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Clare Bartholomaeus

Further information

About the author

Clare Bartholomaeus is a PhD student in the disciplines of Gender, Work & Social Inquiry (GWSI) and Politics at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her thesis examines how gender (with a focus on masculinities) is understood and constructed at the beginning and end of primary school by boys, girls, teachers, and parents.

Publication details

Volume 24, May 2011

What it Means to be ‘Manly’: Gender, Sport, and Primary School Students


The intersection of gender and age is both an important and interesting topic for feminist research. Work in scholarly feminist publications about children and young people tends to be dominated by text-based work. For example, special editions of Australian Feminist Studies dedicated to ‘The Child’ (2008) and Feminist Theory entitled ‘The child and childhood’ (2010) included solely text-based work, with no voices from young people or theorising of empirical research. Feminist empirical research about gender in ‘childhood’ tends to be viewed as related to education, and it is within these fields that it has been concentrated. One of the key journals here, Gender and Education, is listed by the ISI Web of Knowledge as pertaining to ‘education’ and it is not also considered to be a ‘women’s studies’ journal (Hart and Metcalfe 2010, 147). Writing about masculinities also tends to be relegated to its own field, and has been looked upon with caution by some feminists (see for example Canaan and Griffin 1990). I argue that research on masculinities is intimately bound with feminist studies, and that there is a need to study boys, men and masculinity in order to move feminism forward (see also Pease 2002, 7-8). However, there is currently little research about primary school boys and masculinities from a feminist perspective (Connolly 2006, 141). In this article, I bring these issues of ‘feminisms along the edge’ together, and examine young age and gender in the form of primary school masculinities. To do this I draw largely on the feminist work of Raewyn Connell, and her concepts about masculinities, which have been based on the theorising of men and gender relations in Australia (Beasley 2008, 99).

Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity is almost omnipresent in masculinity studies (Beasley 2005, 192) and has had a significant influence in feminist, sexuality, and international studies (Beasley 2008, 88). One of the common arenas through which Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity is constituted is via sport, although in some places she also notes the significance of corporate success (see for example Connell and Wood 2005). The former is available to primary school boys, the latter is not. My empirical research in two Australian primary schools suggests that sport is the central way in which boys, girls, teachers and parents construct masculinity. In this article I examine the multiple ways in which sport was drawn on to construct a normative masculinity, concluding with discussions about the linkages between sport, masculinity, age and the Australian context.

Theorising Masculinities

Connell’s theory of a hierarchical framework of masculinities, with hegemonic masculinity at the top, allows for the consideration of differences and relations between masculinities (Connell 2000, 10). According to Connell,

[h]egemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women (2005, 77).

Connell and Messerschmidt highlight that while hegemonic masculinity is not normal, and may only be applicable to a small number of men, it is normative  (2005, 832). They write that hegemonic masculinity ‘embodied the currently most honored way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men’ (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 832). Hegemonic masculinity is organised around something worthwhile  – what Connell (2005, 2000) calls the patriarchal dividend. This is available not only to men who have access to hegemonic masculinity, but also to those who are complicit in the current gender order (Connell 2005, 79-80). Connell uses the concept of complicit masculinities to theorise the ‘large number of men [who] have some connection with the hegemonic project but do not embody hegemonic masculinity’ (2005, 79). Complicit masculinities ‘are not militant in defence of patriarchy’ (Connell 2000, 31) yet these men ‘can easily convince themselves that feminists must be bra-burning extremists’ (Connell 2005, 80). The concept of complicit masculinities as well as compliance or support from women (and girls?) is crucial to uphold hegemonic masculinity. According to Connell and Messerschmidt,

[m]en who received the benefits of patriarchy without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as showing a complicit masculinity. It was in relation to this group, and to compliance among heterosexual women, that the concept of hegemony was most powerful (2005, 832).

Connell also outlines the non-hegemonic masculinities of subordinate and marginalised. She links subordinate masculinities particularly to gay masculinities and other masculinities associated with femininity (Connell 2005, 78-79). Marginalisation refers to ‘[t]he interplay of gender with other structures such as class and race’ which are outside the gender order (Connell 2005, 80). What non-hegemonic masculinities involve is necessarily determined by what is hegemonic in the particular context.

Connell defines complicit masculinity in distinction from subordinated masculinity (2005, 78-80), yet the concept of being complicit with hegemonic masculinity can seemingly be applied to subordinated masculinities and all femininities. I argue that while subordinated masculinities and femininities may challenge or disrupt hegemony at some points they can also be complicit in the current gender order. This is similar to what Wetherell and Edley argue in terms of men being able to be both complicit and resistant (1999, 352, 353). The concepts of complicity and subordination and how they intersect need further theorising. For the purposes of this article, I draw on the theories as I have outlined them here.

In order to examine hegemonic masculinity and complicit masculinities within my empirical research, it is necessary to determine what hegemonic masculinity might actually entail. While Connell argues that ‘“[h]egemonic masculinity” is not a fixed character type, always and everywhere the same’ (2005, 76), conceptions of current Western hegemonic masculinity tend to mobilise around particular elements. These include heterosexuality (Beasley 2005, 229; Connell 1987, 186; Donaldson 1993, 645); homophobia 1 (Beasley 2005, 229; Connell 2000, 84; Donaldson 1993, 645); physicality – often expressed through sport (Connell 2000, 69-85); the subordination of women (Connell 2000, 84) and misogyny (Beasley 2005, 229); and particular mental aspects such as authority, rationality (Connell 2005, 90) and competitiveness (Connell 2000, 84; Donaldson 1993, 655). Additionally, as noted above, in some writing Connell links hegemonic masculinity with corporate success and ‘transnational business masculinity’ (Connell and Wood 2005).

Theoretically, the interweaving of hegemonic masculinity and age has been little considered. Even though the concept of hegemonic masculinity has been the subject of many theoretical critiques (see for example Beasley 2008; Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; Donaldson 1993; Wetherell and Edley 1999), within these critiques little attention has been paid to age or the ability of boys to perform hegemonic masculinity. In fact, there are few critiques of the applicability of hegemonic masculinity to primary school-aged boys (for exceptions see for example Eriksson 2007; Renold 2005). There is some empirical research with primary school boys, although there is significantly less than that with high school boys and young men (Connolly 2006, 141). As I have argued elsewhere (Bartholomaeus 2009) there are problems with fully applying the concept of hegemonic masculinity to primary school boys because of their age. I do not wish to focus on this again here, but I argue that boys have little access to a legitimating masculinity outside of their local context. Therefore, rather than using the term hegemonic, I use the term ‘normative’ to refer to a particular form of masculinity evident from my research that shapes masculinity for all boys and influences the behaviours of other students. The term normative masculinity may not entirely capture this process but at this stage seems more accurate to use than hegemonic masculinity, although theorising young masculinities is a work-in-progress. Theoretically then, I suggest that sport may be the beginnings or early signs of hegemonic masculinity for the boys in my research, which is also influenced by the Australian context. I draw on the concept of complicity to highlight how what might be termed a normative masculinity is supported by primary school students (as well as their teachers and parents).

Participants and Methods

In order to consider the views and voices of young people, this article draws on empirical research conducted in two South Australian co-educational primary schools. Socrates Primary is Greek Orthodox and St Catherine’s Primary is Catholic (the names of all schools, students, and teachers are pseudonyms). To enable a comparison of age, the research involved two classes of students at the beginning of primary school (aged 6 and 7) and two classes at the end of primary school (aged between 11 and 13): a Year 1 class and a Year 6 class at Socrates Primary, and a Year Reception/1 (R/1) and Year 6/7 class at St Catherine’s Primary. A total of 95 students participated in the research.

The students took part in numerous activities over five sessions, each of which provided different avenues for them to reflect on their ideas about being boys and girls. These involved the students writing, drawing and discussing their ideas in individual, small group, and whole class activities. In the final session I showed the students some of the findings from the research, from my initial analysis, and asked for their interpretations and explanations of them. The data in this article is largely drawn from two activities. One activity asked students in small groups to order eight famous faces from most to least ‘manly’, essentially creating their own hierarchy of masculinities. In the other activity students provided individual written responses to a number of questions about gender in their lives including what is (or what would be) good and bad about being a boy and girl.

I interviewed the teachers from all four classes, six mothers of the students in the classes, and an additional mother filled out an emailed questionnaire (no fathers elected to participate). The parent and teacher interviews focused on how the parents/teachers thought gender was understood by their children/students in their class. Three teachers were also available for second interviews where I asked for their interpretations and explanations of the initial findings from the research.

Research Findings Overview

In this article I discuss how sport was the key aspect of normative masculinity in my research in South Australian primary schools. Boys and girls frequently suggested that being a boy involved playing and/or being interested in sport. While there were a variety of masculinities displayed by the students, particularly in the older classes, sport was the most frequent descriptor of boys and masculinity.

Previous empirical research in primary schools has often found that sport and bodies are the key ways hegemonic masculinity or ‘dominant’ masculinity is constructed. This is particularly the case in the UK where much of the research about primary school masculinities has been conducted (see for example Clark and Paechter 2007; Renold 1997; Skelton 2000; Swain 2000, 2006). This previous feminist research about primary school masculinities has tended to involve students in small group interviews and/or observed the behaviours of students. My research differs in terms of methods, where students were involved in activities, thinking about, writing on, and discussing gender. These methods enabled a different perspective where the students were often directly asked about their understandings of gender using a variety of activities. This approach also showed that sport was a key way in which being a boy was described by the students, and worked to create a normative masculinity.


In my research the tying of sport and boys together, and what constituted a normative masculinity, worked in three key ways. First, sporting masculinities were the most privileged when considering different masculinities in relation to each other. This was particularly evident when discussing famous athletes. Second, sport was constructed as something that all boys participate in or should be interested in. And, third, sport was often viewed as being for boys and not for girls. I examine these three key points and then consider evidence of students recognising and potentially resisting normative discourses of sport equals boy. Finally, I consider the likely reasons for the strength of sport in constructing masculinity in Australian primary schools.

Privileging of Sporting Masculinities: Famous Male Athletes

When the students considered masculinity in relation to famous men, athletes were often privileged by boys and girls. This is in line with what Connell writes: ‘men, such as sporting heroes, are taken as exemplars of hegemonic masculinity’ (2000, 11). This was clear in an activity where students considered masculinity in relation to famous faces. In small groups, students were given cards with photographs of eight famous faces on them which they ranked from most to least ‘manly’, giving reasons for their choices (inspired by Horton 2007. See also Wetherell and Edley 1999). In line with Horton (2007, 173), I chose famous faces that most students would be familiar with so they would decide their rankings by drawing on what they knew about the men rather than solely their appearance in the photographs.2

Athletes were frequently viewed by the students as the most ‘manly’. To demonstrate an overall picture of this, I compiled the data by going through each student group’s ranking and using a score of eight for most ‘manly’, seven for second most ‘manly’ and so on through to one point for least ‘manly’. I then added the groups from within each class together. When combining this data for all classes, the top three famous faces are the three athletes: Andrew McLeod (AFL player)3, John Cena (professional wrestler), and David Beckham (soccer player). These are followed by the five non-athletes: Kevin Rudd (then Australian Prime Minister), Daniel Radcliffe (actor in the film series Harry Potter), Zac Efron (actor in the film series High School Musical), Chris Brown (singer), and Jeff (member of children’s singing group The Wiggles). Both age groups ranked athletes as the most ‘manly’ when considering masculine hierarchies (an exception was the Year R/1 class who tended to rank the lead actors from Harry Potter and High School Musical higher). The reasons given included:

‘a lot of men like footy’ (Year R/1 class, St Catherine’s Primary, group written activity, group of four girls, ranking Andrew McLeod most ‘manly’)

‘Wrestler, gets paid to beat people up, muscular’ (Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, group written activity, group of four girls, ranking John Cena most ‘manly’)

Overall, the focus on male athletes as exemplars of masculinity constructs sport as normative masculinity in the eyes of primary school students. Both boys and girls tended to construct athletes as the most ‘manly’.

While athletes seemed to portray the most exemplary form of masculinity, there were also tensions and debates about this. For example, a group of Year 6/7 boys debated whether then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or AFL footballer Andrew McLeod was more ‘manly’. The crux of their debate is as follows:

Boy: He’s [Kevin Rudd] taking- He’s taking care of Australia, that’s pretty manly
Boy: No it’s not, that’s not manly. Manly’s like in the AFL getting tackled.
(Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, small group discussion recording, group of five boys, discussing which famous faces are ‘manly’ and eventually ranking Rudd above McLeod)

This debate over whether political or institutional power is more ‘manly’ than being a professional athlete in a physical sport is reflected in Connell’s own writing where there is slippage in what she means by hegemonic masculinity (Beasley 2008, 88). Sometimes she views ‘transnational business masculinity’ as hegemonic (Connell and Wood, 2005) and other times athletes (Connell 2000, 69-85).

Notably, sport was not privileged in the same way in a related activity ranking female faces from most to least ‘womanly’. Using the same ranking process as for the ‘manly’ activity, Stephanie Rice (Australian Olympic swimmer) was ranked fifth overall and Sharelle McMahon (Australian netball team captain) was ranked seventh, while the faces ranked most ‘womanly’ were actresses and/or singers. The older classes often deemed muscles and strong body builds as reasons for female athletes not being ‘womanly’:

Girl: It takes a lot of muscle to swim. To swim like a lot
Girl: Yeah, and it takes a lot of man to be a swimmer
(Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, small group discussion recording, group of four girls, discussing swimmer Stephanie Rice)

It should be noted that there were also some (although fewer) positive comments linking femininity and sport. For example, there were views that female athletes are fit and healthy, and that netball is an appropriate sport for girls/women to play.

Boy Equals Sport: Constructing Normative Masculinity for Boys

‘It is good to be a boy because you can play soccer’ (Manolis, Year 1 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

‘Natural [sic] good at sport’ (Jack, Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

For many of the students from both age groups sport tended to equal masculinity. In particular, this was the response given when considering what is good about being a boy, as can be seen from the above quotes. This also included describing sport as what being a boy is, or should be, as well as boys mentioning sport as something relevant in their lives. Within this, some girls showed support for relating boys to sport, as well as at least one boy who did not like sport. The close linking of sport and being a boy helped to construct a normative masculinity in the schools. Thus a number of the older students suggested that boys are expected to be sporty (only the older classes were asked about gender expectations). In an open-ended question about gender expectations, nearly half of the boys (43.5%, 10 out of 23 respondents) wrote that they were expected to act sporty because they are boys, and a number of girls also wrote that boys are expected to act sporty (16%, 4 out of 25 respondents). Notably, it was only boys that were expected to act sporty:

‘cool, good at sport, strong, Fit’ (Ivan, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, what ways are you expected to act because you’re a boy?)

‘I think boys are expected to act sporty and strong’ (Mila, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, how do you think boys are expected to act?)

What was also evident when constructing sport as key to masculinity was that there were hierarchies of sports – some sports were viewed as more masculine than others. In both schools, soccer was the most commonly written and spoken about sport, and was often constructed as being for boys. However, the reasons why soccer was viewed as being for boys was not clear.

Overall in the research, soccer and Australian Rules football were viewed as the most masculine sports by both age groups. In contrast, netball was nearly always associated with girls. Some sports, such as basketball, tended to be viewed by both age groups as suitable for both genders. A note on how sport figured in the school’s gender regimes is important here. Sport, particularly soccer, was a strong focus at Socrates Primary. According to the Year 6 teacher, ‘soccer is a huge thing at this school’. In her class, soccer was played predominantly by boys. In the Year 1 class, the teacher emphasised that both boys and girls in her class played soccer and cricket, although it was difficult to ascertain if this was actually the case. At St Catherine’s Primary, sport was also important although girls appeared more likely to be included than at Socrates Primary. According to the Year R/1 teacher, due to the small number of students at the school, sporting teams were often mixed gender. She also noted that mixed gender soccer was the only school sport available to the students in her class. In the Year 6/7 class, a number of students (particularly boys) played on the school basketball team, coached by their class teacher. He strongly encouraged all of his students to participate in sport.

Other studies have often found that football (in its differing codes) is the most privileged sport for establishing masculinity in primary school (see for example Clark and Paechter 2007; Keddie 2003; Renold 1997; Skelton 2000; Swain 2000; Warren 2003). As Connell notes, sports that are physically confronting and violent such as football codes, boxing, and ice hockey are the most highly valued for constructing hegemonic masculinity in schools (Connell 2008, 140). What is interesting here is the differing physicality between the codes. In Keddie’s Australian research she found that Australian Rules football was thought to be masculine and soccer was feminised (see for example 2003). However, as I have noted, research in the UK has found soccer to be the most important sport in masculinity construction in primary school, presumably because of its national popularity. In my research, the focus on soccer rather than Australian Rules football may be attributed to the ethnic composition of the schools as well as age (although Keddie’s research showed that 6 to 8 year old boys privileged Australian Rules football over soccer). Rugby was not mentioned in my research, most likely due to its relative absence in South Australia. Other studies discussing rugby have noted that it is privileged in the schools researched, although it has been little discussed in relation to primary school students (for an exception see Bhana 2008). Rugby has been considered in more depth in relation to high school masculinities (see for example Burgess et al. 2003; Horton 2007).

Many boys’ enjoyment of sport possesses no contradiction to its normative status, and can even be central to it (see also Keddie 2003, 76; Swain 2000, 101; Swain 2006):

‘very important – I like playing soccer’ (Joshua, Year R/1 class, St Catherine’s Primary, individual written activity, how important is being a boy to you?)

‘Boys are more interested in sport than girls. I LOVE Sport’ (Vassilis, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

Not all boys were interested in sport, but there was evidence of subordinated boys, as well as some of the girls, being complicit with the linking of sport with masculinity. Christos, a Year 6 boy who was not interested in sport, provides an illustrative example. Christos’s subordinate status in class was related to the fact that he (as described by the teacher) was smart, ‘effeminate’, and did not like sport. Amongst other things, he suggested boys were expected to act sporty:

‘Your [sic] usually expected to act really cool and tough and sporty but in my eyes you can really be anything you want to be, considering that Im [sic] not really any of these I still feel as if some people are trying really hard to be people there [sic] not so to those people just really be yourself’ (Christos, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, what ways are you expected to act because you’re a boy?)

While Christos suggested to ‘be yourself’ is more important than gendered expectations, he still drew on the concept that being sporty is something good about being a boy:

‘Theres [sic] being able to catch on to things fast and usually being very sporty too!’ (Christos, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

What this seems to highlight is that even boys who are not sporty or interested in sport and, indeed, may be subordinated by the dominance of sport in masculinity construction, still ideologically perpetuate the view that for boys sport and masculinity are inextricably linked. This complicity has also been found in a high school study (Burgess et al. 2003, 208-209) but other research in primary schools has not discussed (or found?) that non-athletic boys help construct being a boy in relation to sport. In fact, sometimes the views of subordinated boys are not considered. For example, Swain writes about some boys calling subordinated boys ‘gay’ for not liking sport but does not give subordinated boys a voice (2006, 328-330).

Similarly, some girls supported the idea that sport was for boys, essentially being complicit with the view that sport is integral to masculinity. For example,

‘boys um are one of the sportiest people’ (Helen, Year 1 class, Socrates Primary, whole class discussion recording, brainstorming similarities and differences of boys and girls)

‘Good at sorcer [soccer]’ (Katerina, Year 1 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

‘You can play more sport’ (Cara, Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a boy)

Evidence of girls supporting or upholding normative masculinity has been little noted in other studies. This is likely to be because research on primary school masculinities often does not involve girls in the research or does not use girls’ voices in their analyses. When girls are included, they tend to voice their concerns about being excluded from playing soccer (see for example Clark and Paechter 2007; Renold 1997), rather than constructing soccer or sport as being for boys.

While alignment with sport was frequently constructed as central to being a boy, it did not guarantee status in the classroom. For example, Ari’s (Year 1 class, Socrates Primary) attempt to construct a legitimate masculine position because of his interest in sport failed, essentially because his performance was ‘trying too hard’ i.e. a hyper masculinity (see Beasley 2008, 101 note 15). Although he often wrote and spoke about sport, Ari’s disruptive behaviour interfered with his attempts to gain an accepted status in the class and to influence others’ behaviour. For example, on several occasions Ari attempted to say that playing soccer is a boys’ thing. In one instance during a whole class discussion this was not only refuted by others but his attempts to establish himself as playing sport were rejected. Another student told him ‘Ari you don’t play it [soccer] that much’ to which Ari responded ‘Because no one will let me’, acknowledging his disliked disruptive behaviour.

Sporty Boys and Non-athletic girls: Excluding Girls from Constructions of Sport

‘I would not beave [be able] to play soccer’ (Loukas, Year 1 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, how would your life be different if you were a girl instead of a boy?)

‘Not that good at sport’ (Aaron, Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, individual written activity, something bad about being a girl)

In order to construct sport as something for boys, some students viewed sport as not for girls. This occurred numerous times with both age groups. Girls were viewed as not being involved in sport, and when they were, were seen to be less skilled. This was mostly done in terms of soccer, which was the sport most discussed by both age groups, as mentioned above. The construction of sport as for boys and not for girls has also been found in numerous other studies (see for example Clark and Paechter 2007; Renold 1997, 2005, 57-61; Skelton 2000; Swain 2005).

One way in which sport was associated with boys was by drawing on the lack of women’s sports shown in the media, highlighting the influence of popular culture on the students’ gender understandings. For example, during a Year 1 class discussion, Ari stated that girls do not play soccer which initiated a discussion about whether or not girls play soccer:

Girl: Yes they do
Ari: No, only men do
Girl: No, girls can too
Girl: Because at soccer practice girls were practising
Girl: I play soccer
Mrs Searle: Haven’t you heard of the Matildas Ari? The Matildas are the girls’ soccer team [Australian women’s national soccer team]
Ari: On TV is there any?
Girl: Yeah yeah yeah there’s a couple I saw one
(Year 1 class, Socrates Primary, whole class discussion recording, explaining their ‘gender awareness’ posters)

A number of things are evident in this exchange. First, a claim is made that soccer is for men and boys. Second, this view is challenged by other students (particularly girls). Third, even a comment from the teacher does not change Ari’s mind. And, finally, in order for Ari to change his mind he needs to know that girls/women playing soccer is shown on television. This theme reoccurred with this class in another session when a boy suggested that ‘boys like to play soccer for their job’. When I asked if girls play soccer for a job there was uncertainty and suggestions that this did not happen very often. Other research has also found primary school boys draw on notions of professional soccer to exclude girls’ involvement in sport (see for example Swain 2000, 104). Particularly pertinent is Davies’ comment from her research that:

although the girls can and do play boys’ sports, the fact that women are excluded from them in adult games is not just a problem for the future but something that impacts on their idea of who they are no ... The boys can use that knowledge of social structure to gain ascendancy over the girls and to dismiss the everyday evidence of their competence (emphasis in original, Davies 2003, 75).

Associating sport with boys was strengthened by the fact that girls rarely mentioned sport, either in written activities or class discussions, even in the case of girls who play sport. The times when sport was mentioned by girls tended to be when provoked or challenged by the boys such as when boys made claims to be more skilful at sport than girls, as discussed above.

According to the Year R/1 teacher at St Catherine’s Primary, mixed gender soccer is the only school sport available to students in her class at this age. The pervasiveness of the view that soccer is for boys is indicated by the fact that I only found out girls in the class played soccer because a boy’s mother discussed it in her interview. She said that girls did not refer to playing soccer because it is more for boys, and suggested that this would have been different if it was netball or basketball. I would propose that talking about sport does not give girls ‘status’ in the classroom the same way it might for boys.

I later asked the class who played soccer and found that two girls and six boys played in a mixed team for the school. The students found it difficult to explain why girls had not mentioned playing soccer in any of the activities and why more boys than girls played soccer. The clearest explanation came from one boy who suggested ‘soccer is mostly a boy sport not um really a girl sport’ and that ‘girls might have other games that they like to play instead of like football, soccer, tennis’ (Year R/1 class, St Catherine’s Primary, whole class discussion recording, responding to findings from research).

The girls in the older classes were also unlikely to discuss their participation in sport. This may be attributed to the fact that many of the activities focused on what the students thought expressed gender i.e. femininity was not often linked to sport. However, there were a few exceptions. One girl wrote about her love of soccer but also frustrations at how she was treated by boys when she played it:

‘I love to do things like play soccer, but everytime [sic] I try to feel confident, the boys will tease me if I miss the ball or something’ (Aphrodite, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, restrictions felt being a girl)

While more boys than girls played soccer it was evident that even with the knowledge that girls play soccer, it was still sometimes constructed as something for boys. Furthermore, the younger girls themselves did not initiate talk about playing soccer, although the older girls occasionally did (in contrast, Clark and Paechter [2007] found many girls discussed their love of playing soccer).

As the mother above reveals, the teachers and parents were also involved in associating soccer with boys. Mrs Searle, the Year 1 teacher said:

Mrs Searle: I think the girls love participating in boy things, um they're definitely not shy, they love getting in there, giving it a go, especially with the soccer and/
CB: Do they see them as boy things?
Mrs Searle: Um, nup, I don't think they do.
(Mrs Searle, Year 1 Teacher, Socrates Primary, first interview)

While Mrs Searle suggested the students do not view soccer as a ‘boy thing’ it appears as though she does, which may influence the students (for other discussions of teachers’ views of gender and sport see for example Renold 1997; Skelton 2000; Swain 2000).

Similarly, one mother suggested that expectations in terms of gender involved sport for boys, which was not the same for girls:

‘I suppose you do think of them in terms of gender and what you expect of them um to behave and you might push them more towards doing things, you know, as parents um to do the girl things or to- my husband will get the boys involved in the boy things. […] Mainly the sports side of it um but if my daughter wanted to join in, like he’ll [her husband] try and get her involved in say tennis um but if she wanted to join in, she’d be more than welcome to be part of it but we um wouldn’t push her to join in unless we need another team person, then it becomes critical (laughs)’ (Mother of Year 6 boy, Socrates Primary, interview)

Indeed, this mother says they would not ‘push’ their daughter to join in playing sports, although they seemingly expect it of their two sons. This suggests that parents too can be complicit in the construction of normative masculinity for their children (see also Messner 2000).

Challenges to Boy Equals Sport: Recognition and Potential Resistance

While many of the participants equated being a boy with sport, thus constructing a normative masculinity, there were also some interruptions and challenges to this. Pressure on boys to play and be interested in sport was recognised by some participants, particularly by students from the older classes. Furthermore, some students were able to challenge the boy equals sport discourse to some extent when given the opportunity.

Students from the older classes sometimes recognised the pressures on boys to play sport:

‘Some people think because we are boys that we have to play music, sport etc’ (Mitch, Year 6/7 class, St Catherine’s Primary, individual written activity, restrictions felt being a boy)

‘because if you dont [sic] like soccor [sic] or dont [sic] like football its [sic] hard to fit in’ (Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, small group written activity, group of two boys and two girls. Responding to findings of research, arguing that it is harder to live up to the expectations of how to be a boy than a girl)

‘don’t have to do sporting activities’ (Despina, Year 6 class, Socrates Primary, individual written activity, something good about being a girl)

The first quote above also mentions music, although this was one of the few times that it was referred to in the research as something relating to boys.

Sporting pressure was also recognised by one of the mothers. She spoke about how gender started to matter in her older daughter’s class in Year 1, when students divided themselves by gender which she linked to sport:


‘I also remember one of the boys not being so ah into soccer and feeling left out, because they were off doing their thing, and this particular boy didn’t feel- fit into the peer, or wasn’t as good, or wasn’t allowed to go and do soccer with the boys, so he felt quite left out’ (Mother of Year 1 girl, Socrates Primary, interview).


What these findings suggest is that even though sport constructed a normative masculinity for the boys in my research, there was also evidence of participants being aware of this. Such awareness suggests that with encouragement, older students in particular may be able to critique and deconstruct normative patterns of masculinity (for example as done by Davies 2003).

During the research the students were provided with one particular avenue for them to show their gender awareness and challenge gender stereotypes. This involved an activity which asked students to design their own ‘gender aware’ poster (the older students were also given the option of creating an activity). I explained this activity to the younger students by asking them to create a poster about girls and boys being good at something, or girls and boys being friends. I described the activity to the older students similarly, but also used the word ‘gender’, suggesting they might want to teach other people their age about gender and the kind of things we had done in the activities. One way in which this activity encouraged the students to challenge gender stereotypes was by getting them to think about the similarities between boys and girls. In the older classes, some students explicitly included messages on their posters about gender equality.

A key theme in these posters was that both boys and girls can play sports. For the Year R/1 class this was partly influenced by the class teacher who provided her class with ideas to help them understand the activity. The theme of boys and girls playing soccer was particularly taken up boys and students from the younger classes. While this activity provided avenues for students to express gender equality, it was also evident that some of these posters reinforced the idea that sport is for boys. In some instances this was simply a case of associating sport with girls because it was the ‘opposite’ of how girls were usually viewed. Furthermore, the link between masculinity and sport was not broken – girls were simply added in.

Conclusions: Sport, Masculinity, Age, and the Australian Context

As I argued at the beginning of this article, the intersection of gender and age, as well as a consideration of masculinities, are important and often overlooked contributions to feminist work. In this article I have shown how gender is significant in the lives of the primary school students in my empirical research, specifically by giving voice to the students’ understandings and constructions of what might be termed normative masculinity. I argued that sport was the key way in which a normative masculinity was constructed by the participants in my research, both boys and girls alike. This construction privileged particular interests and behaviours for boys to the detriment of non-athletic boys and all girls. While I argue age is a barrier to access to hegemonic masculinity for primary school boys, there was evidence of what might be termed a normative masculinity centred on sport which produced complicity and support of the current gender order. An emphasis on sport in constructing a normative masculinity by many of the participants in my primary school research seems to be related to two key factors – age and the Australian context. I conclude with a discussion of these two factors.

Masculinity, at least in Australia, seems to start with sport. This is due, in part, to the students’ lack of access to other factors to establish masculinity. Physicality, particularly in the form of sport, is often viewed as one of the important elements of hegemonic masculinity, as I outlined earlier. However, sport was the key aspect of masculinity in my research with primary school students. For adult masculinities there are other factors that can be more important than sport. Connell suggests that sport ‘is the central experience of the school years for many boys’ (1983, 18), yet upon leaving school most men find other body practices to assert their masculinity: work, sexuality and/or fatherhood (1983, 22-26). She writes that ‘entry into economic adulthood… usually means an end… of childhood involvement in public sport as the main practice confirming masculinity’ (Connell 1983, 31). As Burgess et al. note, sport ‘enables participants to authenticate their masculine status. This is of particular significance for younger males who may not as yet possess other means of demonstrating masculine authority, such as through wage-earning, heterosexual relationships or fatherhood’ (2003, 202). While sport can also be a part of ‘adult’ hegemonic masculinity, its importance to the students was increased because of their lack of access to other factors due to age. However, such findings regarding the place and significance of sport in relation to masculinities are also likely to be locationally/culturally specific.

The centrality of sport in constructing masculinity in my research is also reflective of the dominance of sport in Australian society. As Cashman argues, ‘[f]or better or worse, sport is central to the business of being Australian and appeals to many Australians’ (1995, vii). More specifically it should be stated that it is men’s sport that is so prominent in Australia. This dominance is evident particularly in the media. For example, a report released by the Australian Sports Commission in 2010 found 86 per cent of sports coverage showed men playing sports (Australian Sports Commission 2010, v). The dominance of sport in Australian society seems to have dual effects of both continuing the strong influence of sport in constructing Australian masculinities and ensuring Australia’s male-centricity. All the same, it should be acknowledged that it is not just in Australia that there are strong ties between national identity, sport and gender (Ward 2009). As I have already mentioned, soccer in UK primary schools is also reflective of its significance within the broader culture. As Warren notes in relation to his research with 10 year old boys,

[t]he high profile and culturally privileged position that football enjoys in British society give these boys’ local practices legitimacy, but also constitute the cultural conditions of their emergence as significant practices in the construction of masculine identities. [….] It gives legitimacy to a gender order predicated on a primary distinction between maleness and femaleness, of identity instituted in the body, and of a particular physical and public masculinity as the normative gender (2003, 13).

The stronghold that sport has on constructions of primary school masculinities by students, teachers, and parents allows little room for engagement in other practices. This limits boys who enjoy sport as well as non-athletic boys and all girls. This is an issue which needs further consideration in feminist work on masculinities and gender in primary school and beyond.


1. However, Beasley (2008, 100 note 8) notes that in Connell’s later writing homophobia is not necessarily part of hegemonic masculinity.

2. In order to determine which famous faces the majority of students of both age groups would be familiar with I compiled a shortlist of 20-25 men (and 20-25 women for the related ‘womanly’ activity). I discussed these separately with two 11 year old girls that were personally known to me (and attended different primary schools). They offered advice on which famous faces would be the most appropriate for the activity and targeted age groups. One girl also offered some additional suggestions. This method could not completely predict who the participants would know but it certainly was more accurate than relying solely on the decision of an adult researcher. The inclusion of only three Australian men is a reflection of the influence of popular culture and the media on young people. This influence became even more evident once the research began and in other activities the students discussed for the most part non-Australian athletes, celebrities, films, televisions shows, and videogames.

3. AFL player refers to someone playing in the Australian Football League. This is the national competition of Australian Rules football in Australia in which only men can play.


I would like to particularly thank the participating students, staff, parents, and schools. Thanks also to Chris Beasley, Chilla Bulbeck, Susan Oakley, the anonymous reviewers, and others who have given feedback on the ideas in this article.


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