Bramham, P. (2003) 'Boys, Masculinities and P E',in Sport, Education and Society, vol 8, No. 1: 57 - 71
This is a follow-up study to an early one which looked at girls' involvement in PE in some schools which are particularly attempted to develop 'progressive gender- sensitive PE teaching' (57). Discussion groups with five or six boys were recruited in four schools, and this was followed up with individual interviews. The project attempted to follow a critical feminist perspective, recognising the possible role of 'hegemonic masculinity'-- a 'gender order that is hierarchical in nature' (57). Possible themes for exploration include a reaction from those who have failed in the academic culture to seek status in other sources of power, including 'Sporting prowess, physical aggression, or sexual conquest' (58). [This is an old argument that goes back to the work of Coleman in the 1950s on compensatory subcultures]. Ties with the early work of Willis are also to be explored, involving the importance of 'class, manual work and masculine identity' (58).
The problems with the methodology involved are well discussed, including the effects of the particular characteristics of the researchers, especially their 'age, class background, local and ethnic identities' (58). It was clear that the relationship between the researchers and the pupils was also affected by the relationships with staff, especially since staff were requested to invite the particular boys to take part in the study. The intention was to open up issues of masculinity, and to gather a range of views, including some from pupils who were hostile to PE. It was recognised that 'These are all sensitive issues for boys, especially in... schools with strong reputations for gender-sensitive PE teaching' (59). Students technically had volunteered for the study, but they were never fully briefed on the relationships between researchers and staff, which may have led to a lack of confidence and trust in the researchers.
Despite the general trend, PE is a subject where boys achieve well, especially compared to girls. The value of PE lessons was clear to boys, who talked about the significance of 'developing skills, of playing organised sports and... wider discourses about physical activity, fitness and health' (59).. It is clear, however, that only about 75 per cent of boys actually liked PE, and there were many who were quite hostile to it and who managed to avoid it. Girls may be hostile because 'the PE lesson, PE kit and teaching styles deny and devalue young women's physicality and adult status... [but]... The converse is true for [the majority of] boys' (60). Masculinity is present both literally and metaphorically in PE, and this marginalises girls: 'Sports, and games in particular, celebrate male space, male physicality and male dominance' (60). For many writers, PE is a privileged site 'for the construction and display of hegemonic masculinity... boys must be competitive, physically aggressive, misogynist, heterosexual, brave, enthusiastic team players and so on' (60).
However, some of the boys most committed to PE were also the most critical, mostly because school PE lessons did not offer sufficient chances to learn and specialise. Too much teacher time was taken up with managing those who are not so interested, especially, for example, in policing the use of adequate kit. Boys who were keen on PE also saw as a challenge the 'street wise "cool" sub culture', which stressed designer equipment instead of proper kit. Supply teachers were particularly resented, as were other examples of wasting time in lessons, including dealing with those who lacked skill or commitment. This criticism was racialised in that it was often Asian boys who were less keen on PE, although they did like playing cricket. Asian resistance included 'making fun of the research process, providing misleading "cool" comments, teasing the others' (64) .
Competitiveness also divided the boys. Some were clearly competitive, but others were 'casualties' of the competitive ethos, and felt frustrated. Even those who were keenest were occasionally challenged by this emphasis on competitiveness, and thus by a 'hegemonic masculinity, which demands success, competition and strong leadership' (62). Some boys complained about receiving too much pressure, for example. There were other 'hierarchies within gender categories' (63 ) as well: some boys felt under pressure because they were not muscular enough, and were unable to attend gyms for various reasons (including being unable to afford the cost, and also being 'fearful of the "masculine gaze", of being "looked at" by older men in the gym' (63). Others found attendance at the gym to be genuinely empowering, and one Asian boy had worked out so effectively that he had achieved a considerable physical presence, but 'had chosen to drop out of physical exercise at school and looked down on the smaller boys for taking PE seriously' (64).
Playing sport remained a masculine domain, which largely excluded girls. Some boys simply felt that girls could not manage the physical side of sports. Football in particular is 'central to masculine power... Invasion games, such as football and rugby, are the hallmarks or flagships of hegemonic masculinity. Being able to play football well is a sine qua non to a secure masculine identity' (64).
Lots of the boys also played sport outside of school, and local teams were a matter of pride, not only for winning, 'but also for their toughness' (65). Even where the school was not keen, outside football became a major activity. Of course, some boys found it easier to be included in these outside activities than others.
'Hegemonic masculinity' is probably not produced directly and without contradiction, and boys are able to negotiate, and even reject it. For example, some boys participated frequently, but still resisted if there was something that they did not like doing. Outside school activities were seen as more capable of involving girls. There were certain reservations about schooling which meant that school sports were rejected. Those who wanted to resist PE followed strategies 'to render themselves invisible' (66). This involved bringing sick notes and forgetting kit, or choosing individualised activities or even mixed sex teaching. For some, PE 'becomes a site for physical, verbal and possibly racial abuse' (67). These 'can...[include]... intellectuals... [who]... value other career routes' (67). PE avoiders can also draw upon street culture and its values for support, including anti-school culture, and racial solidarity. Boys 'have to negotiate with these ideals of hegemonic masculinity' (67). The changing rooms are often places where bullying takes place, or excessive teasing.
Overall, 'A dominant hegemonic masculinity is clearly alive and well but should be deconstructed by an awareness of processes of racism and and ethnic differentiation as well as by resistances and challenges made by girls and some marginalized boys' (68). Masculinity generally tends to be defined negatively, as '"not feminine, or more bluntly, not effeminate"' (68). Some boys do resist, by choosing aerobics, for example, and some girls managed to enter male domains, such as rugby teams. Those good at sports can also be stigmatised as not good academics or as poseurs: 'The skills and values of the rugby or football field are often unsuccessfully transposed into classrooms settings' (69). The process is often racialised and stereotyped as well: '"Afro Caribbeans are cocky in sport"' (69).
More research is needed to map out masculinity and its various expressions, and we have to remember that 'Social order can be fragile for the boys, even for those seeking to go with the grain of hegemonic masculinity' (69). Girls seem better able to cope and to articulate their feelings. The reaction of boys to school sports and PE can also vary, as those offerings vary. The boys also have difference resources to deal with matters such as access to sporting and active lifestyles, and also 'language, demeanour and aspirations' (70). Boys no longer have a traditional working-class culture to rely upon, even though they tend to reproduce 'a clear sense of local identity and solidarity', and divide into 'us' and 'them' , but they are facing new demands from ethnic minorities and 'girls with feminist ideas demanding gender equalities' (70).