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Understanding 'the National Sport for New Zealand Women': A Socio-Spatial Analysis of Netball

Since the early 20th century, netball has been heralded ‘the national sport for New Zealand women’ and it continues to represent one of the few team sport environments not characterized by the interests and participation of men. Created by and for women, netball promotes and preserves a sense of women-onlyness. There is, however, a link between netball and femininity that has gone largely unexplored among contemporary studies of sport. This research focuses on the social production of netball space and the ongoing and complex relationship between netball and heteronormative femininity in New Zealand. Drawing upon interviews with 16 recreational players and ethnographic fieldwork conducted over two years, I examine how women experience, negotiate and challenge notions of gender, sexuality, corporeality and subjectivity in spaces of netball. Adopting a poststructural feminist interpretation of Henri Lefebvre’s spatial theory, I demonstrate how the relationship between women’s sporting bodies, space and social relations is mutually constituted. In this thesis, I explain spaces of netball as reproducing and celebrating particular gendered and sexualized identities and thus, prioritizing a relatively narrow but culturally valued heteronormative feminine athletic ideal. Whilst some women enjoy and are empowered by the social conditions of this sport, the power relations operating on and through netball spaces can also work to subordinate and exclude alternative or ‘other’ femininities and bodies. Yet, as my research reveals, netball also offers opportunities for resistance as some netballers engage in oppositional politics and/or use this space to disrupt normative discourse. This is particularly evident in the ways some players resist the involvement of men, how mothers use netball space to obtain momentary reprieve from the expectations of motherhood, and how pregnant, ‘fat’ and older bodies challenge the discursive construction of the contemporary (feminine) athletic ideal via their participation in this sport. To this end, this research not only demonstrates the social geography of netball in the everyday lives of New Zealand women, but also the potential of theoretical syntheses between Lefebvre and feminism for offering productive new ways to think about the interrelationships between active bodies, identities, space, power and resistance in sport and female physical culture. 
Type of thesis
Marfell, A. E. (2016). Understanding ‘the National Sport for New Zealand Women’: A Socio-Spatial Analysis of Netball (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/9935
University of Waikato
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