men, masculinities and gender politics

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More than just a game

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Sport plays a major part in shaping the nature of Australian men, aided and abetted by the way the media reports it. Greg Marston has the story.

Australian sport is an institution of enormous significance, particularly in relation to the construction and maintenance of gender patterns. The culture of Australian sport perpetuates ideologies which systematically oppress women and certain groups of men. This process is not always immediately obvious. For instance, the mass media 'naturalises' domination as an inevitable consequence of the male athlete's superiority, skill and strength.

The mass media's treatment of sport has contributed to idealising and institutionalising competition, domination, toughness and aggression as unquestionable and sacred masculine values. The combination of media and sport represents a powerful ideological and cultural force which deserves immediate and critical attention.

 

The literature that explores the sociological aspects of sport has often been concerned with a Marxist critique of the state and features of class. As an area of inquiry, gender and sport has been relatively neglected. Similarly, the bulk of feminist theory has focused on productive and reproductive spheres of life, indirectly treating sport as a peripheral concern. Lois Bryson, an Australian sociologist, argues that feminists who ignore sport do so at their own peril because it is only through confronting the way in which hegemonic masculinity - the dominant model of how to be a man - is constructed and reconstructed that domination can be broken. Just as the private and public spheres of life are intimately connected, so is the ideology of Australian sport and the maintenance of a capitalist patriarchal society.

The men of League

There are many examples which can be used to support this idea, but here I've chosen the print and electronic media's coverage of rugby league football to highlight how hegemonic masculinity is reproduced in media sport. Rugby League is a peak masculine sport in Australia. It is a sport where the definition of excellence is premised on strength, where there is a readiness to injure an opponent and where men have a considerable advantage over women. All of these features are heavily promoted by the mass media. For example, the willingness to an injure an opponent appears in many newspaper articles including one titled 'Lazarus burial a Raiders priority'. The article describes how an ankle injury suffered by Glen Lazarus would be "exploited" by the opposition. During the 1993 League grand final, one of the players became a "prime target" because of his broken jaw which had only recently healed. Wayne Bennett, coach of the winning team, commended a number of the players for being able to play in the grand final with the assistance of pain killing injections.

In these examples, the amount of pain a player can inflict and withstand is valued as a measure of 'manliness'. It is this process which makes football a vehicle for masculine identification. The qualities of a good Rugby League player, which include physical strength, the capacity to be violent and the ability to play in pain reflect and reinforce a culturally valued form of masculinity. Sports associated with the dominant form of 'manliness' are the most culturally valued in our society. The cultural value surrounding Rugby League is evident in the public and media hype surrounding major games such as the Grand Final and the State of Origin. When these events are taking place Rugby League often assumes national importance by consistently appearing on the front page of major Australian newspapers. Essentially, Rugby League is able to sustain such widespread cultural appeal because it embodies the central characteristics of hegemonic masculinity which are reinforced by the mass media.

Man as machine

one of the major ways in which the mass media reinforces a hegemonic ideal is through a process of the successful marketing of football players in advertisements and promotions. The construction and continuation of hegemonic masculinity in sport is also evident in the objectification of sporting stars. Whereas, the objectification of women is centrally concerned with passivity; objectification of the male sporting star is more defined by action, strength and performance. The sporting man is likened to a machine where the body is disconnected from the whole person. The body becomes something to be primed, tuned and pushed in readiness to battle. Its orders: to survive and fight. The mass media assist in defining these measures as ideal masculine values. Print media examples of this process include 'Gutsy Lions survive late charge' and 'Bulldog trio maul North's final hopes'. Continually proving oneself 'fit to play' in order to 'do battle' is a key process in the replication of hegemonic masculinity, where power, aggression and competition are predominantly viewed as natural.

The media assists in reproducing masculine values as natural by relying on conventional wisdom which implies that men are physically stronger and therefore naturally superior. One magazine advertisement displays a photograph of the prominent footballer Glen Lazarus. Above his photograph there is a caption that reads, 'Strength in performance'. Opposite this photograph is a young woman who is dressed in nothing more than a bikini. The woman is positioned in a sexually seductive stance and the caption above her photograph is 'Elegant in looks'. She is portrayed as a passive sexual object. Predicated on his ability to perform, the football star is presented as powerful in action. A dichotomy can be seen to exist between the instrumental values associated with 'manliness' and the expressive importance of 'femininity'.

One reason why masculine values assume cultural dominance is because muscles, which define action and represent strength, are equated with social power. Nature is seen as inevitable and unchangeable and women cannot generally rival muscularity. The naturalness of muscles legitimates male power and dominance.

On the sidelines

the manner in which gender divisions are represented at many sporting events, including Rugby League, is indicative of the supposedly "natural" subordination of women. At a football game women are marginalised to the sidelines where they are confined to cheering on male success. While women's participation in sport has improved considerably in recent years, Rugby League and other codes of football in Australia remain largely a 'male only' pastime. And they continue to be pastimes that offer important training grounds in the rules of male behavior. Queensland sociology lecturer Jim McKay notes that the most insulting accusation a coach can make about a player's inferior performance is to say that he "played like a sheila" or a "poofter".

Moreover, with such social importance placed on sport there is probably nothing more humiliating in a boy's development than repeatedly being the last one chosen in school sports. Exclusion of this kind, coupled with feelings of inferiority, is a powerful and personal statement for young men struggling with their sense of masculinity. Sport and the mass media's representation of sport fulfills a central role in the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity. Australian sport is a relatively intact bastion of patriarchy. It is an institution that contains powerful messages and meanings about an oppressive form of masculinity which is reinforced through the uncritical assistance of the mass media. If the cultural value attached to masculine sports is not openly challenged then existing forms of subordination, domination and violence will continue to be viewed as 'natural' and therefore unchangeable.

 

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(3), Spring 1995. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995