Score! Rugby, Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and Queer Deaths

written for a reading response assignment for socio 101: sociology of aotearoa, at the university of auckland in february 2015.


“I was hoping I was going to kill myself before people found out then… nobody would have known that I was going to. I didn’t want to embarrass my family, which is what I thought would happen when people found out I was gay – if they found out I was gay. But I never ever thought I was going to get to the stage where I am now. I never knew that it was possible to live and be happy as a gay person. And as soon as I realised that I was a gay person it seemed completely impossible to be happy.” (‘Andy’, cited in Town, 1999, p. 135)

“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.” (Alcorn, 2014)

Masculinity has many negative outcomes in society, for men and others. As it stands, the construction of masculinity in Aotearoa is heavily influenced by sport, in particular rugby, which, according to Richard Pringle, holds a privileged sociocultural position in our society (Pringle, 2007).

Richard Pringle’s article, ‘Sport, Males, and Masculinity’ provides a solid overview of the influence of sport on masculinity, and a good basis for critique of both sport and masculinity in Aotearoa. Pringle introduces Raewyn Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity and discusses how it has dominated sport sociology in the last two decades. Hegemonic masculinity describes the socially valued, privileged, and idealised version of masculinity that is held above all other forms, implementations, and performances of masculinity. While dependent on and influenced by context, hegemonic masculinity almost always puts men in power, and more often than not it is exclusively heterosexual and anti-feminine. Importantly, hegemonic masculinity is not embodied by all men, but rather is something that men may aspire to. Connell uses the term “complicit masculinity” to refer to men who do not enact a strong dominance or embody hegemonic masculinity but receive the beneifts of patriarchy regardless (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Connell uses Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which describes “how a ruling class or group establishes and maintains cultural dominance over subordinate groups” as well as the way the subordinated legitimise the system of beliefs enacted by the dominant group (Pringle, 2007). As a result, hegemonic masculinity not only describes the dominance of men over women but naturalises it along with certain ways of performing masculinity.

Pringle then critiques the use of hegemonic masculinity, citing Helen Yeates’ discussions of Australian rugby leage and its commodification, stating that increased media intrusion and the appearance of players in magazines for women shows them in “softer social contexts” (Pringle, 2007, p. 363). Toby Miller also provided a similar argument, saying that players’ bodies were marketed not just for straight, complicitly masculine men, but also straight women and gay men (note: although the hegemonic ideal of masculinity is heterosexual, gay men still receive benefits from the patriarchy on the basis of being men and can be considered complicitly masculine). This is not a coherent critique of hegemonic masculinity’s use in sport sociology for two reasons: firstly, Connell addresses the potential for hegemonic masculinities to change in her 2005 revisitation:

“Hegemonic masculinities therefore came into existence in specific circumstances were open to historical changes. More precisely, there could be struggle for hegemony, and older forms of masculinity might be displaced by new ones.” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 832-3)

Secondly, the idea that the marketing of the bodies of the oppressors to the marginalised somehow negates the oppression is not coherent – in fact, it is a function of Gramscian hegemony. The idealisation of a specific kind of body and a specific performance of masculinity is no more than an hegemonic tool to encourage the subordinated to legitimise their subordination (Gramsci, 1971).

The only coherent critique provided by Pringle of hegemonic masculinity’s use in this area is a Foucauldian one. Hegemonic masculinity relies on a top-down model of power, stemming from a ruling class and acting upon the subjugated. As such, the model of power it utilises is purely hierarchical and sorts people into distinct categories, with the potential to ignore key distinctions and differences. Instead, Foucault theorised power to be a relational concept and not a substance that could be possessed or acquired (Foucault M. , 1983; Foucault M. , 1978). Foucauldian post-structural analysis of power examines each individual in an interaction and how power is being exerted or expressed in that relationship, and as a result does not obscure the key differences that a Marxist theory of power such as hegemonic masculinity does.

Pringle provides evidence from qualitative studies around the production of masculinities that value aggression, pain tolerance, and risk taking, along with the associated cultures of sexism and alcoholism. Rugby grew out of a culture that believed that physical sport would create “real men” and would push down feminine characteristics, enabling and reifying a gender order. Sport has been so heavily associated with femininity that to fail at sport is akin to failing at being manly – contributing to the fragility of masculinity that ostensibly leads to emotional problems and potentially domestic abuse. In my experience, “sporty” or “manly” men tend to be a lot more aggressive and threatening, and not just physically.

Shane Town’s research on young gay men in ‘Queer(y)ing Masculinities in Schools’ provides a specific if narrow insight into queer experiences in the school system. Town outlines three practices enacted in schools that enable and support a culture of heteronormativity, which in turn supports a culture of homophobia. These three practices are a) silence both in and outside of class about sexuality (especially homosexuality), b) the pathologisation of homosexuality by the implicit linking of it to HIV/AIDS in the health curriculum, and c) the strict policing of heterosexual masculinity, predominantly through violence, homophobic abuse, and social conformity. (Town, 1999)

All the young men in Town’s study report staying closeted in school due to fear of the consequences of coming out. The article starts with one of the students talking about how he would pray for God to make him straight, and directly attributes it to the school: “I guess that is how much the school and community had conditioned me” (Town, 1999, p.135). The practices lead to a culture of absolute heteronormativity. In art history classes teachers would talk about how Michelangelo and Da Vinci were arrested for sodomy, directly portraying homosexuality as negative. When AIDS was brought up in the health curriculum it was linked to homosexuality, inducing a fear for the students’ physical health and creating an avoidance of sexual contact.

Town’s research indicates that the “correct” performance of masculinity is a heterosexual one. Any indication of homosexuality indicates a failure at masculinity, and any failure at masculinity indicates a homosexual identity. Compulsory heterosexuality, an aspect of heteronormativity, means that many queer youth take until their mid to late teens to come to understand their identities, myself included.

Both Pringle and Town make explicit references to rugby as a masculinising (and thus a heteronormative) practice. Pringle describes rugby has occupying a privileged socio-cultural position in Aotearoa – evidenced by its dominance of the sports (and often non-sports) media, attention in schools, and its influence on social life. He points out that the understanding of rugby as “a man’s sport” means female players are marginalised as not conforming to expected gender norms, and that men not interested in rugby are marginalised in a similar manner. To play rugby is to perform masculinity. This is also evident in Town’s study, as many of his interviewees refer to the first XV and the first XV ‘type’ of boy being the ones to utilise homophobic abuse. The violent nature of rugby outlined in Pringle’s work makes a reappearance in Town’s study, where taking part in violent situations was a “significant part of their ability to project and maintain public, masculine and heterosexual images” (Town, 1999). It is in this way that performances of heterosexual masculinity is linked to violence and homophobia, and how the culture of heteronormativity in schools leads to a sibling culture of homophobia among the students: they enforce heterosexuality and masculinity via violence and homophobic abuse and slurs. If a student does not perform masculinity well enough they are considered effeminate and thus queer. In Town’s study, this lead to even the young gay students abusing others in an attempt to keep up their reputation as straight and masculine.

Both Pringle’s and Town’s papers speak to my experiences of high school as a queer trans woman who did not come out until university, as queer youth of all identities have shared experiences in terms of erasure and abuse. While I never held any particular interest in performing any form of masculinity even when I thought I was a man, the lack of community and education and the fear of my identity hits home. As a victim of abuse at the hands of men both in childhood and adolescence I am ideologically opposed to the violent and bigoted form of masculinity rugby contributes to the construction of. This relates to what I found missing from Pringle’s analysis along with many other articles in the study of masculinity: there is a prioritising of the detriments of masculinity for men, as opposed to the ways it may contribute to violence and abuse of women and children. As Pringle states, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that cases of domestic violence increase during televised screenings of All Blacks matches (Jessup, 1999, cited in Pringle, 2007). This is a reflection of my past experiences with liberal feminism, in which men must be appealed to via explaining the effects of patriarchy on them in order to gain their support.

While Town’s research is worthwhile and obviously important, it falls into the trap that most queer theorists do: that of focussing exclusively on cis gay men, to the detriment of others. While I am not denying the struggles that young gay men go through, mental health statistics for trans youth paint a much more depressing picture. None of the youth in Town’s study had attempted suicide, whereas a recent study in New Zealand schools shows that over 41% of self-identifying trans students show significant depressive symptoms (as opposed to 12% of the cis population), 45.5% self-harmed (23% of cis students), and 20% attempted suicide (4.1% of cis students) (Clark, me ētahi atu, 2013). A similar study from the same report showed similar worrying rates for other queer youth today, showing that even with the notion of widespread societal acceptance, little in our schools has changed. The quote at the start of this essay from Leelah Alcorn, a trans woman who took her life late last year, highlights this clearly.

As an active advocate for queer and trans youth in schools, the knowledge that studies were done in the late 90s proving that change needed to happen is extremely distressing, especially with the recent Youth’12 data proving that relatively little has actually changed. These papers have highlighted a problem in schools I had not previously considered alongside improving the curriculum and bullying policies: the prioritisation of typically masculine pursuits such as rugby over everything else. This will become another focus of my work on making things safer for our youth.


Alcorn, L. (2014, December 28). Retrieved from https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/leelah-alcorn-and-cultural-transmisogyny/

Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2013). The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results From the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth’12). Journal of Adolescent Health.

Connell, R., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender and Society, 19, 829-859. doi:10.177/0891243205278639

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: Vol 1. An introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1983). On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of work in progress. In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (pp. 208-26). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from prison notebooks. (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Trans.) London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Jessup, P. (1999, August 27). Suspicion lingers of sporting fouls. The New Zealand Herald, A4. Auckland, New Zealand: The New Zealand Herald.

Pringle, R. (2007). Sport, Males, and Masculinity. In C. Collins, & S. Jackson, Sport in Aotearoa/New Zealand Society (pp. 203-215). Auckland: Thomson.

Town, S. (1999). Queer(y)ing Masculinities in Schools: Faggots, Fairies, and the First XV. In R. Law, H. Campbell, & J. Dolan, Masculinities in Aotearoa/New Zealand (pp. 166-186). Palmerston North: Dunmore.

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