Review and Commentary: Dude, You’re A Fag by C.J. Pascoe
I found this book as I find most things these days: from a random search on the internet. I picked it up because there’s a heavy component of high school hazing in SMALL TOWN BOY, and I thought this might help identify and cover some gaps my (dear God) twenty years since high school have created. I also liked the idea of a female researcher trying to sort of the mysteries of male high school gender coding, because even when I was there in prime time, I wasn’t privy to that sort of thing.
The first thing I need to let you know is that Dude You’re A Fag is academic non-fiction. It’s full of citations and references, which while it increases credit to peers, it makes it more cumbersome for someone simply wanting to read, and if you aren’t used to academic-speak, it might make it impregnable. For me, this is unfortunate, because Dude You’re A Fag brings a lot to the table, and so rather than let the tone discourage you, if you’re interested in this, I’d suggest you push through it. The second caveat I have is a little more disheartening to me personally, in that Pescoe asserts early on in the book that River High is a typical American high school, I only had to read a few paragraphs to know with hard certainty that it was not. At the very least I can tell you that it’s not like a typical midwestern high school, and that at best some of the more urban schools might come close, but even then, the cultural settings that exist in California simply do not apply here, and I will assert affect that high school more than the author was aware. (It also convinced me that in no way am I letting my child come of age in a California high school, but that’s more midwestern prejudice than anything, and if I’m honest was already there.)
Despite these drawbacks, however, the book was very informative and helped me see into gender roles and typing in the culture at large both in ways I had not ever considered them before and in ways I had sensed on a subconscious level but hadn’t quite been able to wrestle with until Pescoe highlighted them. Essentially, we all knew high school was hell, but Pescoe pulls back the veils and shows us what a nasty little cultural petri dish it is for all the cultural evils we throw our hands up over later. She reveals the truth about sexism, which comes not from the students but the system, of sexual harassment and the prison male adolescents are put into, not just by their own games but that which is reinforced by the interior culture and even structure of high school. It’s grim much of the time, and not because Pescoe dramatizes events. She is faithful to letting the facts speak for themselves, simply observing and commenting and pointing out contrasts and hypocrisy, often without even pointing out the contradictions as contradictions. She simply lets them stand as they are, and it’s all the more chilling for it.
Speaking personally, the book was good fodder for thought and an excellent research springboard, but it was disheartening not just because of the content, but because as I read about this high school and extrapolated it to youth experience in general, I realized I truly can never teach in public school again, because I will get fired. There’s no way I would stand for some of the injustice she described, and I realize now I would have seen it on my own if I returned to the classroom, and I would have wandered into trouble whether I’d known it was coming or not. I haven’t exactly been updating my resume and dreaming up syllabi, but at the same time, there is a part of me which really did want to be a high school educator, and as I read this book I knew she was quietly sliding under the waves. Even if the system itself weren’t so screwed up, I would challenge the system at levels it isn’t willing to change.
Because what I learned most by reading this book is what we all knew when we were in high school: everything is about sex, and sex is everything, but sex is the one thing you can’t discuss in school. Hormones affect everything you do from the moment they turn on, but we aren’t allowed to discuss them, and we aren’t allowed to play with what they do to us anywhere but in the shadows, which doesn’t just affect our ability to play but also our ability to accept our sexuality, however it presents, as anything but shadow, and as a consequence we either adopt a "safe" culturally prescribed sexual role, or we spend much of our adulthood trying to bring our sexuality into the light. I knew a lot of this before I read this book, but reading this helped me solidify some of those thoughts. And for now, this is where my commentary ends, because the rest of it is still floating around amoeba-like in my mind.
But I can’t help thinking, beyond what I’m already doing, I should add, there’s a story in here . . . .