CJ Pascoe is the author of the book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School and the forthcoming Mias and Wannas: Identity and Community in a Pro-ana Subculture. Pascoe, who is an assistant professor of Sociology at Colorado College, has been studying youth culture for many years, beginning, as she told me, with an informal period of observation when she hung out with a friend and his frat brothers as an undergraduate. Dude, You’re a Fag is about how high school boys express and police gender identity and sexuality, a topic that has garnered national attention in the wake of the recent spate of LGBT bullying suicides. To research the book, Pascoe spent eighteen months at a high school, where she observed how boys interacted, and how they constructed and reinforced a rigid vision of masculinity and heterosexuality.
Mias and Wannas is about pro-anorexia websites and online support groups, which are often demonized by mainstream commentators as encouraging eating disorders (one of the sites Pascoe studied, which has since been taken down, bore a banner with the slogan “Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease”). What she found, however, was that the messages conveyed on those sites were not all that different from the messages women hear from more mainstream. Pascoe says that while the pro-ana community is a worrying subculture, it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that we live also in a culture that encourages eating disorders. “We let ourselves off the hook for having an eating disordered culture by demonizing these sites and telling ourselves that we’re not the problem, they’re the problem,” she says.
It was a pleasure to talk to Pascoe, a woman whose expertise on masculinity and sexuality in high school is so desperately needed at the moment.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with CJ Pascoe.
Chloe Angyal: What stimulated your interest in masculinity and particularly in masculinity in teenagers?
CJ Pascoe: It’s kind of a funny story. I went to a college where we didn’t have fraternities or sororities, and I went out to visit a friend in California who was in a fraternity, and I stayed with him. I was a 20-year-old college student living in a frat house full of 20-year-old male college students, and it was fascinating for me. I had been reading Freud and all sorts of psychoanalytic theory in college, and here were these guys who were making everything into a competition, anything from how far they could throw up when they were drinking – they called it “booting for distance” – to how much they could eat, how fast they could run, how many women they could sleep with. So at the same time, they were hypercompetitive and objectifying women, but also engaging in all these homoerotic activities, like group showers and going to the bathroom on these toilets that didn’t really have stalls. I was fascinated by the masculinity performances that were happening and so I ended up writing my senior thesis on that.
That launched me on this trajectory so that when I went to graduate school, I was still interested in masculinity. I got exposed to more authors, and there was one author named Arlie Hochschild about how so many things have changed for women in terms of stereotypes, in terms of love, in terms of our expectations for our own lives, and really, Second Wave feminism changed so many things for women. But we didn’t see the same large-scale change for men, and she says that we’re stuck in a stalled revolution. So it increased my interest in masculinity because I wondered if masculinity and femininity are defined relationally, what does it mean if one half of that changes? If femininity and definitions of femininity and definitions of what it means to be a woman change, what does that mean for men? When I was in graduate school and working on my Masters thesis, I had the TV on, and suddenly the Columbine shootings came on, and looking at these boys who had committed this really horrible act got me thinking about high school students. What does it mean to be a boy in high school these days, after Second Wave feminism? What does that mean, because something seems to be going horrifically wrong here.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
CJP: I was a big reader as a kid, so most of my heroines are from books I read when I was growing up. I was raised in a highly conservative evangelical family that didn’t really have any positive roles for women, so I found myself really drawn to adventurous, powerful heroines who liked to break rules. I loved Ramona Quimby and Jo from Little Women, I loved Nancy Drew. I read every single Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. They formed the way I think and they introduced me to feminism – even though I didn’t have a word for it until I was in fifth grade – at a really young age, and gave me a model of what a woman was that wasn’t Biblical, which was really liberating.
There’s my historical heroines – Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I read about her in fifth grade, and that’s when I started to self-identify as a feminist, when I wrote a paper on her. I still have the paper. Now, as I’ve matured, it’s the women who were engaged in romantic friendships throughout the 1800s. I love them, and I love thinking about the way they paved the way for other women. Currently, my favorite feminist heroine is Rachel Maddow. I think she’s fabulous for getting on TV and speaking the truth, and holding the right wing accountable. I’m thankful that she exists and is braver than I am.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
CJP: I live in Colorado Springs, so a lot of news stories make me want to do that. I would say in the past couple of months are the reports of boy after boy after boy killing himself after being being subjected to homophobic teasing and taunting. Given that I saw so much of that when I was writing Dude, You’re a Fag, I’m glad that it’s finally getting coverage in the mainstream media. What I find profoundly disturbing is the national response to it. It’s great that President Obama says, “It gets better,” but he hasn’t gone on to make the structural changes that kids need to see that it gets better, like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or passing ENDA. Those stories have been profoundly depressing, though I’m happy they’ve opened a national dialog on homophobic bullying in adolescence.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
CJP: Beside the fact that young people, both men and women, resist calling themselves feminists, which I think is profoundly depressing, I think it’s the rise of what looks like conservative feminism. I’m not sure what else to call it, but when you have people like Sarah Palin thinking of themselves as feminists, to me it robs the world of meaning. I think this is the strategy of the extreme right in general – they think they can redefine words to mean whatever they want, and that’s just not true. Feminism has meaning. It means creating a world in which men and women have equal opportunities, in which women are not subjected to sexual or physical violence, in which kids are not bullied for their gender or their sexuality. And I just don’t see the right supporting that. It means creating a world where women have the right to choose. I’m not sure how to counter what’s happening on the right, but I think we need to carve out a definition of what it means to be a feminist, because most of the tenets of the extreme right are in direct opposition to most definitions of feminism.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
CJP: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Diet Coke and my partner.