Dude, You’re A Fag
Dude, You’re a Fag is a book that was written from the research of C.J. Pascoe. Pascoe studied the students, teachers, and administration at River High School. She researched the use of the term “fag” and how it is used to insult fellow students. She researched the effects that a social environment has on students, within the depths of masculinity, gender identity, femininity, sexual orientation, homophobia, and more. The idea that the term “fag” is used for insult, but the actual meaning seems odd, but the term is used so fluidly, that the students at River High believe it to be something as simple as an insult for someone acting dumb or weak. “Fag” is used to determine someone’s femininity or weakness, not sexual orientation and how it is significantly different for those of a different race.
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Dude, You’re A Fag is a compelling book about the author, C.J. Pascoe experiencing certain social aspects of school aged boys in a seemingly traditional high school. Masculinity, sexuality, gender identity, and rape culture are just a few of the sensitive subjects touched in this book. Pascoe researched these subjects for eighteen months; watching the lives of typical teenagers and their actions towards these subjects. What Pascoe finds is so significant in a society that is so against anything but “normal.” Pascoe describes masculinity, homosexuality, homophobia, compulsive heterosexuality, and how they all affect high school students differently.
“Fag” is commonly used in a sense that doesn’t have to do with sexual orientation, but relays derogatory meaning about one’s masculinity. While the term is typically believed to mean “gay,” teenage boys use the term to demean one’s masculinity. Pascoe writes, “Given the pervasiveness of fag jokes and the fluidity of the fag identity, it is difficult for boys to consistently avoid the brand. As Ben stated, it almost seemed that a boy could get called a fag for ‘anything.’ But most readily acknowledged that there were spaces, behaviors, and bodily comportments that made one more likely to be subject to the fag discourse, such as bodily practices involving clothing or dancing.” (Pascoe, 62) In today’s society, similar to the past, manly men wear loose fitting clothing that are meant to get dirty. The boys at River High School believed that if a boy wore tight fitting clothes, he was a fag.
Pascoe explained that boys would call each other a fag for almost any reason, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. When Ben, a student Pascoe wrote about, was asked about this subject, he stated, “Anything…literally, anything. Like you were turning a wrench the wrong way, ‘Dude, you’re a fag.’ Even if a piece of meat drops out of your sandwich, ‘You fag!’” (Pascoe, 57) This is a prime example of the term being used out of context, but still in a derogatory sense. Another student that Pascoe wrote about stated, “Fag, seriously, it has nothing to do with sexual preference at all. You could just be calling someone an idiot, you know?” (Pascoe, 57) While the literal term of “fag” is a derogatory way to reference a homosexual male, most of the teens that she heard use the term, meant it in an entirely different way. The boys at this school more relate the term “fag” to femininity and weakness, not sexual orientation.
According to Pascoe’s research, the writing provides details on how the term “fag” is different for white and black young men. African American men are more expected to care about their physical appearance. Cleanliness, demeanor, clothing, and hair for African American boys benefit their physical appearance. This is different from the typical white male. When a white male cares about their physical appearance, down to the style of their hair, cleanliness, and neatness of clothing, it makes them more feminine. If an African American boy wears loose fitted clothing, tags left on baseball caps, and clean, unlaced athletic shoes make the boy “ghetto.” Pascoe spoke with an African American student who explained that, “Ghetto come to mean ‘niggerish.’ That reflects people who are poor or urban.” (Pascoe, 73)
Pascoe writes, “In fact, African American men, without risking a fag identity, sport styles of self and interaction frequently associated with femininity for whites, such as wearing curlers.” (Pascoe, 72) This is a perfect description of how African American male are expected to care about their physical appearance, otherwise they are “ghetto.” When a white male cares about his physical appearance, they are feminine, which in turn, makes them a “fag.”
Pascoe writes about a female, lesbian student named Jessie. Jessie was a popular girl in the school who was more masculine and referred to as a tomboy. Girls wanted to be her friend and boys wanted to date her, even though she dressed more masculine. Pascoe wrote, “Same-sex desire did not threaten girls’ gender identity in the way it did boys’.” (Pascoe, 134) Ricky, an openly gay male, was threatened with violence and harassed. Ricky experienced harassment from students and teachers. When Pascoe asked Ricky about his treatment at the school, he stated “The PE coach was very racist and very homophobic. He was just like ‘faggot this’ and ‘faggot that.’ I did not feel comfortable in the locker room and I asked him if I could go somewhere else to change and he said, ‘No, you can change here.’” (Pascoe, 67) Ricky experienced harassment on a regular basis. He didn’t have anyone to stand up for him like Jessie did. Ricky had to come up with evasion strategies to keep from becoming a victim of violence. He would walk with his eyes down so that he wouldn’t make eye contact, creating the illusion that he wanted to fight a boy passing. Administration and peers lacked in the protection of Ricky and his high school experience, to where it was almost unlivable for him.
Jessie’s experiences were much more positive. As stated before, she didn’t experience any negativity about her sexual orientation, gender identity, or life choices she made. While Jessie was gay and dressed more like a boy, she did not speak positively about some of the other gay students at the school. It almost seems as if she had conformed to the typical high school student and knew that flaunting her sexual orientation would put her at risk of bullying. She kept her preferences subtle and didn’t flaunt it quite like some of the other students. When Pascoe questioned Jessie about it, Jessie said, “There’s straight couples all over the place and they can just go anywhere and be together and it’s okay. Then you have the gay couples that get together, and people just gawk and stare at you like you are some alien.” (Pascoe, 137) Jessie knew about the inequalities that were within the school, she just seemed to learn ways to get around them by staying subtle and likable.
Boys were not threatened by Jessie, because she was masculine. They felt that she was on their level and it didn’t make them any less masculine to be around her and be her friend. Boys are threatened by femininity, which is why Ricky had a much different experience. They felt that if they were friends with Ricky, it would make them more feminine. Even if they accepted Ricky and his femininity, it would make them feminine. It seems that if a boy accepts femininity, it makes them more feminine.
It seems that the school administration had little to do with the discipline of those who expressed their homophobic ways, but had a lot to do with creating the homophobic environment. As stated earlier, the PE coach was openly racist and homophobic, and it didn’t even seem to be an issue. The administration did step in, one of the few times Pascoe saw, when a team member of the wrestling team was harassed with a sexualized insult. Teachers turned a blind eye to homophobia and sexualized insults.
Certain traditions that River High kept were keeping the masculinity and homophobic environment alive. Teachers, administration, and students were proud of their traditions, such as homecoming, Mr. Cougar, prom, sports games, and assemblies. The Mr. Cougar performance was probably the strongest example of the school keeping the masculinity of men alive. Pascoe described it as such, “The school encouraged, engaged in, and reproduced the centrality of repudiation processes to adolescent masculinity.” (Pascoe, 157) The most masculine boys were the ones to win the contest. Just like Greg and Brent’s performance, where they started as nerds and lost their girlfriends to tougher boys and eventually became strong and masculine men to get their women back. Boys ripped off skirts and flexed their muscles to reveal their masculinity. Pascoe wrote, “The administration not only approved of but also awarded trophies to the winners of these skits, thus cementing these refutations as synonymous with popularity, dominance, and masculinity.” (Pascoe, 158)
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Masculinity and femininity can definitely be learned behaviors. Being popular is something that many high school students desire. Becoming popular requires you to follow many of the expected traits that come along with being homecoming king or queen. Jessie, an openly gay student, may have won the homecoming queen, but she ended up wearing a dress to homecoming. She felt that she needed to keep the tradition of a feminine homecoming queen. Jessie wasn’t happy in the dress and wasn’t her true self, in her comfortable, loose-fitted clothing. Pascoe described this situation as such, “There was not, as far as I could find, an official policy requiring that homecoming queens wear a dress. That Jessie felt there was a policy highlights the power of the interactional order and pressure to ‘do gender’ embedded in school rituals.” (Pascoe, 139)
The Mr. Cougar contest is an obvious example of learned behavior. With Brent and Greg’s performance, the idea that being a nerd with glasses puts you in a position to lose your girlfriend to a more masculine male. It had nothing do with a female actually liking someone for who they were. It exemplified the idea that girls only like masculinity and strong men, something that has nothing to do with the true you. The boys in the skit lifted weights, ripped their skirts off, and got their girlfriends back to show just how masculine they were.
These were two prime examples of how gender norms are learned behaviors that are reinforced by surrounding social environments. High school is a difficult time for many students. It is meant to be a time that you are truly figuring yourself out. Your gender identity, your sexual orientation, and your life choices must fit in with the typical ideas, otherwise you will be put as an outcast until you change your ways to fit the cultural norms.
Pascoe’s research was genuine. She went to, what seems to be your typical high school, and observed the realness of what it is like to be anything but normal. While it does not portray how every high school in America is, it does portray your typical high school. There may be some schools out there that are extremely proactive in protecting all students, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, preferences, desires, and more. The idea most schools protect their students to the core is unrealistic. Schools were meant for education. Some schools may take the time, money, and effort to impose policies, hire the right people, and follow through with every rule they’ve made to protect their students. This would be ideal, but it is just not realistic. There is always an exception or something that was missed.
River High was a great example and portrays what is your typical American high school, because it was real. Many schools around the country have homecoming dances with a king and queen. With this comes gender roles; the king must be masculine and dominant, and the queen must be feminine and pretty. You can see news stories about how some high schools that don’t follow the “normal” ways of king and queen, but it is so uncommon that it makes the news.
It takes more than wanting to change these ways, it would take a staff full of the same ideas, policies that withhold protecting any and all students, and never giving in to the societal norms. If the most popular kid ends up in the office for disobeying one of the policies in place to protect the students, and the kid gets away with it because of who they are or who their parents are, the entire thing is broken. Fairness in every aspect is an extremely difficult thing to provide. There will always be that one that slips through the cracks, and to come back from that is even more difficult.
Pascoe’s research and writing are very interesting. It is widely known that non-conforming students have a more difficult time. Students who are gay, weak, poor, unsociable, and other unconventional choices, are the ones who experience it the most. It was eye-opening to read about Ricky’s experiences in River High. Seeing the difference in Jessie and Ricky’s experiences were wildly different. Pascoe does a great job at showing the gender roles in today’s society. While we all know the real meaning of the term “fag,” we also know that it is not used much in that sense by today’s kids. They used the term very fluidly. It is meant more towards calling someone feminine, weak, dumb, worthless, and more.
Harassment is also something highly associated with those students who are “non-conventional.” It is widely known that the receive the harassment from peers, but it is surprising to know that they receive the harassment from teachers or administration. Ricky’s description of his PE coach was shocking, to say the least. Addressing these issues is a lot more difficult than just removing those who are harassing. It’s important to be proactive. Question those who are being hired. Using real discipline on those who harass others is important. Setting policies and guidelines and not steering away from them would greatly help in protecting students and staff. Making sure that any policies to protect students and staff are practiced and promoted would greatly benefit those that feel unsafe in school.
- Pascoe, C. J. (2012). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley, CA: Universityof California Press.
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