High School Monograph: A Review of Pascoe’s Dude You’re a Fag

 

High school, while being a time in a adolescents life where the most growth, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, is looked on by many to be a stressful and miserable period full of bullying, angst, and feelings of inadequacy. Why do so many people hate high school? While it is a tendency of the 21st century to assert that we, as citizens of the United States, have made progress regarding how we accept people of different races, ideologies, and sexual identities, the normal high school environment proves otherwise. The four years adolescents spend in high school form the cornerstone in which they build their beliefs and how they come to interact with the world as adults. C.J. Pascoe’s academic monograph Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School is a case study of a high school in Northern California. In her work, Pascoe interviews numerous students and faculty and observes the daily workings of the institution for over a year. What she finds is an environment where adolescents ages 14 to 18 are bred to join the heteronormative, patriarchal society that we are all too familiar with.

Pascoe asserts that commonly held notions of gender, masculinity, and sexuality are solidified during the years in high school. During these formative years, Pascoe argues, important social events are central to the development of sexual and gender identity. Formal occasions such as prom, Friday night dances, and homecoming solidify heteronormativity by encouraging teenagers to pair up, girl and boy, and interact romantically in a social setting. Also examined by Pascoe is how the male students interact in ways that are misogynistic and homophobic. She uses the example of the “fag” epithet to show that teenage boys are forced to prove their masculinity and sexual orientation to their peers in order to gain their respect. If a boy is seen as effeminate or weak, they are more likely to be regarded as a “fag”, which is associated with not being “man” enough. One student that Pascoe interviewed said of being called this insult, “To call someone gay or a fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying you’re nothing” (55). This student is pointing to a central idea in Pascoe’s book and a glaring problem of homophobia that is still present today. Being labeled as “gay” when you identity as a straight, cis-gender male delegitimizes the careful presentation of masculinity that many try to portray to the world. Pascoe also discusses how race plays a factor in determining masculinity. She found that black teenagers were automatically placed on a higher level of masculinity as their white counterparts, and because of this they were more likely to be seen as stronger, more aggressive and sexually domineering. The distinction between the types of masculinity led to more black boys being disciplined by the administration and their teachers. The intersectionality between race and masculinity is a vital part of Pascoe’s thesis and is also very relevant to today’s political and social climate, where the demonizing of black bodies is all too common. Pascoe’s monograph leads us to the starting point of the many issues we all face and grapple with in today’s world.

The author and researcher behind this monograph is C.J. Pascoe, a professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. Pascoe graduated with a degree in sociology from Brandeis University and received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the masculinity and femininity, youth, and sexuality studies. Her monograph Dude You’re a Fag won the American Educational Research Association’s 2007 Book of the Year Award. Pascoe’s knowledge expands beyond masculinity and into the realms of anorexia and its prevalence in society today and how social media and technology is changing how teenagers communicate and grow up. The expertise Pascoe brings to this subject is a deep understanding of adolescents and the developmental milestones they hit during high school. The knowledge gathered by the researcher from many years in academia and the practical world qualify her to write such a book.

Pascoe’s monograph is considered a case study of a singular high school that she uses to draw conclusions about educational institutions and their effect on students throughout the United States. Over an eighteen-month period, Pascoe interviewed numerous students, faculty, and administrators while also observing classes and conversations among students. Pascoe also attended common high school events where socializing takes places such as sports games, dances, and school sanctioned assemblies. Both by quoting directly and drawing conclusions based on conversations, Pascoe comes to find that at a working class, diverse high school gender norms and heteronormativity are deeply ingrained into the students. She observes school authorized events, such as the high school’s homecoming assembly before the dance, in which male students dress up and dance scandalously (in ways that would be considered unacceptable for girls to do) and attempt to win votes and be crowned the king. Other occurrences analyzed by Pascoe are the school plays, the only occasion where it is acceptable for boys to dance, wear makeup, and act flamboyantly in public, and the meeting of the Gay Straight Alliance club (GSA), a place where the margins of the school come together for support. What her observations found is not surprising. There are a very small number of students that participated in the GSA and sponsored activities, while many students either acted in or attended the school plays. The thin line between when it is acceptable to embody traditionally feminine characteristics and when it is considered taboo is shown through these events. Pascoe’s discovery of how deeply the notions of masculinity and femininity are pushed, even through our education system, asks if any progress has been made.

The paramount strength of Pascoe’s work is how she takes into account and analyzes the importance of intersectionality when looking at masculinity. By bringing race into conversation, Pascoe solidifies her argument even further. As noted earlier, the black students at River High were almost excluded from the “fag” discourse so commonly heard. Protected by what Pascoe calls “hip-hop culture” it is socially acceptable for the black students to pay attention and care to their appearance and dance in public without fear of being referred to as a fag. Pascoe pinpoints this phenomena as an underlying racist attitude that, because black men are seen as meaner, sexually aggressive, and domineering, they are hypermasculinized. Another succinct intersection is that of masculinity and queer identity in America’s high schools. One student at River High, Ricky, an openly gay student, is discussed about in length as an example of how queer students are treated in high school. Ricky describes his experience as violent and unpredictable at the hands of the male students attempting to assert their masculinity. If Pascoe were to leave out these very important intersections of masculinity, her book would not have had the weight and argument that it has.

The way Pascoe chooses to draw conclusions based on the observed actions of the students can be problematic at times. While Pascoe has and listens to numerous conversations with and among boys about their various sexual conquests with girls, she rarely receives female viewpoints. She instead analyzes the interactions of the students, which sometimes border on sexual harassment, and reports on them. In many of these scenarios, Pascoe reports that the girls are most often willingly submissive to the physical dominance of the males without giving a reason why from the girls’ perspectives. The lack of primary information the readers get calls into question Pascoe’s diligence in her research.

This particular monograph examines a subject that is relatable to anyone who graduated from an American high school. Though this may not have been the experience for everyone, River High is a portrait of the American, public, educational institution that casts its influence over the rest of society. Its explicit and easy to read format makes it accessible to readers that are not academics, while its well-researched and deep arguments make it attractive to those who are. I think that this book is analyzed deeply and has an argumentative and interesting take on an experience that is so common to so many people, even today.

 

Works Cited

“CJ Pascoe.” Department of Sociology. University of Oregon, 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Pascoe, CJ. Dude You’re a Fag: Sexuality and Masculinity in High School. Berkeley: U of California, 2007. Print.

Pledged: Teagan Monaco

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look”… An Analysis of “The Babadook”

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of”… societal norms. The Babadook, especially in this trailer, both reinforces and questions many of the underlying assumptions our society has around gender and sex, class and sexuality. Amelia, the mother at the heart of this film, is simultaneously defined by her distance and increasing slippage away from norms, but also the societal pressures that she feels trapped and tormented by. The trailer looks at both Amelia’s perspective as a mother in society, but also society at large’s view of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a mother.

The expectations for Amelia seem to overwhelm her throughout the film. The most prominent of these expectations that Amelia struggles with are her responsibilities as a mother. As a mother, she is expected to be always emotionally and physically available to help her son, and able to quickly and effectively correct anything disruptive or societally detrimental that her child does. The first shot of Amelia in the trailer is her reading to her son, Samuel, in bed, a quintessentially maternal action as defined by our society. However, as the trailer continues, the world that Amelia lives in seems to be crumbling around her. Her son misbehaves and acts out in violent ways, like building a slingshot to fight the monster. Samuel is loud, disruptive and potentially violent, in ways that Amelia soon realizes she cannot always control. Samuel’s outbursts are Amelia’s “fault” as a mother, and through the institutions that surround her, she is blamed and shamed for her inability to control Samuel’s every move.

Amelia’s problems, especially with regards to Samuel, are often treated in an institutionalized way through a male perspective, as seen throughout the trailer, in ways that contradict and cause conflict within Amelia as a character. For example, the male administrator of Samuel’s school tells Amelia, in response to Samuel’s bringing a weapon to school, “the boy has significant behavioral problems” (while the female administrator remains silent), and the medical professional that Amelia sees tells her “all children see monsters”. Even the governmental agents of order, as seen through the police at 1:22 into the clip, are distorted and unhelpful in Amelia’s plight. The police officer is a reflection of the torment Amelia faces, with his gray skin and sunken appearance, much like the Babadook that plagues her and her family. The film simultaneously questions and reinforces the idea that the home and the family are the “woman’s sphere”; Amelia is situated in a context where her inability to mother Samuel “properly” is a reflection of both Samuel and her own failures in a medical sense. Samuel “promises to protect” his mother if she can protect him in the trailer; however, neither characters seems to be able to offer the other protection.

The character of Amelia also reflects and questions the stereotype of the “hysterical woman” and the dichotomy that society often situates between the sane, put-together mother, and the “crazy”, overworked mother who can’t handle her children. Much of the film appears to be presented as though it is from Amelia’s perspective. The quick glimpses of the monster that the trailer shows the audience, such as the knock on the door at the 1:00 mark of the trailer, the shadowy figure in the neighbor’s house at 1:19 and the graying skin of the police officer at 1:23, combined with the increasing desperation in Amelia’s voice and more unkempt appearance seem to suggest that perhaps “the Babadook” is only a figment of her imagination and a hallucination created by stress. Amelia herself seems to buy into the idea that what she’s seeing is not real; as she tells her coworker, “I’m fine…just a bit stressed at the moment.” The Babadook addresses a real consequence of society’s belittling of women and children; Amelia and Samuel face real dangers when what they see with their own eyes is dismissed as the ravings of an overworked, hysterical woman and the overactive imagination of a child. The belittling that Amelia faces as a woman is compounded by issues of class, and represents an example of how intersectionality can affect a person’s place in society.

Though the trailer doesn’t often address these issues as fully as the movie does, the trailer does help reveal how Amelia, by virtue of her class, is often judged and belittled by those of higher class and power. For example, though not addressed in the trailer, Amelia struggles in the upper-class world of her sister, and the assumptions and judgments that higher class women place on Amelia for not being able to “do it all” as both a working woman and a mother. Much of the judgment Amelia receives as a “bad mother” and “hysterical” seems to be compounded by her social class; Amelia has to work and cannot afford childcare for Samuel, and society around her seems to judge her for her inability, by virtue of her social class, to constantly keep watch on and act as an authority figure for Samuel. Directly addressed in the trailer, however, is how wealthier men of higher social status treat Amelia. The administrator and doctor, in addition to being men, are indicated to be of higher class than working-class Amelia in the trailer, and their opinions that they understand her situation better than her because they are men are compounded by the privileges they enjoy over her due to class. They are implied to be “experts” in their fields, which means that, in the context of dealing with Amelia, they assume they understand her life and situation better than she herself does, which, as the film progresses, soon becomes evidently fallacious.

The Babadook, as an entity, is also very interesting from a gendered perspective. While the Babadook is clearly not human, it is still slotted into the gender binary in this movie. It is gendered as male, referred to as “mister”, and wears clothes that Samuel and Amelia take to mean it is male. The gendering of the Babadook helps feed into the storyline of the loss and grief Amelia feels, and her isolation from the world around her. The male Babadook represents the two male people in her life that precipitate her decline. He represents both her deceased husband, who, like the Babadook, acts as an unseen effect on her life that keeps her from being able to live as society expects her to. He also represents her son, Samuel, who, like the Babadook, represents her fear of being unable to handle being a mother, her fear that she has created or “let in” a violent monster into her life and her fear that Samuel is unable to distinguish reality from fiction, into which Amelia herself fears that she is digressing.

The Babadook, while on the surface simply a traditional monster movie, is also a critique and presentation of societal norms and requirements expected of women and people of lower class. Amelia feels simultaneously far from, and dragged towards, societal expectations of her as a woman, a mother and a member of the working class. Just like “Mister Babadook” who Amelia tries to rid herself of, the expectations of society just won’t let her alone, whether or not she “lets it in” or not.

Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality

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In Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Margot Weiss discusses the social, economic, class, race, and gender inequalities of the BDSM scene in San Francisco, and what Weiss calls circuits between those dynamics. She says, “I call such dynamics a circuit to draw attention not only to the dense connections… but also to the functionality, the effects of these connections.”[i] Weiss applies an ethnographic analysis to identify circuits in the BDSM scene based interviews she conducted with practitioners and participants in the scene and from in-person observations of various BDSM events, classes, and practices. As part of her class, gender, and racial analyses of the BDSM scene, Weiss cites and references a wide array of scholars in fields as diverse as economics, gender, sexuality and queer studies, history, politics, and race studies. Techniques of Pleasure provides a thorough, informative, and original account of the various dynamics within the BDSM community.

Weiss claims in her book, “I explore BDSM as a series of sexual, social, and bodily practices that provide opportunities to remake and consolidate forms of subjectivity built both on capitalist practices of consumption and production and on the regulatory normalization of race, gender, and sexuality.”[ii] She describes the various ways individuals in the scene argue that their interactions subvert various societal norms. Then, Weiss shows how the BDSM scene actually relies on and perpetuates racial, gender, and class norms to derive the power of the community’s alternative sexual practices. The book begins with an account of how and why the kink sexual scene in San Francisco evolved from a small, close-knit, lower class, largely queer community into a larger, predominately white, middle class one. As San Francisco developed an economy dependent on high-income information technology jobs, the demographics of the city and the scene changed to reflect the people more likely to hold those jobs. From there, Weiss discusses the prevalence of toys in the scene, arguing that the focus on material toys gives an implicit status and pleasure advantage to the white middle class practitioners who can afford both the toys themselves and the time to master their use. She finishes with a discussion of the social and political impact of BDSM sex and scenes. Weiss describes how the explicit, intentional power exchange in BDSM depends on existence of actual power inequalities based on race, class, and gender for their emotional impact and sexual pleasure. For example, in the scene it is considered ‘more acceptable’ for a woman to be a submissive than a man, reflecting the patriarchal power men have in society in general.[iii] Weiss’ analysis and discussion of the circuits she describes in the BDSM scene are consistently insightful, and wonderfully account for the impacts that intersections of class, race, and gender have on the practices she observed.

The analysis that Weiss brings to the BDSM scene are informed by her methods of gathering relevant information. She interviewed practitioners in the scene, and also experienced various parties, events, classes, workshops, and scenes as an observer. Weiss interviewed sixty-one participants “most [of whom] were professional-class white people in long-term relationships.”[iv] Bits and pieces of the transcripts of these interviews were included in the text, supporting and complicating claims made by Weiss and other scholars whose work she references. The quotations are a definite highlight of this book. The original voices and experiences of the interviewees shine through authentically, adding some much needed personality to the otherwise academic language of the book. The practitioner’s words provided frank and fascinating windows into the scene. Weiss also includes detailed descriptions of a variety of kink events such as slave auctions, national conferences, private bondage parties, takedown workshop demonstrations, as well more less sexually charged events such as munches, social gatherings for food and drink that do not involve any BDSM practices at all. However, the author uses a decidedly detached tone and point of view. Weiss says she told the people she interviewed that she is not into BDSM, and implies that she did not participate in any scenes as part of research for this book. Her personal taste for BDSM is unclear: “I found that the lose-lose situation of being, on the one hand, too close to or overinvested in SM or, on the other hand, too distant from or incapable of understanding it was more easily negotiated with SM practitioners… I have placed the imaginations and experiences of my interviewees and their scenes at the center of this book.”[v] Maintaining a measured distance from one’s subject of study in the name of academic integrity is certainly admirable. However, I would be fascinated to hear how direct participation in a BDSM scene would influence her analysis. That being said, it is certainly unreasonable to expect that the author would be interested in or willing to take part in a scene, much less relate such an intimate experience to such an impersonal audience.

Weiss locates her book and her argument firmly within the various class, racial, and gender conversations about BDSM. In accordance with her intersectional approach, she references gender theorists such as Judith Butler and Michael Foucault and other feminist theorists, as well as various economists, historians, journalists, race theorists, and activists. Each claim Weiss makes is carefully explained in reference to the work of previous scholars, making sure to clearly outline which ideas she finds useful for her own analysis and which concepts she intentionally disagrees with or discards. However, the quotations from other scholars were almost always outshone by the accounts of practitioners in the scene. The interviews were always more interesting and more enlightening, and it is curious that Weiss chose not to lean more heavily on the visceral accounts and surprisingly cogent arguments made by people in the scene, rather than academic arguments made by scholars who may or may not actually have experience in what they are discussing.

Techniques of Pleasure provides an original, intersectional account of the politics of the BDSM scene in San Francisco. While it is easy to view a community based on fringe sex acts as transgressing social norms, Weiss compellingly argues that, to the contrary, the BDSM scene depends on and reproduces those very norms it claims to transgress. The book is well-researched, and the entertaining descriptions and accounts of various BDSM practices keep even the non-academic reader well enough engaged to digest Weiss’ arguments. This book stands as an informative, unique account of the complex dynamics present in the BDSM scene.

 

Works Cited:

[i] Weiss, Margot Danielle. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. PDF. Page 7.

[ii] Weiss, page 20.

[iii] Weiss, pages 176-177.

[iv] Weiss, page 26.

[v] Weiss, pages 29-30.