Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Dude. You're a Fag"

Several years ago a New York City college student was conducting a group of high schoolers from various parts of the country who were thinking of coming to the city for their university training. In due course a pleasant young woman asked the guide what he was studying. “Journalism,” came the reply. “Oh, but that’s so gay,” the young woman said disapprovingly. Whereupon the guide said that he must take exception to anyone criticizing his orientation. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about sex,” came the reply, “I just think that planning to be a journalist is kind of lame.”

When some twenty years ago I undertook to examine the terms of the homolexicon, I was not prepared for this development. For many young people now the term gay has been largely desexualized, while remaining a term of disparagement. The new meaning (which, despite the young woman’s explanation, has not fully supplanted the old one) is “lame, stupid, dorky, uncool.”

Another unpleasant term, “faggot” (or fag), has also undergone an evolution. I have little sympathy for Ann Coulter’s ravings. When she called former senator John Edwards a “faggot,” the allegation seemed bizarre. As we now know, at the time Edwards was carrying on a torrid extramarital heterosexual affair--not the sort of behavior one would expect from a faggot in the traditional sense. Coulter claimed that her epithet was nonsexual, and referred to her perception of Edwards as a wimpy, spineless individual (or something of the kind--I haven’t looked up her exact words). It transpires that Coulter’s gloss on the meaning of her term (as distinct from her weird allegation) was not so far out. In fact it seems to accord with current usage in high schools. That is unfortunate, but it seems to be so.

We can perhaps better understand the recent metamorphosis of these two slippery terms--gay and especially fag(got)--through reading C. J. Pascoe’s new book “Dude, You’re a Fag” (University of California Press). Its racy title notwithstanding, this book is a serious sociological monograph, based on the writer’s fieldwork conducted over a year and a half at “River High School.” “River City” (the name of the town, like the names of the interviewees, has been changed) is a medium-sized community that seems to be near Sacramento, California. The book stems from Pascoe’s dissertation at the University of California. The author believes that River High is fairly typical of the general run of US high schools, so that her findings are broadly applicable.

In my own high school days, half a century ago, homophobic epithets were rarely heard. In part for this reason, their deployment could be searing. In the ninth grade a girl publicly and loudly called me a “queer,” the term of choice in those days. Of course, this public shaming could not have “made me” a homosexual. But it damaged my self-image, encouraging a retreat into the closet (not a very practical course in my case, but I did my best). In this matter, the now-neglected labeling theory has much to offer.

By contrast, at River High the “fag” slur is almost ubiquitous. At Pascoe’s high school, and we must assume at many other such institutions, the word serves to stigmatize an individual perceived as weak, timid, and non-macho.

Although Pascoe tends to elide the dichotomy, It is clear that the boys think that there are two kinds of faggots. Some of them “can’t help it.” Through the working of biology and/or upbringing, this is simply the way they are. These unfortunates are unable to correct their deficiency; as such, they belong to the broader category of the handicapped. Yet while it is taboo to ridicule a blind or paraplegic student, for many boys faggots are still fair game. Significantly, though, some of the more sensitive regular guys say that one should not insult these boys: after all, they can’t help their condition.

There are others, though, who could and should grow up to be real men, but through laziness, cowardice, or bad influences find themselves tempted to follow this lesser path. Evidently, the goal of policing this second group serves to rationalize the taunting rituals. Of course these ugly performances also give the “normal” boys a reassuring sense of superiority. Among other things, they serve as markers whereby the regular, more-or-less macho boys reassure themselves of their own masculinity, an invaluable possession that places them far above the “untouchable” faggots. Hence the rituals. Inadequates are humiliated, even as the standing of the majority is affirmed.

As I have noted, the majority of the boys subscribe to a dualistic theory of faggotry. Some are that way by nature; others by choice. Yet Pascoe will have none of this. Nature has nothing to do with the question; it is all a matter of social conditioning. She believes that masculinity is “produced” by a kind of sinister alliance between the institutional norms of high schools and the popular-culture trends dominant among adolescents.

As an adherent of the social-construction variant of postmodernism, the author holds that human character is almost infinitely malleable. The constraints of biology play no part. Armed with this ideological certainty, she fails to attend properly to the mindset of the students and faculty at River High, who are, understandably, much impressed by the tremendous onrush of hormones that teenage boys experience.

Masculinity, Pascoe believes, has almost nothing to do with hormonal and genital maleness. Accordingly, a utopian agenda may be discerned in the underpinnings of her book. If we could only persuade ourselves to discard the bad old ways, we could achieve a very different concept--or concepts--of masculinity, more creative, caring, and diverse than the one that prevails. (And, as she wrily acknowledges, is reinforced by the lyrics of the rap music that most students favor.)

The unspoken hero of Pascoe’s book is Ricky, a troubled young man who wears make-up and crossdresses. He is a trannie in the making. Ricky's presence at public events triggers hysteria. One begins to wonder whether the best theoretical frame for the emotions stirred up by his presence is the Witchcraft Delusion.

To prevent more Rickies from appearing--or so it would seem-- the students enact various collective rituals. Some are affirmative, as in the annual homecoming event and the Cougar Contest to name the most popular boy. Others are negative, and here is where the barrage of fag-baiting taunts comes in.

The fag may be homosexually oriented, or possibly not. Thus the term fag is ambiguous. It can refer to a composite class of individuals whose masculinity is considered tainted or unformed. But it can also be used with the twentieth-century demotic meaning of homosexual. In this way the slur points in two directions. It can designate a kind of teenage milquetoast, an abject, timid soul whose masculinity is muted. Yet it can also mean "cocksucker." This slippage accounts for much of the term's toxicity.

Pascoe criticizes the teachers for their acquiescence in the rituals of heterosexual affirmation (“heteronormativity”), and their tacit complicity in the fag-baiting. Yet she lets the girl students off with a pass. While they do not generally use the term “fag,” they clearly go along with the machismo professed by the boys. They even approve of the misogynistic lyrics of the rap songs that are played at dances and other events.

Pascoe seems surprised that the term fag is never applied to a girl who does not conform to feminine norms. She does not seem to realize that the American folk mentality views lesbianism quite differently from male homosexuality. Renting a few straight porno films would have shown her that lesbian scenes are common: the straight clientele appreciates them. By contrast, gay-male scenes virtually never appear in straight porno--certainly not with an air of titillation and approval

C. J. Pascoe acknowledges that she is a lesbian. An angry Amazon reviewer, citing this fact, accuses her of being simply man-hating. That charge is incorrect, for the evidence shows that she successfully interacted with teenage boys and male faculty members. (The book has appendix explaining how she did it.)

Instead, the problem presented by this ethnography is deeper and more systematic. Pascoe seems to believe that human flourishing requires the overthrow of “patriarchy.” To this end, individuals of the Ricky type must be nurtured. Shunning them is not only harmful to the individual but serves to discourage the flowering of nonstandard sexualities in general. Such diversification is part of the sacred task of “overthrowing patriarchy.”

Implicit rather than proclaimed, Pascoe’s anti-patriarchal ideology stems from the sixties, and now looks increasingly dated. Yet it links up with an older view that is well-entrenched in the academy, especially (I suspect) in the graduate-student subculture in which Pascoe worked on her dissertation. This is the Standard Social-Science Model (SSSM) that holds that human behavior is entirely shaped by conditioning and the environment. Biology plays no part. To suggest that it does is to commit the methodological sin of “naturalizing,” turning a principle that is culture-bound and contingent into a universal rule.

Pascoe’s larger subject is the role of institutions (here the high school) in preserving and moulding subcultures. Yet she seems blissfully unaware of how this hegemonic imperative works in graduate school, in her case at UC Berkeley. The grad-student subculture cherishes egalitarianism as a prime value. Yet a visit to one’s faculty adviser, where almost feudal norms of hierarchy prevail, should erase this illusion. Of course, it does not, because the prevailing PC ideology overrides reality.

Another way in which Pascoe maps her ideology onto River High is her claim that the students are "working class." Most of her subjects would disagree, rightly so. In what other country in the world do children of the working class own their own cars? The American left savors the imported term "working class" (British) because it suggests that the mass of Americans lead narrow, restricted lives: they are oppressed by capitalism.

The most plausible typology of class in the US discerns six strata: the superrich, the rich, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the working poor, and the underclass. Most of the white students at River High probably belong to the lower middle class, as distinct from those who attend Hillside High--many of these live in gated communities--who are upper middle class. The River High black students, who by and large do not own cars, belong to working-poor families.

Of course the greatest problem with Pascoe's ideology is its underlying conviction that environment is everything and biology is nothing. Looked at carefully, the data from River High gives the lie to the author’s wishful-thinking and hyperenvironmentalism. One need not subscribe to the tenets of sociobiology to recognize that somatic factors are significant and constraining. After all, we are dealing with postpubertal teenagers.

A balanced approach requires acknowledging that both factors, biology and social conditioning, are active. The institution, in this case the high school, working in tandem with the larger society, can shape the emergence of sexuality and the gender identity that depends upon it, but it cannot simply define them a priori. The underlying stratum of biology cannot be simply abolished.

In an article in the NY Times Magazine (Jan. 25), Daniel Bergner states that there is “a cultural and scientific trend, a stress on the deterministic role of biology, on nature’s dominance over nurture.” I would not go as far as that, since I find the term "deterministic" problematic. Be that as it may, the effort to elide nature's role seems increasingly futile.

Reasonable people may differ on the weighting of the factors moulding sex/gender identity among teenagers. By contrast, there should be no rational disagreement in the matter that the ongoing demonization of "fags" in American high schools is deplorable.

How might we begin to correct the problem? First, the high school faculty must be encouraged to abandon their passivity and even collusion with regard to this vicious form of intolerance. They must take positive steps by introducing gay and lesbian role models into their classes--not just courses in sexuality, which still seem to be somewhat taboo, but also courses in literature, history, and art, in the humanities in general. Moreover, as more and more people come out, especially among friends and family, this enhanced visibility will help.

In popular culture all fashions eventually fade. So we may expect that rap music, with its truly hateful lyrics, will eventually pass from the scene. Regrettably, perhaps, Elton John and George Michael are now mainly for the older set. Yet Madonna and Melissa Etheridge retain an appeal that crosses the age spectrum.

As with many high schools, River has a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance. However, this well-meaning organization does not seem able to make much headway in the present oppressive climate.

The atmosphere in colleges and universities offers a wonderfully refreshing contrast. I cannot imagine the kind of public fag-baiting that Pascoe documents thriving in any of the colleges where I have taught.

Can we not reform our high schools by introducing the more humane traditions of college? Even without this improvement, though. it may be that the young people currently caught up in antifag rituals will mature. Developmentally, it may turn out to be a transitory phase of the teenage years, one that is destined to be overcome. This outcome seems likely for those who choose to go on to college. But what about those who do not? That is where the real challenge lies.



Anonymous generic viagra said...

A balanced approach requires acknowledging that both factors, biology and social conditioning, are active. The institution, in this case the high school, working in tandem with the larger society, can shape the emergence of sexuality and the gender identity that depends upon it, but it cannot simply define them a priori. The underlying stratum of biology cannot be simply abolished.

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