Dude, You're a Fag: An Exemplary Ethnography
I just finished reading an awesome book: Dude, You’re a Fag, by C.J. Pascoe. I’d heard of this book for a while (it was published in 2007), but didn’t know anything about it until recently. What in the world did the title mean, I wondered? Turns out that Pascoe spent a year and a half doing ethnography at a high school in California in order to “write a book about guys” (That’s how she described it to the students).
Pascoe gained access to the high school by writing the school district office about her research topics and requesting access to the students. She was granted permission to come to the school and conduct interviews with students. So Pascoe made her intentions and motives clear before she began her ethnographic research. (Some ethnographers conceal their purposes as researchers and deceive the people they’re studying--generally because they don’t want people in a setting to alter their usual behavior by virtue of being watched).
Pascoe recognized that high school is the perfect setting to study gender and sexuality. Specifically, she wanted to study the role of masculinity in the lives of both male and female students. She formally interviewed fifty students and informally interviewed “countless” students, faculty, and administrators.
A major component of her study consisted of observations. She spent time observing students in classrooms that included “gender neutral” sites like Senior Government class and traditionally masculine sites such as auto shop class. She also made observations at drama classes and at Gay/Straight Alliance meetings. She took field notes (in order words, she filled notebooks) of her observations about how students, faculty, and administrators constructed meanings of gender and sexuality. She also spent time with students at lunch and popular school events like the Winter Ball, rallies, plays, and dances.
Both the boys and girls she interviewed told her that “fag” was the worst slur guys could direct at each other. She observed that girls rarely used the word “fag” and were never called fags. When Pascoe asked one student “What kind of things do guys get called ‘fag’ for?” he answered: “Anything…literally, anything. Like you were trying to turn a wrench the wrong way: ‘Dude, you’re a fag.’” Being labeled “fag,” she discovered, had less to do with sexuality and much more to do with masculinity.
As Pascoe explains in an interview with sociologist Dalton Conley, the word “fag” was once used mainly as an insult to police the boundaries of masculinity. So one guy calling another guy “fag” is not necessarily to say that he is literally gay; it’s a charge that he’s not being “a real man.” In other words, “fag” is not only a homophobic slur, it’s a homophobic slur that also attacks behavior as not being masculine. That’s why she uses the phrase gendered homophobia throughout her book to describe the masculinity that was practiced by the young men she studied.
In the book she points out that drama class was a setting where male students could behave in “unmasculine” ways without fear of being teased. In that way, drama class offered a break from the pressure that boys exerted on each other to enact a specific form of masculinity. She also mentions that boys spoke with her one-on-one about their feelings about girls in mature ways. This was in contrast to the posturing, bragging, and one-upmanship that she witnessed when boys were in the presence of their peers (for example, boys would exaggerate their sexual prowess in masculine spaces like the weight room).
One of the interesting dynamics she discusses in her book is how adults contributed to constructions of gender and sexuality at the high school. For example, when a boy and girl left Winter Ball early, two vice principals joked “You two going to a hotel or what?” I can’t imagine administrators would react the same way if a couple consisting of two boys walked off together.
Pascoe observed that teachers routinely ignored homophobic and sexist comments made by students. In fact, with one exception, she never saw anyone punished for using words like “fag,” “gay,” or “dyke.” The one incident that did result in punishment involved an African-American student who yelled out to the all-white, all-male wrestling team, “Why are you wearing those faggot outfits?” This is interesting considering her observation that African-American boys in her study did not use the word “fag” as much as white boys.
Pascoe asserts that school authorities did a poor job of protecting the most vulnerable students at the school, such as “Ricky,” a gay student who was regularly teased and taunted by his peers and who eventually left the school. She writes that homophobia was so strong at the school that she took a gay pride sticker off her car while she conducted her research. She makes a great point when she says that faculty and administrators should take as strong a stance against sexist and homophobic slurs as they do against racist slurs.
Based on her research, she recommends more education about sexual harassment and making resources available to parents and educators aimed at facilitating gender and sexual equality in schools. Also, she points out how it’s not enough to discipline students for harassing other students. They also need to be educated about issues of power and inequality.
In the course of her research, students were very curious about her personal life. They inquired about her private life, asked her advice about sexual matters, and even expressed interested in dating her, despite the fact they knew she was “almost thirty” (that’s how she described her age to students). By all accounts in her book, she didn’t indulge the students’ curiosity about her nor did she discuss her sexual identity with students or administrators.
At the conclusion of her research she did let members of the Gay/Straight Alliance know that she is gay. She reflects that she wanted to be “out” to the girls in the Alliance as an ally because there were no other known gay adults at the high school. But during her research she explained to students there were parts of her personal life that she couldn’t talk about until the research was over. I gather from the book that Pascoe put a lot of effort into maintaining boundaries between herself as a researcher and the students as participants in her research. (Some ethnographers feel obligated to share a lot of personal information about themselves, considering how much information they gain from their subjects. Also, a researcher might find that revealing information about oneself can result in obtaining more information from subjects. There is no single rule on this matter; it depends on the research being conducted as well as the researcher’s discretion).
I’m really impressed that Pascoe devoted a year and half to studying the daily activities of high school students. I think she did a superb job of getting close to the action and using interviews and observations to gather data. I also get the strong sense from reading her book that she treated her subjects with respect and that she acted ethically throughout her research. That’s why I call Dude, You’re a Fag an exemplary ethnography. Some might dismiss what she studied as “boys being boys.” I couldn’t disagree more with such a sentiment. I think Pascoe did a phenomenal job of taking behaving that some people might view as obvious and ordinary (namely, the practice of boys calling each other “fags”) and showing how it’s part of a sexist and homophobic process that’s denigrating to both boys and girls. Analyzing everyday behavior in ways that illustrate power relations and inequality is sociology at its finest.