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 . . . . 

6 Comments on “Review and Commentary: Dude, You’re A Fag by C.J. Pascoe

  1. Even if the system itself weren’t so screwed up, I would challenge the system at levels it isn’t willing to change.
    Yeah, some of us are just compulsive that way.

    • Part of it is that it isn’t RIGHT for it to change yet, either, or that it’s not like my going in there and being a screaming idiot would just make it better, but I know I could not help from being a screaming idiot. It’s just better for everyone I not do it.

  2. teaching
    Humbly, I say, you’re wrong. It’s exactly because you recognize these things that you should be a high school educator. So, you’d get in trouble? You’d find ways to help without losing a job.
    High schools scream out for people like you. Those who care. Those who are willing to speak up. You would save a million kids.
    If you haven’t read it already, Audre Lorde’s essay “The transformation of Silence into language and Action” in Sister Outsider is worth looking at.
    Here are a few random quotations from the essay. I’ll send the whole thing on to you if you want.
    “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
    I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.
    For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
    Once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.
    My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.
    The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.
    Even the smallest victory is never to be taken for granted. Each victory must be applauded.
    Our visions begin with our desires.
    “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
    Also – Boy meets boy is a great little book about being gay in high school. The A. Sanchez series Rainbow High is loved by my gay teens at the school.
    Boy Girl Boy is decent
    Another Kind of Cowboy was great.
    Any of the David Levithan stuff is fantastic.
    I’ll check out a few more of the YA gay themed stuff for you.

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