I vividly remember the incident. The setting: an afterschool care program. My brother and I couldn’t have been older than 9-11. One of my brother’s friends was upset and had locked himself in the bathroom. When one of the directors asked him what was wrong he replied that my brother and his friends had called him, and I quote, an “F-A-G-E-T” (I think this misspelling is the reason I remember the incident so well.) When my father came to pick us up he was called over by the director and notified of the incident. I was standing at his side listening before he realized I shouldn’t be listening and told me to go collect my things.
The boy in the bathroom was one of my brother’s best friends. I knew the bad connotation of the word then, I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I still couldn’t understand why my brother would call his friend something that bad. Something that would make this boy so upset that he would lock himself in the bathroom. Something that would make this boy call our house to say that if this ever happened again he would no longer be friends with my brother.
Then I hit middle school and I understood. It was what boys did. They called everything and anything “gay” and called each other “fags” left and right. I had gay friends and was always bothered by the liberal use of these terms, but I didn’t understand what it really meant to be called a fag.
C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag discusses fag discourse with “fag” as a specter used by boys to police other boys’ gender. It is lobbed at a boy who doesn’t embody masculinity, in that he is doing anything remotely feminine. This book reminds me of a piece I read by Michael Kimmel entitled “Masculinity as Homophobia.” Kimmel states 4 phrases that encompass all of what masculinity is about: “No sissy stuff!” (Do nothing that could be considered feminine), “Be a big wheel” (Be the breadwinner, have power), “Be a sturdy oak” (Don’t show emotion) and “Give ‘em hell” (Be aggressive and unafraid). When a boy violates any of these norms, he is tossed the “fag” hot potato and has to then prove his masculinity, often by throwing that hot potato to someone else.
Kimmel also states in this article the very interesting point that enacting masculinity is a homosocial behavior in itself. Boys perform masculinity for other boys. Men seek other men’s approval, not women’s. Masculinity is a performance they put on to keep from being humiliated in front of other men. This is illustrated by Pascoe’s mentions that fag is mostly used in groups of boys and rarely by girls.
It just makes me wonder… who does this benefit? Who are they doing this for? Does calling another boy a fag and reveling in that fleeting moment of power really feel that great? How did masculinity become so ingrained in boys’ self-worth? Why is something so fragile valued so highly? Masculinity is a complex area of study and I think I understand why it’s been studied more than femininity. It is constantly changing and its boundaries are almost undefinable. It’s different for boys in different places, of different races and classes. Sometimes boys may not even know they’re violating masculine norms until they’re called a fag. Maybe masculinity is valued because it’s so elusive. The closer you are to achieving the unicorn that is hegemonic masculinity the bigger the accomplishment it is.
Kimmel states that homophobia is an organizing principle of masculinity and that it is not only being afraid of gay men, but the fear of being perceived as a gay. And although many of the boys at Pascoe’s River High state that “fag” has nothing to do with sexual orientation, in reality, it does. Students like Ricky prove that it does. Desiring another man or boy is seen as a feminine desire, and masculinity defines itself as the opposite of femininity, (but interestingly, femininity doesn’t define itself as the opposite of masculinity.)
This central idea of having to prove one’s masculinity leads to exaggerated masculine behaviors. To build yourself up as a man, you denigrate women, femininity, and gay men even further. What is the next step up from “tough”? Violent. Our culture condones and even encourages violent masculinity. Portrayed in almost all media is the theme of masculinity as violence. Men use this violence as a way of ensuring power (a characteristic of masculinity) and the vicious cycle ensues…
Kimmel, M. (2013). The gendered society (Fifth ed.).