Prepare to re-think on sporting men, masculinity and heterosexuality

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Marie Larneby
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Eric Andersson 21st Century Jocks: Sporting Men and Contemporary Heterosexuality 241 sidor, inb. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2014 ISBN 978-1-137-37963-4

Eric Andersson
21st Century Jocks: Sporting Men and Contemporary Heterosexuality
241 sidor, inb.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2014
ISBN 978-1-137-37963-4

Sociologist and Professor of Sport Studies, Eric Anderson has made an important and eye-opening contribution to research on sport, masculinity and sexuality. 21st Century Jocks: Sporting Men and Contemporary Heterosexuality is based on findings from his wide range of ethnographic studies conducted since 2000. Hundreds of young males, primarily athletes, are involved in the various studies through interviews, ethnographies and surveys. With this compilation, the objective of 21st Century Jocks is to challenge and change the popular conception of what it means to be a jock, and to argue how and why jocks’ heterosexual masculinities have grown softer and more inclusive.

This complex and multifaceted topic is made available by the clever composition of the book, but can hardly be covered fairly in one review. Therefore, I have selected key discussions and recommend you to read 21st Century Jocks as soon as possible. Get ready to reflect and re-think on gender, masculinity and sport!

An ethnographic approach

Anderson’s experiences as a teenaged closeted gay male athlete, and later openly gay university coach bring, in my opinion, credibility to his treatment of the topic. It strengthens the ethnographic approach and highlights the importance of the researcher’s role and ability to reflect. However, critics may indicate bias, as participants’ narratives may not be totally reliable considering the complex and quite personal nature of the topic. Yet, Anderson argues that bias can’t be the case throughout a decade of research, with hundreds of participants independently communicating a consensus rather than expressing contradictions. This self-reflexivity prompts me to further reflect upon researchers’ role in collecting participants’ experiences and attitudes.

21st Century Jocks represents a somewhat narrow target group of males, mostly athletes, aged 16-23. Data is collected in college and university contexts, primarily in the US and the UK. Anderson claims that “there is simply not enough data to make generalizations beyond this age-group” (p. 20). Nevertheless, and to bear in mind, other scholars have shown notions of inclusive masculinities in older men. Each chapter is based on various studies and the methodology is well described, showing the range of various participants’ age, sexuality, identity and different sporting contexts.

The Jock

In the chapter Birth of the Jock, the 20th century jock is defined as a male athlete, adhering to a conservative heteromasculinity with attributes such as self-centered, arrogant, muscular, athletic and generally popular with girls – in other words, a classic stereotype. The term jock is often associated to the interrelated context of education and competitive sports in high school, college and university.

Anderson problematizes the jock in Western culture. First, he unravels the, by society, unquestioned function of the jock’s sporting capital as regards political, societal and cultural values and its powerful (re)production of homophobia and heteromasculinity during the 1900s. Then he discusses a shift in this function. Anderson argues on the basis of his studies his studies that during the 2000s jocks actively and progressively contribute to the erosion of homophobia rather than enhancing it, by including gay teammates and changing the traditional homophobic language.

New-thinking or just provoking?

The arguments for this change are particularly interesting in order to understand the similarities and differences between the 20th and 21st century jock, and the consequences on masculinity in general in Western cultures. I am quite sure that these innovative findings can be somewhat provoking for some, and they will probably be criticized. The arguments may be that male athletes still preserve competitive sports as an arena for men’s homosocial heteromasculine behavior. However, Anderson doesn’t suggest that all jocks promote change. Heteromasculinity still exist parallel to other masculinities. But a cultural shift is in progress and (some) jocks lead this shift towards a softer and more inclusive context, not for sporting men only, but for all men.

Who, then, are these men turning the sporting world we know through research and sports media upside down?

Generation X and iGeneration

To comprehend how jocks’ traditional masculinity could change from an orthodox heteromasculinity to a softer, inclusive masculinity, Anderson presents generation as a significant concept in the analysis. An individual’s formative years during adolescence influence his perspective on the world, which leads to, for instance, the adoption and reproduction of gendered norms. We get a depiction of differences and similarities of two generations in the US and UK. Generation X, born approximately between the 1960s and 1980s, grew up in a cultural and political context that was highly homophobic. Competitive sports was a vehicle for producing and retaining an expected heteromasculinity, a phenomenon with its origin in industrialization. As a contrast, the iGeneration (“i” referring to the use of iPhones, iPads and social media), born after 1990, grew and grow up in a more tolerant and less homophobic climate. They contribute to a restructuring of gendered structure in, at least, Western cultures.

Homophobia, homohysteria and masculinities

Homophobia and homohysteria are other important concepts in relation to generation and gendered norms. Homophobia is defined as the “culturally produced fear of/prejudice towards homosexuals”, and homohysteria as “one’s fear of being thought homosexual through the ‘wrongdoing’ of cultural gendered norms” (p. 40-41). A high degree of homohysteria in society results in homophobia and restricts heterosexual men’s gendered behavior. According to Anderson, the function of homophobia and homohysteria is to guarantee that men do not cross the sharp line between heterosexual (masculine) and homosexual (feminine) behavior. Consequently, jocks’ supposed heteromasculinity ensure/d them not to be homosexual, since homophobia excluded gay athletes some decades ago. As homohysteria decreases so does homophobia. Today, in most Western cultures, the line between sexualities are more blurred and traditional feminine attributes, such as tight jeans, pink shirts and showing affections for one another, are more accessible for jocks – and all sporting men.

Affection between men

Anderson explains that it is more complex than suggesting that generation X is homophobic and that iGeneration is not. Recurrent examples show how different generations overlap and influence each other. The men of generation X, straight as well as gay, have suffered under a homophobic culture that has praised – and to some extent still praise – an orthodox heteromasculinity, trying to include restricted gendered norms. However, iGeneration is obviously not free of homophobia either.

One may then ask what impact 21st Century Jocks actually may have, with its narrow target group. Importantly, no matter how critical a reader is, the obvious tendency that members of iGeneration are much less homophobic, accepting sexual “minorities” and behaviors that once was categorized homosexual can’t be denied. I urge you to read the part on “21st century jocks and intimacy” with its narratives of same-sex activities such as kissing, cuddling and spooning other men, and you’ll know what I refer to. Today, these actions aren’t labelled homosexual among the participants, as they probably would be within generation X. They are signs of affection between male friends. Anderson argues that the 21st century jock, in this regard, is ahead of his non-athletic peers.

From heteromasculinity to inclusive masculinity

According to Anderson, the dispersion of inclusive and softer masculinities has its origin in the sporting world. This is due to jocks’ status achieved through their cultural and social capital that is still highly valued in Western cultures. Thus, if sporting men can be less heteromasculine, more inclusive and still keep their status and not be accused of homosexual/feminine behavior, like David Beckham, then other men can as well. Consequently, from being a preserver of the heteromasculine ideal with for example homophobic discourse as an instrument, the contemporary college/university jock in the US and UK is gradually eroding this ideal. Based on his findings, Anderson has developed the theory of inclusive masculinity[1], to better explain the contemporary changing nature of masculinities (read it!).

A cultural shift –for whom?

I enjoy reading 21st Century Jocks and get inspired by it. Although it focuses sporting men and masculinity, I wonder if – and how – this cultural shift also affects sporting women and notions of femininity. Have women any part in this shift? Anderson mentions that, since “men still maintain strong patriarchal privilege in Western cultures” (p. 221), it is relevant to study men’s interactions. And it is. Anderson emphasize that men, just as women, are “victimized under orthodox notions of masculinity” (p. 221). Anderson has found various ways to express inclusive attitudes: a) men are inclusive towards other men, women, masculinities, and femininities alike, or b) men can be inclusive towards other men and masculinities, and still subordinate women.

However, my reflection regarding the second mode of expressing inclusive masculinity prompts the question how inclusive masculinity helps women if they still are subordinated? What if inclusive masculinity among men only changes the internal structures of patriarchy – deconstructing the hierarchy between men – and not the power of it exerted on women?

Important reading

What kind of sporting context do we want to provide the next generation with? Hopefully, 21st Century Jocks will be read outside academia, by elite level coaches, sport managers, PE teachers and sports media, prompting new ways to reflect upon and discuss sporting men, masculinity and sexualities.

In summary, the way I interpret Anderson, the message is that when the perceptions and actions of heteromasculinity change, so will the attitudes of men towards other men and women. This will benefit male as well as female athletes, but only if the world of sports, instead of holding on to outdated norms and traditions, have the guts to look forward and take the leap. I believe that more individuals will follow than will actively leave sports.

Copyright © Marie Larneby 2014


[1] Anderson, Eric (2009). Inclusive masculinity. The changing nature of masculinities. Routledge

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