Publish at September 14 2022 Updated December 16 2022

Agile girls and fragile boys

How gender relations affect physical education classes and how teachers encourage girls to play sports

Children playing soccer. Three boys from one team against two girls and a boy from another team. In front, a boy and a girl from the opposite team run after the ball. Image: Lars Bo Nielsen

What were your physical education classes like in school? The boys playing soccer and the girls volleyball? Or the boys on the court and the girls on the sidelines, talking (in my case it was like that during high school)? And it was only after reading the doctoral thesis in physical education by Simone Cecilia Fernandes, entitled "The sports education of girls in public school: positive gender experiences in physical education", I had never thought about how gender relations define the game on the school court.

In order to answer the question: how does girls' sports education occur in public school, Dr. Fernandes studied the practices of eight public school teachers from Campinas, São Paulo. They frequently participate in school games in the city, and their teams with girls do well. Dr. Fernandes conducted interviews and wove a network of meanings between teaching techniques and gender notions that color the relationships between teachers and students.

In the chapters, the author explores, among other topics, the role of aesthetics, competitions between schoolchildren, the insecurities and lack of encouragement for girls to practice sports, the persistent inferiorization of girls and the stigmatization of boys, the performative gender relations, as well as the practice and positions of teachers.

The author begins her introduction with a delicious anecdote:

"It was a championship in my school, year 2012. It was not just any sport, it was futsal. And with it impregnated the passion for soccer and the expectation of in an instant transiting between possible pains and joys. (...) The teams were mixed, but not necessarily mixed. Three girls got together and invited two boys to compose a team, with one of them remaining in goal.

It was their game and they were playing against a team composed only of boys. The girls were good, very good. It was then that I noticed the fearful attitude of the referee, who was the math teacher, uneasy about the possibility of the boys "taking" a goal from them. Around the end of the game he couldn't contain himself and started to verbalize, softly, "my God, they are going to score a goal" and then, in an audible tone, he shouted for them to "close the kick" and anticipated what was to come: "you are going to score a goal against the girls! I, there, close to him, delighted in this possibility, without understanding his fears and my feelings.

Everything sounded "upside down", when they scored that great goal with a shot from just outside the area. It was just a vibration, and a mixture of joy and shame throughout the school. Joy, something normal in these moments. But shame? I still couldn't understand why many fans who were there "teased" the players with such ingratitude. Something a bit uncontrollable happened for a few seconds before everything started all over again. The referee, at the instant of the goal, perhaps in order not to see it and thus not to suffer so much, turned his back, gesticulating with his whole body, not believing what was happening."

This story illustrates key issues of the thesis (gender hierarchy and subversion of cultural practices of domination, interpretations about body, sex and gender) through which the author skillfully transitions in the introduction, making a "dialogue" with authors/as from the humanities, the fields of physical education, gender and queer studies.

Vitrine girls and athletic boys?

The study points out differences between boys and girls in relation to sports that may seem obvious at first glance, but that point to causes and consequences closely linked to gender (and power) relations.

How often do we see girls playing sports in the streets, while it is natural to see boys doing so? The thesis points out that boys receive more support outside of school (from friends and relatives) to practice physical activities than girls (whose supporters are physical education teachers). From early on boys are more encouraged to practice physical games, which gives them a greater approach to sports. This is reflected in the classes; girls tend to participate less, feel more insecure, and are left aside, and boys are more resourceful and tend to take ownership (if allowed) of the class time and space.

Another issue is the role of aesthetics, especially female aesthetics. Teachers demand an outfit that provides good body availability to move around (sneakers and appropriate clothes), in addition to special requests for girls: hair tied up, no make-up on the face so as not to smear, shorter nails so as not to break them, no accessories that might hurt, such as large earrings. Thus, some girls free themselves from their adornments to discover new bodily experiences. They can see themselves as powerful, strong and agile, which gives them another gender experience that their image outside of class allows - a contained, delicate body, in the standards of hegemonic beauty.

Boyboys on one side and girls on the other?

Some teachers decide to separate boys and girls into teams, under the argument that boys are strong and girls are fragile. However, this division does not consider physical differences within each gender: some boys are smaller and less skilled, and some girls are agile and strong.

Transitioning between these differences can be tricky. One teacher makes exceptions only for girls, who can play on boys' teams, for fear that the reverse will lead to stigmatization of the boy who plays with girls, making him seem "less of a boy." This notion inferiorizes girls' sporting achievements, in that girls can access a "higher" level because of their abilities, while it is "humiliating" for a boy to play with girls.

A teacher relies on other criteria to separate groups: the common movement experiences of the students and the willingness to perform the class together. This way, everyone has the opportunity to participate, not leading to privileges (the notion that "the strongest play first") or antagonism between boys and girls (boys not passing the ball to girls).

Why read this thesis?

Gender issues in sports have been occurring more frequently in recent times. Joanna Harper, a Canadian long-distance runner, transgender and sport scientist, has advised the International Olympic Committee on trans athletes and proposes that biomarkers such as testosterone be used to differentiate categories. 2022 marked the return of the women's Tour de France, but female cyclists are seeking more: a race as long as men's (21 days instead of 8), as well as financial security.

The old classification of two sexes and two genders does not encompass the diversity that is expressed today. What was once seen as obvious comes under scrutiny, showing a maintenance of an unequal order. The study by Dr. Fernandes shows how society's gender relations mark physical education classes. She reports on how teachers perceive the inequalities between genders and seek to provide opportunities for everyone to be subject agents, and experience new relationships and emotions from the body.

Curious to discover the successful practices of teachers? Find out by reading Simone Cecilia Fernandes' thesis, "The sports education of girls in public school: positive gender experiences in physical education". You may not see children playing on a court in the same way anymore.


The sports education of girls in public school: gender positive experiences in physical education - Simone Cecilia Fernandes

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  • Not gendered




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