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Review: Dude, You’re A Fag

January 12, 2010
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This fall, I read three books about masculinity, right in a row: Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re A Fag, and Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man. Of the three, I was far and away the most impressed with Pascoe’s, so I’ll review that first, and then Vincent and Kimmel … maybe, when I get to it.

Here’s the headline: Pascoe spent a year immersed in a Northern California high school doing an ethnography, both of masculinity among boys, and among girls. The book was her dissertation; Dr. Pascoe is now on the Colorado College Sociology faculty [the book jacket said University of Puget Sound, which the author tells us is wrong, see comments]. She’s brilliant, the book is awesome, entertaining, and thought-provoking and I highly recommend it. There’s a brick wall of theory in the first twenty pages that will lose probably eighty percent of the readers who pick it up expecting something light and breezy; don’t be deterred! It’s worth working through that to get to the stuff inside.


Because this was a dissertation, Pascoe needed to set up her theoretical playing field. She talks about how masculinity has been defined in the past — including such dead ends as simply whatever male-bodied people do, and why those definitions don’t work. She ends up in the Judith Butler area, with gender as performance, and explains the Butlerian conception of abject identities — the spectre of the failed gender identity, used constantly to police people back into line in their own gender performances.

This is academic writing, and can get a bit dense in places. Sample:

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 vigniette.

pp. 14-15.

This, in turn, sets up the rest of the book and gives it the title. “Dude, You’re A Fag” comes from, as Pascoe explains it, the social construct of “fag,” which exists primarily as a spectre of failed masculinity. The remark is hurled constantly to keep boys from straying from the narrow confines of accepted masculine performance, and this process of performing and policing is what a good chunk of the book is about.

Pascoe starts with the ways in which the formal school life and the teachers and administrators are heteronormative: all the usually invisible little things that center the norm of pairing off, one boy and one girl. She draws heavily on the school’s “Mr. Cougar” event.

Then she takes on the meat of the operation of “fag” as an abject identity. She talks about how masculine performance operates for all kinds of boys: the affluent and the working class white boys, the black boys and other nonwhites who identify with hip-hop culture; and one out, somewhat genderqueer kid whose story is completely heartbreaking. (I’m not in a particular position to judge how well she handled the racial diversity of her subjects. However, her treatment looked to me more detailed and less add-and-stir than I have come to expect.)

Pascoe then takes on the role of compulsory heterosexuality in the masculinity discourse — the injunction to make certain claims to opposite-sex desire and activity to avoid the spectre of the “fag” identity. This chapter is seriously informative in thinking about rape culture. This probably deserves its own follow-up post, which I may do as time allows.

Pascoe also looks at masculinity among two groups of girls: the young and political gay-straight alliance, and a group of basketball-playing jocks who are black or identify with hip-hop culture, several of whom are lesbian or bisexual.

Finally, this being an ethnography, Pascoe includes an appendix where she talks at length about her own interaction with her research subjects and how she reacted to them. It read to me like brutal honesty, and couldn’t have been easy to write. She talks about being hit on, being intimidated, and verbally sparring with the boys to maintain her position:

On a few occasions I felt physically intimidated by the boys as they invaded my space with their sheer size and manipulated my body with their strength. … In the weight room, I tried to walk past J.W. to get to the back of the room. Looking at me, he put his leg up on a weight bench to prevent me from getting past. I said, without a smile, “Very funny, J.W.,” and turned to walk around him. Quickly he put his other leg up. I was now trapped between his legs. He looked at me and smiled as if he expected me to smile back. I tried my usual strategy of invoking humor and challenged him, “But can you put both legs up like that at the same time?” He said, loudly for the entire class to hear, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Ticked off and embarrassed that my approach hadn’t worked, I said, witheringly, “You know, I was a teenager once and I dated teenage boys then. They weren’t impressive then and they aren’t now.” The other boys laughed loudly, jumping in with their own insults. J.W. hung his head in embarrassment. I felt good, as if I had linguistically wrested sexual and gendered control of the situation from his grasp.

pp. 183, 187.

She talked about how to negotiate the space of a young adult who was neither teacher nor student, but easily mistaken for either. She talks about how to create common ground with kids whose life experiences were very different from hers — Pascoe, a short, blonde, mountain-biking dyke, found some credibility with some of the black guys after telling them what street she lived on in East Oakland: it was a rough area with regular shootings, and they had heard stories about it. She also talks bluntly about her feelings of kinship with the girls of the GSA, who she identified with, and her frustration with some of the other lesbian girls, who didn’t take a political view of their experiences.

My recommendation for readers is actually to start with the appendix, to get a sense of who she is and how she got her data, than turn to the start and the theoretical grounding. I think it is first an easier starting place; and second, it gives a better flavor for how the book as a whole will unfold. That said, the whole thing is over too soon. The book is only 193 pages. For faster or more persistent readers it might be a two- or three-day read. And it was, for me, that hard to put down.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2010 12:31 pm

    including such dead ends as simply whatever male-bodied people do

    I’m curious as to why this is a “dead end.” Is it just the cisnormativity, or that it’s less interesting to the sociologists, or what?

    • January 12, 2010 12:57 pm

      Yes, because it’s cis-normative, but also because the unspoken cultural definitions of “masculine” are much, much narrower than “What male-bodied people do”.
      Male-bodies people wear eye-liner, ride mountain bikes, change diapers, drink chamomile tea, work in IT, make port reductions, read Ursula K. LeGuin, eat quiche, and a zillion other things, some of-which are culturally-coded as “masculine” and many of which aren’t.
      It’s a dead-end because it doesn’t actually work in use.

      • January 12, 2010 1:29 pm

        Well said. And beyond the narrow conception of cisnormativity, it’s dependent on a binary that doesn’t really exist. It simply defines “men” and “masculinity” as wholly congruent, which deprives us of a language to talk about a man doing something feminine, or masculine performance by a woman.

      • January 13, 2010 12:46 pm

        Well, I think it depends what sort of use one’s talking about. Not being a sociologist, I encounter “masculinity” used prescriptively far more than descriptively, and “what male-identified (not necessarily male-bodied) people do” serves to defuse that prescriptivism. But I can see how someone who’s talking about the role as it stands might prefer a different usage.

  2. January 12, 2010 12:42 pm

    Pascoe then takes on the role of compulsory heterosexuality in the masculinity discourse — the injunction to make certain claims to opposite-sex desire and activity to avoid the spectre of the “fag” identity. This chapter is seriously informative in thinking about rape culture. This probably deserves its own follow-up post, which I may do as time allows.

    I would like to read this.

    • January 12, 2010 1:30 pm

      I would like to write this :-). I’ll give it a shot.

  3. January 13, 2010 2:11 pm

    Wow Thomas, thank you for such an incredible review. You were right in your analysis of the appendix – it was an incredibly painful chapter to write. I’d love to see what you have to write about the compulsory heteroesxuality/rape culture topic. The next book is going to be about teen dating cultures, which I imagine will grapple intensely with the intersections of rape culture and understandings of flirting, romance and courtship (we need a better, more updated word for that). So selfishly I’d love to hear the ideas of someone who has thought much about that topic.

    Anyway, thanks again, I’m glad you found the book useful. Oh, and I’m at Colorado College (the book jacket is wrong, long story).

    CJ

    • January 13, 2010 2:51 pm

      Dr. Pascoe! Welcome!

      The “compulsive heterosexuality” chapter is already up. And I’m already thinking that I went too shallow with it, now that I know you’re going to read it. But my primary thought is how it relates to the “hide in the weeds” aspect and the “social license to operate” concept. If the violent and intrusive action upon girls’ bodies that we condone at normal is so close to the pressure, isolation, manipulation and coercion that rapists operate, it’s no wonder that the four- or eight-percent of men who are serial rapists can conceal themselves among their far less predatory peers.

      I will correct your faculty posting.

    • Sam permalink
      January 15, 2010 12:19 am

      CJ Pascoe,

      “The next book is going to be about teen dating cultures, which I imagine will grapple intensely with the intersections of rape culture and understandings of flirting, romance and courtship (we need a better, more updated word for that). So selfishly I’d love to hear the ideas of someone who has thought much about that topic.”

      I am a commenter in a thread about masculinity on clarisse thorn’s blog, who linked to this and the followup essay today. I have comented on them and some of the quotes from your book used in them here (http://clarissethorn.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/manliness-and-feminism-the-followup/#comment-1149). I invite you to have a look, if you are interested – however, after reading the two posts, I suppose I should mention beforehand that the term rape culture as used in here is not accepted unchallenged in the (I think) – long and insightful – thread.

Trackbacks

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