with different identities. One of these is drama.

Drama is notoriously a fag space in high schools. The ironic result of this connection is that the insult disappears. Not only does the insult disappear, but drama becomes a space where male students can enact a variety of gender practices… The theater is a place for all sorts of experimentation, so why not a metaphorical and physical space for gender and sexual experimentation? After watching what boys endured daily at River High, I found this dramatic performance a space of liberation and relaxation. The boys were able to try on gender identities, integrating masculine and feminine gender practices, without fear of being teased. Instead of constantly policing their own and others’ gender displays, they were able to be playful, emotional, and creative. It was as if, because they were in a space where they were all coded as fags anyway and couldn’t be any lower socially, it didn’t matter what they did.

If straight masculinity is all about power, agency and dominance, you can imagine how the boys at River High treat the girls: as weak, passive objects.

Engaging in very public practices of heterosexuality, boys affirm much more than just masculinity; they affirm subjecthood and personhood through sexualized interactions in which they indicate to themselves and others that they have the ability to work their will upon the world around them… At River High masculinity was established through gendered rituals of touch involving boys’ physical dominance and girls’ submission. Girls and boys regularly touched each other in a way that boys did not touch other boys. While girls touched other girls across social environments, boys usually touched each other in rule-bound environments (such as sports) or as a joke to imitate fags.

All of this domineering enforcement of gender hierarchy means that teenage girls, especially working-class girls, don’t have a strong sense that they control their own bodies.

The only safe terrain from which to challenge these sexually oriented definitions of masculinity was a relationship… Christian boys, like Sean, frequently cast themselves as more mature than other boys because of their sexual restraint, drawing on masculinizing discourses of self-control and maturity. Like practices of compulsive heterosexuality, these sorts of gender practices indicated control and mastery, not over others (girls), but over themselves.

Pascoe found that the most conservative Christian students were the least likely to behave in overtly sexist and homophobic ways, not because their beliefs were any more progressive, but because they felt more certain in their roles and identities, and had less need for “continual interactional repudiation of equality with girls.”

By dominating girls’ bodies boys defended against the fag position, increased their social status, and forged bonds of solidarity with other boys. However, none of this is to say that these boys were unrepentant sexists. Rather, for the most part, these behaviors were social behaviors. Individually boys were much more likely to talk empathetically and respectfully of girls. Even when they behaved this way in groups, boys probably saw their behavior as joking and in fun. Maintaining masculinity, though, demands the interactional repudiation of this sort of empathy in order to stave off the abject fag position. It is precisely the joking and sexual quality of these interactions that makes them so hard to see as rituals of dominance.

Girls have more leeway with gender nonconformity because acting masculine is a way to move up the social hierarchy; thus the common trope of tomboys dominating “sissy feminine girls.”

Instead of redefining girlhood as tough and powerful, these tomboy stories belittle normative femininity and celebrate masculinity… Identifying as a tomboy aligns a girl with a romanticized history of masculine identification before she encountered a more restricting femininity. Several girls who, at the time I spoke with them, identified as normatively feminine shared stories about how they had acted more masculine when they were younger. They illustrate the trajectories of gender identity, in which gender non-normativity may be considered cute in childhood but problematic in adolescence or adulthood.

River High kids naturally assume that all girls with non-normative gender identities are lesbians. But Pascoe describes the “Basketball Girls,” who use hip-hop culture as a way to break gender stereotypes while still remaining fiercely hetero.

[S]peaking of the Basketball Girls as masculine or feminine doesn’t get at all the aspects of their gendered portrayal. The way they “did gender” also involved racialized meanings. Much like African American boys who identify with hip-hop culture, the Basketball Girls struck a “cool pose”… Like boys identified with hip-hop, they were vaulted to popularity.

Boys have no such avenue for being popular within alternative gender presentations.

Fags, for all that boys defined them as powerless, weak, and unmanly, seemed to wield an immense amount of power. A fag is profoundly unmasculine, yet possesses the ability to penetrate and thus render any boy unmasculine. More than femininity, more than powerlessness, more than childhood, the abject nature of the specter of the fag required constant, vigilant, earnest repudiation. These repudiations constituted, in large part, boys’ daily relationships and communication rituals. Their humor, in particular, depended on continual joking about fags, imitation of fags, and transformation of one another into fags. The aggressiveness of this sort of humor cemented publicly masculine identities as boys collectively battled a terrifying, destructive, and simultaneously powerless Other, while each boy was, at the same time, potentially vulnerable to being positioned as this Other.  and masculinity. Similar masculinity processes happened in the classroom; teachers engaged in or at least tacitly approved of these repudiations by ignoring students’ comments, and sometimes, as with Mr. Kellogg or Mr. McNally, teachers engaged in these processes of repudiation themselves.

Pascoe is hopeful about the prospect of play as an avenue for social change. But trying out gender roles in drama club can only go so far.

Theater as a symbolic and metaphorical space is important in this sense. It is a place where it is okay and even required to try on different characters. Boys and girls can step into and out of identities at will and in a less threatening way because they are “just acting.” In this sense, playing with gender is an answer. But it is not the answer because masculinity and femininity are not arbitrary categories; rather, they are identities required of individuals. As I’ve shown throughout this book, they are the very identities that reinforce inequality. Thus there are limits to parody, play, and doing gender differently, and, as a result, play, even serious play, is not enough. It needs to be accompanied and undergirded by institutional change.

Schools need to stop oppressing gay and gender-non-conforming kids, both in the official and unofficial curricula. They need to support gay-straight alliances and arts programs. And we need to make it clear to kids that fag discourse is not acceptable. In the age of Trump, we have our work cut out for us.