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Learning masculinities : youth, the media, and physical education Millington, Bradley James

Abstract

Despite the common claim in media studies that audiences bring well-developed interpretive strategies to media texts, young people are frequently cast as passive, or unreflexive, media consumers (Miles, 2000). This discourse is especially prominent with media that normalize physically powerful masculine personas (often called hegemonic masculinities). Studies abound that describe the gendered nature of contemporary media, but surprisingly little is known about how young people perceive and ’use’ their media interpretations in their everyday lives (Messner, 2002a). Similarly, key studies have characterized physical education (PE) as a setting that is connected to the mass media in its tendency to reinforce dominant ideas about masculinity and the male body (Kirk, 2002; Kirk & Tinning, 1994), but there remains a dearth of ethnographic research that examines how PE class works to oppose andor reinforce prevailing gender ideologies that circulate in the media. With the aim of addressing these gaps in the literature, a three-month case study of three PE classes at a Vancouver-area high school was undertaken. This research examined how young males (n=36) conceptualize the hegemonic masculinities that are frequently shown in the media, and the extent to which PE either perpetuates or counteracts their media interpretations. Employing focus group, observation, and interview methods, three key findings emerged with this research: 1) that the boys understand the media in complex, often contradictory ways, but have a tendency to be critical of hegemonic masculinities; 2) that physical education, while offering the potential for various masculinities, often promotes hegemonic gender identities as ’normal’; and 3) that the participants tended to leave their critical media skills ’unused’ in PE class, and thus displayed what can best be described as context-specific masculinities. These findings lead to a discussion of why the students’ media criticisms were not reflected in their daily PE experiences. Specifically, I suggest that the constructed environment of physical education, the students’ lingering hegemonic beliefs, and their failure to recognize dominant masculinities in their ’real’ lives limited their potentially powerful media critiques. This analysis concludes with suggestions for future research, the most important of which involves continued ethnographic work with youth audiences.

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