“Why can’t girls play football?” Gender dynamics and the
This paper focuses on the involvement of boys and girls in playground football. It is
based on research conducted with 10 to 11 year old pupils at two state primary
schools in London. Boys and girls were found to draw on gender constructs that
impacted variously on their involvement in playground football. The performance
of masculinity through football translated into heavy investments for many boys
who took any opportunity to prove both their knowledge and expertise in the
sport. This investment rested on the derision and exclusion both of non-
footballing boys and of girls. Associations between humility, restraint, niceness
and femininity also had a negative impact on girls’ involvement in the sport.
Prohibitions around desire and determination proved especially damaging to girls’
attempts at ownership and assertiveness within the game. This was compounded
by boys’ co-optation of football as ‘inherently masculine.’ Girls’ resistance
strategies to male domination of the football pitch tended to focus on disruption
and rarely resulted in equal participation. This was due to opposition from
powerful boys as well as entrenched gendered zones of play that granted boys
automatic rights to football and girls only marginal tenancy.
“Why can’t girls play football?” Gender dynamics and the
Despite women’s growing participation and the mass appeal of the sport, football
continues to be an overwhelmingly masculine pursuit at both national and local levels
in England and across Europe (Scraton, Fasting, Pfister, & Bunuel Heras, 1999).
Amid concerns about girls’ physical activity levels, the issue of girls’ near absence in
football and other male-dominated sports is a matter both of interest and importance.
At the level of rhetoric, girls’ participation in football is tolerated and even
encouraged, but, in practice, there remain constraints that hinder their involvement in
A growing body of literature has considered the experiences of women in
sport, with particular attention to the opposition between dominant concepts of
femininity and athletic competence (M. George, 2005; Roth & Basow, 2004). Scraton
et al. (1999) found that for female top- level European footballers, embracing football
meant opposing or rejecting their femininity at some point. Much of this work
focuses on the experiences of elite, adult women; further research is required on the
gender negotiations of young girls considering or already involved in football or other
male dominated sports.
In this paper we consider some of the experiences and local contexts of girls’
participation in football in playgrounds at two London primary schools. Past research
has highlighted the playground as a key site of gender negotiation and interaction,
with particular attention to football’s domination of space (Epstein et al., 2001;
Renold, 2004; Thorne, 1993). Specifically, we will explore the ways in which
localised understandings of what it means to be a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’ (Paechter, 2003a)
impact upon involvement. At the micro-cultural level of playground football,
gendered expectations about play and the use of the body serve actively to discourage
girls whilst consolidating male dominance in the game. Yet girls still venture onto the
football pitch and resist male control with varying degrees of success.
Girls and physical education
Girls and women have long been excluded from sport and physical activity due to
perceptions of their inherent weakness and fragility. It is only in the last century that
female participation in physical activities has begun to gain acceptance and
encouragement. Despite this growing involvement, many barriers remain in place for
girls and women wishing to be physically active. Gendered forms of bodily
expression continue to be reinforced through physical education classes and curricula
that separately teach traditionally masculine or feminine activities to boys and girls
(Paechter, 2003b). Even for those girls who break through social conventions to
embrace typically male dominated sports, difficulties remain. Many athletic women
experience a problematic disjunction between sport and femininity, in part because
those characteristics required for sport, such as aggression, strength and
determination, tend to contradict dominant notions of femininity (Paechter 2003b).
Despite efforts to include girls in sports, it has been argued that the ‘ideology of
femininity’ has prevented girls’ participation from leading to the type of liberation
that we can and should expect (Roth & Basow, 2004). This ‘ideology of femininity’
is not homogeneous and may vary according to race, class and ethnicity (Lovell,
Analyses of women in sport have begun to describe the process of
‘embodiment’ connecting physical activity, contemporary culture and corporeal
experience (Garrett, 2004). It has been suggested that sports can be both liberating
and oppressive for women and girls. Garrett (2004), for example, explores how
bodily experience and the embodiment of a physical identity interact for Australian
young women in categories she defines as ‘good body,’ ‘bad body,’ and ‘different
body’. Dominant discourses concerning the nature of masculinity and femininity
have profound affects on how males and females are able to enact and perform their
embodiment (Paechter, 2006). We will later expand on the concept of embodiment to
understand how bodily conviction and desire are somatized during football interaction
on the playground.
The Tomboy Identities study
This paper arises from research conducted as part of an investigation into tomboy
identities among 9-11 year old girls, based at two primary schools in Londoni. The
purpose of the study was to gain insights into how girls are able to construct and
maintain tomboy identities in school contexts. We hoped, as a result, to elucidate how
girls can be supported in continuing with physical activity through puberty and into
adolescence. The study followed on class in each school from the summer term of
Year 5 to the end of the autumn term in Year 6ii. Our research methods were largely
ethnographic. Sheryl spent an average of two days a week in each school throughout
the fieldwork period, observing children’s interactions in the classroom, the
playground and at after-school activities, and conducting interviews with the children,
relevant staff, and some parents.
The first school, Benjamin Laurence, is a one- form entry primary school
located in inner London.iii The catchment area is both working class and ethnically
diverse, with two-thirds of the students having English as their second language
(Office for Standards in Education, 2000a).iv The school has a sizeable Turkish
population and many of the Muslim girls wear both headscarves and trousers to
school. Skirts are rare among all girls. Because the school is located in a busy urban
setting, the playground is relatively small and covered almost entirely in concrete.
Approximately half the playground is devoted to football, with two main football
pitches taking up an entire section. The two pitches are reserved for the Year 5 and 6
children at lunch and at playtime. Between 20 and 30 percent of the players are girls.
Alternatives to football include a ball bouncing game, dominated by girls, called
‘champ’ (known elsewhere as foursquare), and the use of some playground
equipment. Football is not permitted on Thursdays and children seek out alternatives
such as cricket and tennis. The school has a boys’ and a girls’ football team that play
against other schools in the area. An aide at the school coaches the children and
The second school, Holly Bank, is located on the outskirts of London proper
in a prosperous, leafy, suburb. It is a large, three form entry school that is provided
with ample resources due to the support and extensive fundraising efforts of the
relatively affluent parents. The children come from primarily middle class
backgrounds, and ethnic difference is played down within the school. In the first
fieldwork term, the school’s uniform did not permit girls to wear trousers. The
playground is extensive and includes a concrete playing area with basketball courts, a
large field surrounded by woodland and a wide range of equipment, such as
parachutes and pogo sticks. A considerable proportion of the vast space available is
taken up by several ongoing games of football, which often spill out of their
designated areas. These games are highly crowded yet unmonitored and sponge balls
have replaced hard plastic balls due to injuries. Approximately 5 to 10 per cent of the
players are girls. There are two football teams and although girls tried out for these,
none was selected.
The different football policy at each school has meant that Benjamin Laurence
has had much more success in integrating girls onto the pitch. A few of these girls
have achieved a high level of skill, giving them status and respect as footballers in the
school. Yet most girls remain marginal to the game at both schools and do not
achieve the level of skill that many boys have been able to attain.
Masculinity and football
Stemming from Connell’s (1995) work on masculinities, other studies have
considered the role that football plays in constructing masculinity, in effect excluding
girls and marginalizing non-footballing boys (Renold, 1997; Skelton, 1997; Swain,
2000). Although football continues to be viewed as a masculine pursuit, women’s
football participation has been steadily growing. The Football Association (2005)
reports that with 130 000 women and girls playing in leagues or cups, football has
overtaken netball as the most popular sport for women in England. A ‘footballer’ is
perceived as a kind of iconic male (Cashmore & Parker, 2003), and masculinity is
often performed through football. This is true of boys as much as of adult males.
Swain (2000) explains how football provided a dominant site for performing
hegemonic masculinity by a group of Year 6 boys who maintained this status through
the marginalizing and feminising of other boys as well as by excluding girls.
Similarly, Nespor (1997) found that many boys discouraged girls’ participation in
(American) football and diminished their skills in order to maintain naturalised
masculine connections to the sport. The ideological link between masculinity and
football is therefore upheld at girls’ expense. In the schools in our study, girls
sometimes hide their interest in football in order to fit in with local concepts of
femininity. Nirvanav from Holly Bank admitted, ‘I actually like doing football; it’s
just that no-one knows it.’ The girls often revealed in interviews that they played
football with cousins or friends near their homes, but never or rarely in the
playground, which was dominated by boys.
At both schools in the study, the links between masculinity and football were
continually reinvested with meaning and substance by students and staff alike. For
example, by calling only on boys to answer a question on football or by qualifying
girls’ displays of football knowledge (for example, through publicly noting that it
came from a girl) staff can continue to reinforce this taken for granted connection. At
a Benjamin Laurence away game, the coach took time out from a pep talk for the girls
to call out to a group of boys on another team whom he knew from coaching. He
shouted ‘Aw, you’re easy. Our girls could take you!’ This comment served not only
symbolically to transfer his allegiance but to undermine the girls’ abilities, as the
joking epitome of poor play. At the same time, influential adults may challenge
gender stereotypes. The intervention of the male Year 5 teacher at Benjamin Laurence
provided the girls with special playing time, facilitating their participation in mixed
The association of masculinity and football is so strong that skilled female
footballers at Benjamin Laurence were said to be able to play ‘like a boy.’ Boys also
invest their identities in football through clothing and drawings, which are often
football related. When a girl at Holly Bank wore a pink Chelsea hat in PE, Titanic (a
boy) remarked, ‘Don’t Mia look stupid in that hat?’ The effect of this continual
reinvestment is to make the girls aware of their unwelcome and awkward position as
footballers or even football fans. This in turn compounds the girls’ difficulties in
asserting themselves on the pitch, negatively affecting their involvement in the game.
The ideological connection between masculinity and football is sometimes backed by
harassment and the threat of violence, which discourages girls’ participation. At
Benjamin Laurence, low-level violence in the game was sometimes sanctioned by the
coach as being’ within FIFA rules’, despite resulting injuries. Girls often cite
‘roughness’ as a reason for their withdrawal or unwillingness to join a football game.
A group of girls at Holly Bank explained, ‘What’s bad about playing with boys is that
they trip you and they won’t pass to you, only to their friends 'cause they think you’re
really bad.’ Stating that the girls are ‘rubbish’ is a common male device at both
schools for boosting one’s own esteem, and is endemic to any discussion around girls
and football. In line one day, Brina (at Benjamin Laurence) mentioned to Sheryl that
she was being allowed to play on pitch one, which is usually reserved for top players.
Inserting himself into the conversation, the boy beside them answered, ‘the players in
pitch one are really better than you, even though they're crap’ at which Brina turned
and rolled her eyes at Sheryl knowingly.
This deriding of girls’ skills sometimes descends into the threat of violence.
After a particularly heated Year 5 football game at Benjamin Laurence, Donaldinho, a
dominant boy, complained that ‘The girls are always tripping me; that’s a foul. Next
time I’m gonna kick them and I don’t care if they cry.’ Donaldinho in no way seemed
to view the girls’ actions as unintentional or as a result of inexperience, suggesting
instead that the girls were jealous of his football skills. ‘I just run past them and they
can’t take it’ he insisted. What was particularly telling in this instance was that
Adriano, a non-hegemonic boy who had been brought to tears several times by
Donaldinho’s jibes at his football skills, saw this as a chance to align himself with
Donaldinho and joined in this criticism of ‘the girls.’
What these interactions reveal is not only male dominance in football, but the
hierarchical pecking order that football can establish on school playgrounds.
Hegemonic boys, such as Donaldinho at Benjamin Laurence or Humphrey at Holly
Bank, are in fact more likely to criticise other boys for their performances, reinforcing
their dominance through undermining these boys’ abilities. Marginal boys like
Adriano or Titanic then in turn criticise girls (especially marginal girls) as a means of
boosting their esteem and status.
Permission to play
By investing so much of their effort and identity in football, boys effectively assume
ownership of the game. Although football is ostensibly ‘open to all,’ overt norms and
even open discouragement often prevent girls from joining in. Studies of playground
settings have found consistently upheld gendered zones of play that prevent children
from joining in cross-gender games without some sort of intervention (Thorne, 1993;
McGuffey & Rich, 1999). The invisibility of gender zone boundaries sometimes
makes it difficult for boys or even adults to understand why more girls don’t play
football and reasoning descends into the apology that girls ‘simply don’t want to.’ In
this interview with a group of Year 5 boys at Holly Bank, they seem perplexed as to
the absence of girls in the school’s football games after an admiring assessment of the
England women’s football team.
Owen: But girls can play football if they want. Why can’t
they play football?
Dave: Why can’t they play if they want to? It’s fair.
Hedgehog: They can!
Glazer: If they want to they should, and some girls they wanna
play football but they think, ‘Oh no, it’s [for] the
Although the presence of (mostly) boys on the pitch is relevant to girls’
reluctance to play, what seems a much larger issue is that the pitch, and perhaps the
game itself, belongs to boys. Boys make their presence and authority known both off
and on the pitch, where they dominate the play as well as monitor the rules. The issue
of permission was particularly well demonstrated on a day at Benjamin Laurence
when a Year 6 fieldtrip allowed the Year 4s to move onto pitch two. Eager to enter
the much-coveted spot, a group of Year 4 boys rushed onto the pitch at playtime,
quickly establishing their own teams and rules. When a few Year 4 girls came on,
they were made unwelcome by boys calling out random rules such as ‘handball’
without explanation (or even just cause) and by actively telling the girls they should
not be there. This was not just a matter of differential assertiveness, since this same
group of girls normally plays champ, a competitive playground game that frequently
erupts into fights and arguments invoking authority and intimidation. Now this same
sense of authority had been taken up by the boys through an invisible set of norms
around football and masculinity that allowed them to command control almost
The notion of ownership and permission is so well established that the girls
themselves seem to have internalised it, seeking permission where boys had simply
assumed they could play. On that same day, a Year 4 girl spent ten minutes
attempting to get the coach’s attention so that she could join the boys on the pitch,
calling 'Can I play? Can I play?' to a distracted coach who was busy scolding boys.
Despite Sheryl’s urging (and the head’s permission in assembly), Selena explained
that she didn’t think she could just join in, because she had arrived late. She almost
gave up before finally gaining permission, but left the pitch about ten minutes later,
telling Sheryl that she was not being passed to, and a boy had told her she could not
play. Selena’s need to seek permission seemed poignant both because it was ignored
and because it contrasted with the assumed rightful belonging that the boys held about
the football pitch. Ownership often extended beyond the pitch and footballing boys
were observed bowling over other children whilst chasing after balls that had rolled
into supposedly ‘neutral’ space. Selena’s request was not simply born of insecurity or
lack of knowledge, but of an ingrained understanding of the gender hierarchy on the
playground that granted dominant boys automatic rights to the football pitch and girls
only marginal tenancy.
We are particularly interested in the way that the complex relationship between
femininity, desire and bodily conviction creates barriers for girls’ involvement in
football. The concept of permission extended beyond one’s presence on the pitch into
girls’ embodied experiences of playing that prevented their full participation. It was
at this point that the notion of ‘I can’t’ transformed from ‘I’m not allowed to’ into
‘I’m not able to.’ The concept of embodiment is explained by Bourdieu as a habit of
being in the world, tied to our socio-political subjectivity (Shilling, 2004). Bourdieu
(2001: 27) argues that
femininity is imposed for the most part through an unremitting
discipline that concerns every part of the body and is continuously
recalled through the constraints of clothing or hairstyle. The
antagonistic principles of male and female identity are thus laid
down in the form of permanent stances, gaits and postures which
are the realization, or rather, the naturalization of an ethic.
This suggests that women’s participation in sport is highly influenced by social
constraints on posture and movement. In considering space and movement, Young
(2005) uses a gendered analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s work on the body and its
environment to understand what it means to ‘throw like a girl’. Young argues that ‘to
be’ in the world is both an experiential and an ideological state relating to one’s social
positioning and that women’s never fully achieved ‘personhood’ in a patriarchal
society prevents them from ‘acting upon’ the world:
Insofar as we learn to live out our existence in accordance with the
definition that patriarchal culture assigns to us, we are physically
inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified. As lived bodies we
are not open and unambiguous transcendences that move out to
master a world that belongs to us, a world constituted by our own
intentions and projections (Young 2005: 42-43).
When participating in football, the girls in our study tended to cluster together
in defensive positions; it was not uncommon to see a game made up entirely of boys
with a girl in each net. This pattern was found even when there were no boys playing;
in an all-girls match we observed a marked reluctance, among girls in both teams, to
move up the pitch. In contrast, most of the boys played up front, attacking the ball
and involving themselves in the crux of the action. When a ball did travel back to one
of the girls, she was quick to kick it away without much attention to its direction or
recipient. Often a girl would move up the pitch only to watch the boys scrambling
after the ball, while herself holding back. On one occasion when Jennifer managed to
kick the ball out from under Billy’s foot, he shouted ‘don’t touch me!’ quite unfairly.
When their teacher, Tim Mansfield, played with the girls he would call out
encouragements such as ‘move up,’ and ‘get in there,’ but this was easier said than
done. When girls did make contact with the ball they were often met with responses
that either derided their skills or questioned their right to touch the ball. The girls’
reluctance to do so seemed to result both from messages from the boys that girls do
not belong on the pitch, and from their own inhibitions about desire and conviction
that relate to dominant concepts of feminine behaviour and expectations.
Part of the difficulty in comparing boys and girls’ participation in football is
the disparity in experience. Even boys from as early as the Reception class were
observed kicking the ball around and many of the footballing boys played at lunch
and playtime every day, in addition to after school and on weekends with outside
teams. Our argument, however, is that girls’ withdrawals from and difficulties in the
game are part of wider gender patterns and cannot simply be attributed to
inexperience. Therefore examples outside of football may be useful. Excerpts from
Sheryl’s fieldnotes describe the Benjamin Laurence children’s experiences of playing
tag rugby, a relatively new sport to them.
As part of a council-wide initiative to encourage sports
participation, an outside coach is brought in to teach the Year 5
children rugby. This is a sport that neither the boys nor the girls
have really played before and everyone seems to be on the same
learning curve. The primary premise that the coach seeks to get
across is to run when you get the ball and pass backwards. The
girls especially have trouble with this and want to pass as soon as
they get the ball, but there’s no one to pass to and they end up
throwing it ahead or just wherever. It seems not to be instinctive
for them to hold onto the ball and run with it. Some of the boys
find this easier and are happy to hog the ball and sprint past the
This pattern was observed at both schools. Even girls who had previously been taught
how to play remained reluctant to keep the ball. The girls’ difficulties in holding onto
the ball seem to go beyond skill to gendered expectations about ownership and desire,
since holding onto the ball requires a self-possessed belief in one’s right to the ball,
and a desire to take it. The problematic positioning of women as objects of desire
through dominant ideology has created a complex relationship between femininity
and desire (Tolman, 2002). This positioning has often thwarted women’s right to be
desirous and to take possession. This is especially problematic in football, where
dribbling with the ball, aiming shots on net and moving towards the ball are crucial.
Girls’ difficulties in fully inserting themselves into the play appear to be a result of
both factors. First girls are told bluntly that they should not be there. However, they
also seem to be afraid of desiring the ball. This causes them to hold back, withdraw
and pass the ball off as quickly as possible. Such inhibitions should not be seen as
unnecessary or unfounded but instead as the consequences of defying gendered
‘Taking it too seriously’: gender censorship and emotional intensity
For ten and eleven year old girls soon to enter adolescence, behaviour and gender
expectations are highly monitored and peer acceptance is of utmost importance
(George & Browne, 2000; Hey, 1997). Subtle gestures and not so subtle suggestions
around gender performance can make girls hyperaware of their bodies and the
messages they put forth, especially during physical activity.
While the majority of girls seemed to ‘hold something back’ during physical
activity, at times girls were able to commit themselves to moments of intensity and
dedication. Intensity, however, was often met with censorship from peers, confirming
ideological connections between restraint and femininity. This was especially
apparent at Holly Bank, where middle class expectations often came to the fore, but
censorship was certainly not unknown at Benjamin Laurence. At Holly Bank, a
discussion around the fastest runners in the year revealed some underlying
assumptions about gender and determination. At lunch several girls from class are
discussing the upcoming athletics trials. They all agree that Evelyn is ‘really fast’
but ‘a bit scary when she runs.’ (field notes). Admonitions such as this subtly define
gendered behavioural expectations, hinting at the ‘scariness’ of feminine desire and
intensity. At a rugby tournament involving Benjamin Laurence, Deniz (a girl)
complained that the boys had called her ‘vicious’ when she tried to get involved in an
informal game of ‘keep the ball’. Discursive constructions of feminine restraint are
often embodied at the level of action where such unconsciously accepted admonitions
hold the body back from fully engaging with the ball or tackle. These admonitions
came from boys but actions and intentions were also highly monitored by girls
themselves. Part of the severity with which such transgressions are met seems to rest
in a distinction between boys’ seriousness about sport and girls’ whimsical, ‘fun’
approach. The girls often mocked the boys’ conviction and dedication to sport,
especially when such attitudes descended into ‘moany strops’ and crying. This
mocking usually took place behind boys’ backs and served both as a form of bonding
between girls and as a repudiation of the boys’ intensity. It also discouraged girls
from themselves taking sports ‘too seriously’ and engaging in the same ‘problematic’
behaviour as boys. For example, Gabrielle at Holly Bank reported, ‘Sports is all right
for me, but sometimes the boys just take it too seriously.’ A group of girls at
Benjamin Laurence were similarly concerned about attitudes towards football on their
Sheryl: What do you think, Apple? How do you find football?
Apple: It’s good but I don’t like playing with the boys, ’cause
they like, they take football real, like it’s a real one.
Asma: Mmm, I know. I only like playing with my cousins.
[Others confirm they prefer playing with relatives].
Sheryl: Oh. What do you mean that the boys take it so real?
Apple: Like they take it like it’s real football they, like, when
you’re just about to do a run and then when the
goalkeeper saves it, then…
Asma: [The boys say] “Oh man, what are you doing?”
Apple: Then they get into fights.
Shanda: Then the teacher takes the ball away. And they can't
play, then they moan more.
Sheryl: So do you wish that they took it less seriously?
Asma: Yeah. Or none. It's just a game. The real footballers
don't even do that.
‘It’s just a game’ was a phrase the girls consistently used to distance
themselves from male intensity on the pitch. Their comments allude to an underlying
knowledge that for many boys, football is much more than ‘just a game.’ While girls
often advocate fair play and fun, those girls who do take football (or sports in general)
seriously are often subject to condemnation and harassment. This event from Sheryl’s
fieldnotes took place at an offsite football tournament in which the Benjamin
Laurence children participated.
During an off game, we watch the other teams play. A black girl on
the other team draws the attention of the children for her
androgynous appearance, which is further complicated by her
impressive football skills. She is confident on the ball, skilled with
her feet and assertive in her role on the pitch, actions that seem to
be interpreted as masculine. Virginia loudly cries, ‘That’s a girl!’
in a mocking tone and the others join in in their supposed
Perhaps surprisingly in this instance, it was another active girl who called out
this gender intervention. Virginia herself was a skilled football player, also black, who
was often mistaken for a boy by children and adults alike, and was pointed out to us
as an obvious tomboy by the staff when we first started working in the school.
Virginia did not approve of these designations and was highly resistant to the tomboy
label. Perhaps her explicit gender outing of the other girl arose out of a need to
identify the ‘other’ as unlike herself. At Holly Bank, girls who played football were
also accused of being ‘tarts’ and of doing so only to seek male attention. Thus, for a
girl, playing football could call both her gender and sexual reputation into question,
and she could be accused either of ‘being a boy’ or of seeking male attention.
Distinctions between tart and non-tart can be used as a form of social control
amongst primary school girls in relation to ‘proper’ demonstrations of femininity
(Renold, 2005). Girls who play football seem to be particularly subject to sexual
labelling since their behaviour is perceived as inappropriate or threatening to the
gender order. This concurs with findings on the gender ‘deviations’ of women in sport
who are accused of being lesbians or non-women (Dewar, 1990; Griffin, 1992;
Sparkes, 1994). Those girls who did play football were thus caught between two
problematic positions. They were either stigmatised as lacking in full heterosexual
femininity (highly important in the context of the school playground, where
femininity is entirely conceived in heterosexual terms) or as participating not for the
sake of the sport, but as a manifestation of a highly sexualised (and therefore deviant)
femininity that was equally stigmatised within the peer group.
Nice girls don’t: what it means to play football
Debates around girls in sports have at times descended into a juxtaposition of
‘feminine’ cooperation and kindness with the more ‘masculine’ traits of aggression
and competitiveness manifest through sport (Roth and Basow 2004: 257-258).
Simmons (2002) claims that aggression in girls is simply more hidden than the overt
forms of fighting observed in boys. She argues that because girls are not encouraged
to display their anger, it manifests itself in more subtle and perhaps damaging routes,
which she refers to in her title as the ‘hidden culture of aggression’. Hey (1997)
argues that the requirement by middle-class peer groups for girls to be ‘nice’, that is,
kind, polite and unassertive, prevents girls from fully expressing or asserting
themselves; similar findings are reported elsewhere (Kehilyet al., 2002). At both
schools, ‘being nice’ was given high importance in maintaining girls’ friendships and
status. This sometimes affected their participation in football, where competitiveness
and aggression are required. Two ‘best friends’ at Benjamin Laurence explained to
Sheryl their ideas about friendship and football:
Lindsey: We don’t like being enemies
Nilay: Not enemies but –
Lindsey: Being on a different team
Nilay: Different teams, cause then we’re playing against each
other. And we don’t like that.
Lindsey and Nilay were so committed to ‘niceness’ that they considered being
on opposing teams as equivalent to being ‘enemies’. While such bonding together
can act as a form of resistance, it can also prevent girls from engaging in unrestrained
play since any form of success can be viewed as oppositional. Girls who did not
conform to gendered expectations of cooperation and sharing could be subject to
criticism. For example, one group of girls at Benjamin Laurence was incensed that
Gazza (a girl) ‘acted good’ in the classroom but behaved differently on the football
Stacey: She moans at you for no reason.
Deniz: And in football she’ll always pass the balls to the
boys, and we get all fed up shouting at her and she
doesn’t even take notice.
Sheryl: Why do you think she passes to the boys?
Lizza: Gazza, eh, she thinks that she’s good like the boys, so
she thinks that any of the girls aren’t that good. She
probably thinks that.
Humility and sharing seem to be key tenets of ‘proper’ femininity within the
playground communities at each school. Girls expressed a particular dislike for any
girl who esteemed herself or her skills more highly than others, saying that ‘she thinks
she’s good like the boys.’ Sanctions against perceived arrogance were also manifest
in girls’ own assessments of their abilities, which were consistently downplayed or
admitted with a shy smile. Female difficulties in enjoying or even acknowledging
one’s successes and achievements stand in marked contrast to many of the boys’ often
inflated assessments of themselves. One particularly confident boy at Holly Bank
was keen to announce his running victory over the weekend. He approached both his
class teacher and the school coach who announced the news during assembly and
(re)presented Dave with the award he had won. It is difficult to imagine any of the
girls doing something similar. Owning and enjoying one’s abilities and
accomplishments seem key to successful participation in sports, yet admonitions
against overt confidence prevented many girls from both participating and enjoying
their successes. The debilitating links between humility and ‘proper’ femininity were
then reinforced, as girls listened to their talented peers downplay their
Resistance and subversion: girls on the pitch
Although normative expectations and active discouragement work against girls’
participation in football, girls are not as accepting of the playground gendered power
relations as might first appear. In many ways, simply stepping onto the football pitch
can be seen as a form of resistance, since embodying the concept of ‘footballer’
represents a challenge to its masculine association. Pomerantz et al. (2004) describe
how a group of adolescent girls challenged male dominance by taking up the male-
associated role of ‘skateboarder’. Similarly, in our study, resistances varied from
marginal disruption to active challenges, reflecting the status and power of individual
Occasionally, girls would stand just off the pitch so that they could kick balls
back on when they went off. Although subtle and seemingly conciliatory to male
control of the pitch, these small kicks nevertheless asserted the girls’ will to play and
a (marginal) presence on the pitch. On other occasions, girls ventured onto the pitch in
pairs or small groups, sometimes only to disrupt the flow of the game and make their
presence felt. After being frustrated in their efforts to join a game, four popular girls
at Benjamin Laurence walked onto the pitch chanting, ‘We wanna play, we wanna
play!’ Their discussion with the coach, Darren Thomas, however, resulted in the girls
turning around and leaving together, their aim unaccomplished. He explained that
‘the girls weren’t really playing earlier, they were just standing around on the pitch.’
He felt this ‘wasn’t really fair to the lads’ and had thus sent the girls away. His
interpretation of the situation reveals a distinct bias towards male participation. Rather
than encouraging the boys to pass more and involve the girls, he sent the girls away,
blaming them for their lack of involvement.
Boys also adopt this excuse in order to contest the girls’ true participation in
the game, but girls interpret such situations quite differently. On an occasion when
Brina was not noted as a participant in the game, she countered that she was playing. vi
“I was in the middle” she protested. “Well, how am I supposed to get the ball when
they don’t pass to me?” Brina’s objections and the coach’s interpretation of girls’
behaviour on the pitch seem to represent the qualitative difference between
participation and involvement. True involvement must go beyond a rhetorical
invitation to play to a form of advocacy including encouragement and acceptance in
the course of play. The current atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ on the
playground football pitch negates the possibility of girls’ successful involvement.
Those girls who did not play football were articulate in their resentment of its
supremacy on the playground. For example, a group of girls from Holly Bank
expressed their frustration at the domination of space football enjoyed, and their
resistance to this:
Holly: In school we’ve got these six football pitches. They
hog the whole field! And if we walk through they
shout at us!
Chelsea: I don’t [go around] I just walk past them all.
Bridget: They’re very annoying.
Chelsea: I carry on walking
Holly: Yeah, hee hee hee, we annoy them.
Bridget: We just walk straight through the middle of the field.
Holly: We nick the football. If they kick it at us we pick it up
and kick it at the other side.
Sheryl: Do you?
Holly: Make them run after it and go “Catch!”
These strategic interruptions represent the tactics of a group of high status girls in the
Year 5 class, who were well equipped with resistance strategies and could more easily
defend themselves from verbal attacks.
Social status represented a key resource for girls at both schools in combating
male domination of the pitch. This extract from Sheryl’s fieldnotes exemplifies an act
of resistance from Charlie, a particularly high status (and highly skilled) girl, who
declared herself to be ‘the most popular girl’ in her year:
At lunch three girls in Year 6 are playing with a group of boys on
pitch one. When Mr. Chi [a boy] and Charlie both go in for a
tackle, Mr. Chi gets away with the ball and Charlie lays on the
ground, covering her eyes. She doesn't say anything. A group of
girls (including ones who weren’t playing) rush over to Charlie,
forming a protective circle around her. From this position they
scold Mr. Chi and tell him, 'you've made her cry!' This successfully
interrupts the game and when Mr. Chi comes over to Charlie she
pulls her hands away from her face and chases after him, gleeful in
Undoubtedly, Charlie’s own football skills and social status provided her with the
resources required to mount such a successful challenge. Injury claims and demands
for free kicks were usually only awarded to high status children; marginal claims were
ignored or even admonished as whining or moany. Interestingly Charlie was able to
draw on stereotypical depictions of femininity in a successful challenge to masculine
opposition. By playing on the role of ‘weak girl’ Charlie managed to invoke
sympathy from the other players as well as contest the tackle while ultimately
revealing that this was just a joke she had played on the boys.
These contestations of the established gender hierarchy attest to the embedded
power relations that are negotiated daily on the playground (Foucault, 1978). Such
everyday acts of resistance contest the boys’ domination of the football pitch, all the
while negotiating the ongoing presence of various girls and slowly altering the
dynamics of playground football. However, it is important not to overrate such acts
of resistance or underestimate the structures and discourses that continue to
consolidate male dominance.
While girls remain marginal to football at both Holly Bank and Benjamin Laurence,
the particular circumstances at each school contribute to differing gender dynamics.
At Benjamin Laurence, where teacher intervention has facilitated girls’ presence on
the football pitch, girls were more involved. Yet derisive name-calling and rough play
still worked to counter this intervention. At Holly Bank, where no such interventions
had taken place, girls’ participation was at least nominally tolerated by boys.
However, suggestions that the football ‘B’ team be replaced by a girl’s team were
quickly dismissed by boys. Our findings suggest that the integration of girls in
football is a complex issue viewed as a kind of limited benefits situation by boys,
whereby any gains by girls are perceived as an infringement on male ‘rights’ to the
game. Any interventions in this situation will have to be subtle and take into account
the complexity of playground gendered power relations. Boys’ reactions to official
encouragement of girls’ play at Benjamin Laurence suggests that removing boys’
gatekeeping strategies with respect to football at one point simply relocates them
It may be that the only way to develop and support girls’ interest and skills in
football is to remove their participation altogether from the male arena and give
exclusive, coach-led time and space to girls’-only play. This would give girls an
opportunity to experience success and to understand themselves as having a right to
play the sport, including in forward positions, and symbolically to claim ownership of
the pitch and the ball. While the segregation of female football before adolescence has
the potential to give out problematic messages about girls’ ability in relation to that of
boys, it may be the only way in which we can break the association of the game with
dominant masculinities and establish girls’ access to what is, after all, very much an
English national sport.
Our exploration of girls’ participation in playground football reveals an array
of social norms, gendered expectations and power struggles that work against their
full and unrestrained involvement. Boys’ investment in masculinity through football
ensures vocal discouragement as well as ingrained notions of ownership that allot
football and the space it takes up to boys. Just as female athleticism presents a threat
to male dominance (Roth & Basow, 2004) girls playing football seem to threaten the
notion of the ‘male footballer,’ and present an attack on dominant playground
masculinities. Additionally, gender conformity is policed through friendship groups
and conventions of normative ‘femininity’ that require girls to ‘be nice,’ a trait not
particularly useful in competitive playground football. Inhibitions around space and
ownership are similarly enacted in bodily engagement with the ball and other players,
translating into a restrained version of play for girls and further alienating them from
the game. Even girls’ resistance to such male domination is (possibly perforce)
mainly focused on disruption rather than participation. It is, however, problematic to
assert that girls should simply be a little more assertive, take up space and move onto
the pitch. In order for the football pitch to be both open and accessible, an inclusive
and supportive environment needs to be fostered and boys brought on board.
Including girls in football must go beyond simple participation to confronting
gendered behavioural expectations that condone aggression and animosity and
continue unproblematically to connect masculinity and football without considering
the deleterious effects this has on both boys and girls.
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i “Tomboy identities: the construction and maintenance of active girlhoods.” ESRC number RES-00-22-1032, 2005-6,
based at Goldsmiths College, London. Carrie Paechter was the grant-holder and Sheryl Clark the fieldworker in this
ii These are the final two years of English and Welsh primary schooling, with children aged 9-10 in Year 5 and aged 10-
11 in year 6.
iii The names of the schools have been changed to protect the identities of the research participants.
iv The Office for Standards in Education report references are incomplete in order to preserve anonymity for the schools.
v Pseudonyms have been chosen for all of the children, usually by the children themselves. Names do not therefore
necessarily correspond with ethnicity or gender. Where relevant this is clarified in the text. Pseudonyms were also
chosen for adults (by the researchers).
vi This incident occurred when Brina read over Sheryl’s fieldnotes, which she sometimes allowed the children to do
when the notes were specifically about them. It partially reveals the process whereby non-involvement by girls on the
pitch came to be seen as a form of resistance.