April 28, 2011

Dude, You're a Fag: An Exemplary Ethnography

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

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). clip_image001

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.


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I will have to get my hands on this book... Boys do the same thing in my school, although girls use the word sometimes, too, toward guys. I even have a homosexual friend that uses it. Bullying due to sexual orientation should be treated the same as if someone was being bullied about his race, religion, or appearance; in fact, all bullying should be on the same level.

This is a clear example of gender roles in society; a common insult towards men is "fag/faggot" (especially towards gay men) and women don't typically get called the name for that reason. The school should have done a better job with the protection of the targeted students.

I am currently enrolled in an online sociology class and we are discussing family, and same-sex marriages. I think this book perfectly describes how offensive the word fag can be to someone who is truly gay. The word fag is thrown around and said as if its a bad things, which I think goes back to the way America see's same-sex marriage, which is bad and wrong. This is a good example of gender roles as men are called 'fags' and women are not.

There is so much socialization that occurs in schools, and if guys calling each other "fags" happens often, then that is not good in my opinion. This teaches them that if someone may be gay or bisexual they are somehow less of a man. This leads to discrimination and even dislike for people who are different. School is important in a kids life and this language should not be allowed in any school.
-Ashley Byykkonen

In my sociology class online, one of the discussion topics was same-sex marriage. This book shows that the opposition to it goes as deep into society as our everyday high schools. While I admit to having used the word fag, recent events in my life have let me see the light a little bit so I've been trying to stop. Anytime this word is used-and most of the time it is used unscrupulously-it demeans and degrades an entire score of the population. It should be the our goal to stop this slur of discrimination.

Where I live, it seems everyday second word out of the male population is the word 'fag', said usually at people they don't like, or even at inatimate objects e.g "this computer's being a f**king fag". I admit, I swear quite a lot, but every time I hear fag I cringe. It's no longer just a derogtory term for gay people, it's now simply a derogatory term.

This was as opposed to the posturing, boasting, and one upmanship that she observed when young children were in the presence of their colleagues.

I still don't get it. If I say fag, who cares? I (and my partner) am the only one who KNOWS what i do in my bedroom. "Fag" is only a "bad" word if your straight it seems - even then how can anyone prove I'm straight?

It all starts with the parents, but schools and teachers can reinforce this behavior.

I have used this book in my social problems class for gender inequality for the past three years, after having first come across it during a graduate class in my humanities program. I was very excited to use this book, since I consider myself a provocateur, someone who, like I assume Pascoe must be as well, uses shock value to get the point across at times. It was just bonus points that the content of her ethnography was not entirely shocking, but provided a glimpse of the toxic masculinity that permeates our culture in the U.S. (and unfortunately, globally). Her observations begin with the "Mr. Cougar" contest/sketch that is so incredibly racist and misogynistic I was taken back a bit.

Woven throughout Poscoe's ethnography/dissertation were layers of how American high schools reinforce media stereotypes of gender concepts, double standards (the sports girls, whose power was "ok" with most of the student body despite being "masculine" in nature), race (the "oversexed" African American male) and so much more. While there are obvious limitations to such a project, since this is a specific high school where there isn't much diversity in an area that is middle class, we had what I considered pretty candid discussions about the content.

HOWEVER, I have since stopped using this book. Why? Well, although my class has at least several students who are LGBTQ, all were millennials. This past Winter semester, a non-traditional, LGBTQ student pointed out that he almost didn't take the class because this book was on the list. He didn't know what the book contained in information, but the title turned him off. Why? The f** word.

This took me aback. I admit, although I am a minority concerning ethnicity, I am cis-gendered and heterosexual. I knew the word f** was a slur, something meant to injure, but since it is used often in university classes, and it is written by a Sociologist who is sympathetic to the issues facing the LGBTQ community, I felt that the shock value of the title was a positive. Boy was I wrong.

After the student pointed this out to me, it hit me. The f** word is not different than the n***** word. It's offensive. It is meant to remove power from the victim. I would never in a million years use a book in my class that was titled, "Dude, You're a N*****" even if it was the single most incredible narrative on race that was ever written. Instead, I would contact the writer, which is my intention.

So this book contains a wonderful snapshot of a middle class, predominantly White, suburban high school and how high school policies, teachers, administrators and peers (students) all work in concert to perpetuate negative stereotypes that work to keep the traits that are associated with toxic masculinity in this culture. It's a great read. But keep in mind, the power of this word. It is an offensive word. While all members of the LGBTQ community have differing opinions of the power of the word, much like the Black community has on the "N" word, know that it is much different to be "hip" or "provocative" than it is to be mean. While Pascoe's intentions wasn't to hurt, that word still holds enough power to harm people.

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