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Dude, You've Got Problems

Judith Warner | A New York Times Blog, April 16, 2009

Early this month, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself after months of incessantly being hounded by his classmates for being "gay."

(He was not; but did, apparently, like to do well in school.)

In March, 2007, 17-year-old Eric Mohat shot himself in the head, after a long-term tormentor told him in class,

"Why don't you go home and shoot yourself; no one will miss you."

Eric liked theater, played the piano and wore bright clothing, a lawyer for his family told ABC news, and so
had long been subject to taunts of "gay," "fag," "queer" and "homo.".

Teachers and school administrators, the Mohats' lawsuit now asserts, did nothing.

We should do something to get this insanity under control.

I'm not just talking about combating bullying, which has been a national obsession ever since Columbine, and yet seems to continue unabated. I'm only partly talking about homophobia, which, though virulent, cruel and occasionally fatal among teenagers, is not the whole story behind the fact that words like "fag" and "gay" are now among the most potent and feared weapons in the school bully's arsenal.

Being called a "fag," you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay.

It's really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity - by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance or even having an interest in literature. It's similar to what being viewed as a "nerd" is, Bennington College psychology professor David Anderegg notes in his 2007 book, "Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them": 'queer' in the sense of being 'odd' or 'unusual,'" but also, for middle schoolers in particular, doing "anything that was too much like what a goody-goody would do."

It's what being called a "girl" used to be, a generation or two ago.

"To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that's like saying that you're nothing,"

is how one teenage boy put it to C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at Colorado College, in an interview for her 2007 book, "Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School."

The message to the most vulnerable, to the victims of today's poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy's guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.

It's weird, isn't it, that in an age in which the definition of acceptable girlhood has expanded, so that desirable femininity now encompasses school success and athleticism, the bounds of boyhood have remained so tightly constrained? And so staunchly defended: Boys avail themselves most frequently of epithets like "fag" to "police" one another's behavior and bring it back to being sufficiently masculine when someone steps out of line, Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found while conducting extensive interviews in a southeastern urban middle school in 2003 and 2004.

"Boys were showing each other they were tough. They were afraid to do anything that might be called girlie," she told me this week. "It was just like what I would have found if I had done this research 50 years ago. They were frozen in time."

Pascoe spent 18 months embedded in a Northern California working-class high school, in a community where factory jobs had gone south after the signing of Nafta, and where men who'd once enjoyed solid union salaries were now cobbling together lesser-paid employment at big-box stores.

"These kids experience a loss of masculine privilege on a day-to-day level," she said. "While they didn't necessarily ever experience the concrete privilege their fathers and grandfathers experienced, they have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important. These boys don't know how to be that something. Their pathway to masculinity is unclear. To not be a man is to not be fully human and that's terrifying."

That makes sense. But the strange thing is, this isn't just about insecure boys. There's a degree to which girls, despite all their advances, appear to be stuck - voluntarily - in a time warp, too, or at least to be walking a very fine line between progress and utter regression. Spending unprecedented amounts of time and money on their hair, their skin and their bodies, at earlier and earlier ages.

Essentially accepting the highly sexualized identity imposed on them, long before middle school, by advertisers and pop culture. In high school, they have second-class sexual status, Pascoe found, and by jumping through hoops to be sexually available enough to be cool (and "empowered") yet not so free as to be labeled a slut, they appear to be complicit in maintaining it.

Why - given the full array of choices our culture ostensibly now allows them - are boys and girls clinging to such lowest-common-denominator ways of being?

The strain of being a teenager, and in particular, a preteen, no doubt accounts for much of it; people tend to be at their worst when they're feeling most insecure. But there's more to it than that, I think.

Malina Saval, who spent two years observing and interviewing teenage boys and their parents for her new book "The Secret Lives of Boys," found that parents played a key role in reinforcing the basest sort of gender stereotypes, at least where boys were concerned.

"There were a few parents who were sort of alarmist about whether or not their children were going to be gay because of their music choices, the clothes they wore," she said. Generally, she said, "there was a kind of low-level paranoia if these high-school-age boys weren't yet seriously involved with a girl."

It seems it all comes down, as do so many things for today's parents, to status.

"Parents are so terrified that their kids will miss out on anything," Anderegg told me. "They want their kids to have sex, be sexy."

This generation of parents tends to talk a good game about gender, at least in public. Practicing what we preach, in anxious times in particular, is another thing.

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