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Doing the damage? An examination of masculinities and men's rugby experiences of pain, fear and pleasure

Rugby union's prominent and historic link with males, within Aotearoa/New Zealand, has helped constitute it as a key signifier of masculinity. Feminist-inspired research suggests, however, that heavy-contact sports, like rugby, help (re)produce a problematic form of masculinity that marginalises other masculinities, contributes to health problems and facilitates male privilege in society. Despite these points of view, there have been relatively few empirical examinations of relationships between sport, pain and masculinities. This thesis provided such an examination. The prime research question, that underpinned this study, was: "How do men's rugby experiences of fear, pain and/or pleasure articulate with discourses of masculinities?" The research approach used to examine this question was based on semi-structured interviews with a purposeful sample of fourteen men, and differed from previous such research in three key ways. Firstly, I interviewed men with abroad range of rugby experiences and did not specifically examine the experiences of elite sportsmen. Secondly, I analysed the men's rugby experiences of pain and injury, as well as their emotional experiences of fear and pleasure. Thirdly, I used Foucauldian theory to analyse the men's interview accounts rather than drawing on the Gramscian inspired concept of masculine hegemony. The results suggested that rugby was typically linked to dominating discourses of masculinities, through promoting belief that males should be tough, relatively unemotional, tolerant of pain, competitive and, at times, aggressive. This linkage was particularly influential during the men's school years. At this time, rugby acted as a normalising practice for males, a dividing practice between males and females, and as a producer of pleasure, but also, at times, tension, fear and pain. Rugby's pervasive influence provided a discursive space within which the men negotiated understandings of masculinities and self. However, these negotiations did not result in the simple affirmation and reproduction of dominating discourses of masculinity. In contrast, these negotiation processes were often undertaken with varying degrees of tension. The dominance of rugby in the men's schools, for example, resulted in many of the men experiencing tensions between fears of pain, skill limitations and the knowledge that participation in rugby was normal, and expected, for all males. These tensions encouraged many of these men to quit participation in rugby at a young age and for some, when older, to develop resistant readings of rugby and masculinities. These resistant readings positioned rugby players as uncritical thinkers, weak in character and foolish for risking injury. Yet, the men's relationships with rugby were not only complex and divergent but also, at times, paradoxical: many of the men performed an inconsistent range of practices in relation to rugby that simultaneously disturbed and supported dominating discourses of masculinities. Despite nearly all of the interview participants expressing some concerns about aspects of rugby with respect to violence, risk of injury and/or its links to masculinities, the men reported that they rarely disclosed their concerns in public. The dominating discourses of rugby, that positioned rugby as 'our national sport' and as a 'man's game', made it a formidable task to publicly critique rugby. The technologies of domination associated with rugby and masculinities still exerted considerable influence over the adult men. However, many of the men, including some who had been passionate adult rugby players, did exercise power against rugby and dominant masculinities. This resistance was exercised primarily through discouraging others, typically their sons, from playing rugby. Although not revolutionary, this micro-level form of resistance, if repeated on a grander scale, would contribute a challenge to rugby's state of dominance. The dominance of rugby provided a discursive space that produced, challenged and resisted dominating discourses of masculinities. My research findings, therefore, support the recognition that sport does not consistently or unambiguously produce culturally dominant conceptions of masculinities. In contrast to researchers who have examined institutionalised heavy-contact team sports through a lens filtered by hegemony theory, my results question the extent to which sports like rugby can be primarily regarded as producers of dominant and problematic masculinities. Although this finding could be regarded as a more optimistic reading of sport/masculinity relationships, my results reveal that concern about rugby's dominant social position within Aotearoa/New Zealand is still warranted.
Type of thesis
Pringle, R. (2003). Doing the damage? An examination of masculinities and men’s rugby experiences of pain, fear and pleasure (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13244
The University of Waikato
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