Little boys big boys

Amanda Keddie examines the ways in which social dynamics interact to define, regulate and maintain dominant and collective understandings of masculinities.

About the author
Amanda Keddie has recently been awarded her PhD from Deakin University and currently works within the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research interests involve gender, social justice, primary/early childhood education, case study ethnography and feminist theory.

Contact details
Please send any correspondence to:
PO Box 140
Darling Heights
Queensland 4350
Ph: (07) 4635 5410

Little boys big boys: Patriarchal heterosexuality and the construction of limited and restrictive understandings of masculinities

This paper presents specific elements of a much larger ethnographic case study of a group of five male friends between the ages of seven and eight years. The study sought to examine the ways in which the group’s social dynamics interacted to define, regulate and maintain dominant and collective understandings of masculinities. Dominant peer culture was found to be particularly potent in championing a hegemonic masculinity embodying and cultivating physical domination, aggression and violence. These understandings were interpreted as governed by the boys’ investments in perpetuating the masculine/feminine oppositional binary within a framework of patriarchal heterosexuality. In presenting elements of the study’s data, this paper illuminates that these boys’ understandings of patriarchal heterosexuality were significant in their construction and regulation of particularly limited and restrictive understandings of themselves and others. Against this backdrop, the paper provides further warrant for working with boys’ peer cultures within the early childhood context to deconstruct the interrelated and mutually reinforcing gender and (hetero)sexual binaries. It is argued that this deconstruction will enable a facilitation of boys’ exploration of alternative and less oppressive ways of expressing their collective masculinities.

You’re a sissy, you’re a girl ha, ha, ha.
You play soccer!

Adam: Soccer’s a girl’s game! Don’t talk about soccer.

Jack: Soccer’s silly!

Ravi: No, it’s not!

Adam: Yes it is!

Amanda: Why is it a girl’s game?

Adam: Well, because when someone kicks ‘em in de leg they go, ‘Ah ha my leg’…
(Adam stands up from his chair and dramatically holds his leg while yelling in pretend pain.)

Amanda: Ravi, you like soccer don’t you?

Ravi: Yeah.

Justin: He’s a girl then!

Adam: Hey Lucy, what’s ya name again? Oh yeah, dat’s right, Rowena!
(Justin and Jack join in Adam’s laughter.) You’re a sissy, you’re a girl ha, ha, ha. You play soccer!

Adam, Justin, Jack and Ravi (all pseudonyms) are aged between seven and eight years. They are your ‘average’ little boys: they attend the local primary school (situated in a middle class socio-economic area in a large provincial city in Tasmania, Australia), have loving parents and relatively stable home lives, love sport and physical activity, particularly football, and want to be accepted by their peers. As part of my research [Keddie 2001] into masculinities and peer culture I came to know these boys well.

I found the context of peer culture to be particularly potent in shaping the boys’ understandings of themselves and others. Consistent with significant research in the area of masculinities and schooling [Connell 2000; Mac an Ghaill 1994; Martino 1999], peer culture was also primary in regulating and amplifying the boys’ dominant behaviours to involve various forms of self-legitimation and bravado mobilised around physical domination, violence and aggression and the denigration of females and the feminine. It was this context that served to perpetuate and normalise particularly limited and restrictive understandings of masculinities.

The potency of peer culture in shaping and regulating dominant discourses of masculinity
The study’s primary thesis submitted peer culture as the central force shaping and regulating the boys’ understandings of masculinities. The boys’ potent desire for self-legitimation and belonging were seen as pivotal in the construction of their subjectivities or sense of ‘identity’. The study’s interpretation of peer group relations shared strong resonance with related work in this area. Specifically, the work of Connell (1989; 1995; 1996), Mac an Ghaill (1994) and Martino (1999), in a secondary context; as well as that of Alloway (1995), Epstein (1999), Jordan and Cowan (1995), Davies (1993), Connolly (1995), Danby (1998), Thorne (1993), Kamler, Maclean, Reid and Simpson (1994) and Lowe (1998), in an early childhood/primary context. The key thread seen as linking these works with the study acknowledged peer masculinities as hierarchically established through the dispersion of socio-political power; produced and maintained within a dynamic of competition and differentiation, and policed through the perpetuation of gender and (hetero)sexual dualisms.

The main purpose of this paper is to foreground these dualisms because they were seen as central in governing the boys’ dominant and collective perceptions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘male-like’ behaviour as oppositional and superior to ‘femininity’ and ‘female-like’ behaviour. This paper also aims to add weight to the growing body of work which highlights the importance of examining and addressing the dominant or hegemonic masculinities of peer culture in the early primary/early childhood sphere [Connolly 1995; Danby 1998; Jordan 1995; Jordan & Cowan 1995; Lowe 1998].

Reinforcing the male/female and heterosexual/homosexual binaries
Practices of self-legitimation at the expense of others, in the form of dispersing hierarchical power through policing masculinities [Connell 2000] is reported to be a central strategy in marking difference and prestige. Proving one’s masculinity through a “regime of abusive practices” such as verbal put-downs and humiliation, enacted to “get a laugh” at the expense of “those boys designated as other” [Martino 1999: 243] are expressions of this.

Collective ‘masculine identity’ and the dispersion of socio-political power overwhelmingly occur through practices reinforcing the oppositional male/female, heterosexual/homosexual power binaries. Here the promotion of an oppressive masculinity is underpinned by investments in essentialist gendered and heterosexist perceptions and perpetuated through the regulatory practices of sexual harassment and homophobia. As Mac an Ghaill (1994: 92) remarks, these are “crucial elements in setting the parameters of prescriptive and proscriptive” schoolboy performance masculinities. The well-defined hierarchies of status and influence understood through equating ‘the masculine’ with power and domination and ‘the feminine’ with powerlessness and subordination undergird these oppressive understandings and practices [Alloway 1995a; Connell 2000; Epstein 1999; Davies 1993; Mac an Ghaill 1994; Martino 1999; Mills 1999]. These binaries also provide boys with the power to position girls and women as powerless ‘objects’ to evaluate within a circumscribed frame of compulsory heterosexuality.

Consistent with Epstein’s (1999: 103) comment, “…in the primary-school context, the worst thing a boy can be called is a ‘girl’, even worse than being called a ‘gay boy’, ‘poof’ or ‘sissy’”, the boys in the study’s peer group consistently subordinated and drew individual and collective power in this regard. Resonating with the opening snapshot particular boys who were designated other [Martino 1999] were continually ridiculed and effectively excluded through being labelled a ‘girl’ and defined as ‘girl-like’:

Adam: Brian? He’s as weak as water.

Matthew: Yep, he can’t even…

Adam: He’s always annoying, ‘e always acts like a chicken an’ um ‘e always screams like a girl and ‘e thinks ‘e’s so good.

Jack: Yeah, he screams like a girl.

Adam: Yeah, he screams like a girl, like he shows off n’ that…

Justin: I seen him scream like a girl in the toilet.

Adam: Yeah and for ‘chasies’ he goes ‘arhhhh arhhhh arhhhh’. And he goes ‘arhhhh, don’t get me, I’m running!’ Arsehole!

Adam: Brian showed all the girls dis big scar because um ‘e had to had his intenticles cut out.

Amanda: Appendix maybe?

Adam: Yeah.

Justin: Yuck!

Adam: He showed the girls to impress dem.

Amanda: Do you think he impressed them?

Adam: Well if y’ask me all de boys said ‘what’s he got dat I haven’ got? An’ I said ‘one scar, two dickhead, free dickhead, four dickhead, five dickhead, six dickhead…’

Jack: A million, a million dickheads!

Adam: …seven dickhead, eight dickhead…

Matthew: And one bitch.

Justin: Yeah an’ one bitch, yeah an’ six thousan’ dickheads!

Jack: He’s two million dickheads actually.

Justin: Yeah! He’s a dork!

Matthew: He’s a really big jerk.

Jack: How ‘bout he’s a girl or something.

Justin: Yeah, a girl.

Adam: I hate his guts! ‘E better watch out ‘cos I go ta boxin’, I know how to hold a punch.

Matthew: Sometimes I just go up and punch ‘im in the guts.

Justin: I just go punch him in the nuts and punch him in the eye ball. We hate his guts!

Positioning a patriarchal heterosexuality as central
While the boys used homophobic insults as an effective form of denigration, the implicitness of the group’s homophobia was most distinctive in the sexual power the boys derived from their positioning of themselves in the powerful half of the male/female binary within a framework of patriarchal heterosexuality. In this regard, consistent with significant work in the area of masculinities and sexualities (in particular Mac an Ghaill 1994; Martino 1999; Mills 1999), the boys can be seen as reinforcing and regulating the oppositional heterosexual/homosexual binary through positioning a patriarchal heterosexuality as central. Distinct parallels were drawn from Mac an Ghaill’s (1994) research in relation to the boys’ use of sexual power within this framework of patriarchal heterosexuality. The male heroic sexual conquests within “categorical imperatives to act like heterosexual men” [Mac an Ghaill’s 1994: 91] seemed to resonate with much of the boys’ talk about girls. The boys’ perceptions of females as property to fight over, possess or collect and evaluate were applicable in this regard.

Adam: What really pisses me off always with Brian is he’s always got my girl, ah Zara. Yeah an’ another fing too, last year ‘e got Jessica Kenny.

Amanda: Was she your girlfriend?

Adam: Yeah, I almost had ‘er, I got really pissed off, ‘cos Brian shows off to the girls all the time. All the girls like ‘im ‘cos he shows off wiv his tricks n’ that, he goes, ‘Watch me BABY!’

Another time, following Adam’s sexualised display of ‘pumping iron’ with some plastic bar bell weights he had made during a construction session, where he panted: “oh, oh yeah, look at that girls, oh sex all day”, he engaged Matthew in violent competition over the possession of girlfriends.

Adam: Hey, rack off man!

Matthew: Hey, you rack off man.

Adam: Hey, get y’hands off my girlfriend or I’m gonna smash y’head in!
(Adam begins to wrestle with Matthew)

Matthew: Who’s your girlfriend? Who’s your girlfriend, pal?

Jack: Who’s your girlfriend, Adam?

The group: Who’s your GIRLFRIEND?

Adam: Nah, I’m just saying it for the act.

Matthew: You took my girlfriend and you’re dead! You will regret it mate.

Within an early childhood context, these performances of masculinity, can be seen to parallel with Connolly’s (1995) conception of his Bad Boys’ compulsory heterosexuality as understood within a framework of power, domination and violence.

While the desirability of attracting girls’ attention and acquiring girlfriends was evident throughout the research in the boys’ competition over the possession of girlfriends, the following illustrates the importance or status ascribed to acquiring or ‘collecting’ numerous girlfriends (provided these were the ‘right’ type of girls). Again placing a patriarchal heterosexuality as central and implicitly reinforcing the heterosexual/homosexual binary, this can be seen to resonate with the misogynistic boasting in the style of Mac an Ghaill’s Macho Lads.

Adam: Jessica’s my girlfriend.

Justin: Yeah?

Adam: Oh yeah, an’ Zara Allan, she kissed me in kindergarten, oh an’ I’ve had a heap of girls who’ve kissed me. The ‘A’ man always gets the chicks.

Ravi: Yeah, and Matthew too. Matthew would say ‘e’s like got ten thousan’ girlfriends!

Justin: He can tell more whoppers evry day!

Adam: Yeah, and ‘e says ‘I’ve got thirty two girlfriends’, an’ then ‘e goes nah, ‘I got this many’, an’ he shortens it one week and d’next week ten times it and then d’next week he’ll shorten it. Den he’ll go lower, higher, lower, higher.

On a few occasions Matthew admitted that he performed daring tricks so that he could “get lotsa girlfriends” and then boasted of the number of girlfriends he had to disbelieving comments from the other boys.

Jack: You don’t even have a girlfriend.

Matthew: Yeah I do. I have three.

Adam: Oh, dream on Matthew.

Justin: Yeah dream on! Dream to Dream World!

Matthew: I got Charmaine, Jamie and Portia.

Along similar lines, the epitome of male power and status seemed to be embodied in the boys’ commentary about the esteemed image of the footballer and his power to attract female attention:

Adam: I like football, ‘cos y’can get really good chicks, ‘cos dey think your butt’s cute …ya get sexy women …dey watch ya and den you show off.

Justin: Y’have a cute butt and lots of girlfriends if you’re playing A.F.L. (Australian Football League)

Within their investments in a patriarchal heterosexuality and their discourse of girls’ as acquisitions and possessions, the boys also seemed to form group solidarity in ‘othering’ girls and women by taking up the ‘readily available’ discourse of objectifying females by evaluating their physical appearance. For example, while the boys’ professed dislike for girls was expressed throughout the research story, there was general consensus among Adam, Justin and Matthew about the relative value of particular types of females. Adam liked Britney Spears and Julia Roberts and girls with “sexy legs”. He didn’t like “chubba chubs”–they were to be “crossed out”. Similarly Justin and Matthew didn’t like “fat girls”.

A way forward: Some suggestions
This paper provides evidence to suggest that understandings of a patriarchal heterosexuality are significant in shaping limited and restrictive masculinities within an early childhood/early primary context. The interrelated and mutually reinforcing gender and (hetero)sexual dualities were interpreted as constructing the boys’ investments in patriarchal heterosexuality [Altman in Seidman 1993]. This paper contends that facilitating the deconstruction of these binaries underpinning patriarchal heterosexuality is critical in broadening boys’ dominant and repressive understandings of masculinities. Consistent with other work in this sphere, in the “context of developing conventional gender roles” [Epstein & Johnson 1994: 170], the boys can be seen as enacting a particularly rigid masculine heterosexuality [Mac an Ghaill 1994]. In strong support of Connell (1995), Martino (1999) and Pallotta-Chiarolli (1997) this paper illuminates that we cannot address masculinity effectively unless we address homophobia, heterosexism and homosexuality. This paper also highlights the importance of examining and addressing the dominant or hegemonic masculinities of peer culture in the early childhood/early primary context. The malleability of gender identities and understandings in the initial years of schooling [Jordan 1995] clearly point to an opportune time to begin work with peer groups in exploring behaviours and emotions and reworking dominant storylines and restrictive notions of gender.

Numerous opportunities exist within many of the key learning areas of the formal curriculum to address the issues of homophobia, heterosexism and homosexuality [Davies 1993; Pallotta-Chiarolli 1995]. Within a framework of social justice in relation to teaching children the skills of recognising the socially constructed nature of socio-political discourse, restrictive notions of gender and sexuality can be challenged, deconstructed and reworked [Davies 1993]. As the research detailed in this paper affirms, children experience their own issues of marginalisation within informal school contexts. Within the formal curriculum, the exploration and deconstruction of these issues can be relevantly and generatively located within areas such as social studies and health. Within the areas of language, drama and art, these issues might also be explored, for example, by examining the exclusion and silencing of women, homosexuals and lesbians from mainstream history. Through inclusion and legitimation of works from ‘marginalised’ groups, taken-for-granted normalities informing children’s binary thinking can begin to be challenged and called into question.

Through exploring social categories such as marriage and family, educators can facilitate a foregrounding and deconstruction of heterosexual centrality in the social worlds of children. Through discussions of love and relationships, for example, children as young as four and five have been found to work together, from the perspectives of their own experiences, to define and explore notions of marriage and family to be inclusive and accepting of multiple structures and differences [Casper, Cuffaro, Schultz, Silin & Wickens 1998]. These definitions however have been found to firm into more rigid and exclusionary understandings by the time children are the ages of six and seven [Casper et al. 1998]. The significance of representations and talk about children’s families within the formal curriculum in early childhood/early primary education would seem to present an opportune and relevant starting point for exploring and (re)working restrictive notions of gender and sexuality with children [Casper et al. 1998] if we are to promote the legitimacy of diversity and encourage the acceptance, rather than the marginalisation, of difference. While teachers and parents “want to protect children from knowledge of the social world that they themselves find discomforting” [Silin in Casper et al. 1998: 94], Bickmore points out:

Discussing sexuality with elementary students is risky–but necessary–because of its very importance to their personal and political lives. The need for student-centred instruction (on meaningful issues) does not diminish simply because the students’ experiences are socially volatile. Children build the autonomy and the confidence for handling difficult questions, attending to contrasting viewpoints, and making decisions, by doing so, in the protected but pluralistic space of the public school. Carefully designed education about sexuality, including homosexuality, can provide such an opportunity. Otherwise we abdicate responsibility for children’s safety and their inclusion in democratic society, leaving them to sort through unreliable sources of information on their own.
~ (1999: 20-21)

Against the backdrop of the research detailed in this paper, in particular the wealth of distorted sexual knowledges the boys possess, arguments pointing to the irrelevancy, immorality or perversion of exploring sexualities in early childhood are not only ill-informed and out-dated, but may unwittingly perpetuate these distortions by leaving them unchallenged [Bickmore 1999; Misson 1996; Redman 1994; Epstein & Johnson 1994]. Indeed, in reference to the boys’ (mis)use of (hetero)sexual power there is a clear warrant for demystifying these issues in the early childhood classroom. For it can be seen that children are learning “very negative” lessons about sexuality in the school’s informal contexts [Redman 1994: 147].


  1. Alloway, N. (1995) Foundation Stones: The Construction of Gender in Early Childhood. Carlton, Curriculum Corporation.
  2. Bickmore, K. (1999) Why Discuss Sexuality in Elementary School? In Letts, W. & Sears, J. (Eds) Queering Elementary Education. New York, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  3. Casper, V., Cuffaro, H., Schultz, S., Silin, J. & Wickens, E. (1998) Towards a more thorough understanding of the world: Sexual orientation and early childhood education, in Yelland, N. (Ed) Gender in Early Childhood. London, Routledge.
  4. Connell, R. (1989) Cool guys, swots and wimps: The interplay of masculinity and education. Oxford Review of Education, 15(3), pp 291-303.
  5. Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
  6. Connell, R. (1996) Teaching the boys: new research on masculinity, and gender strategies for schools. Teachers College Record, 98(2), pp 206-235.
  7. Connell, R. W. (2000) The Men and The Boys. St. Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
  8. Connolly, P. (1995) Boys will be boys?: racism, sexuality and the construction of masculine identities amongst infant boys, in Holland, J. & Blair, M. (Eds) Debates and Issues in Feminist Research and Pedagogy. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.
  9. Danby, S. (1998) Talk and social order in a preschool classroom in Yelland, N. (Ed) Gender in Early Childhood. New York, Routledge.
  10. Davies, B. (1993) Shards of Glass. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
  11. Epstein, D. (1999) Real boys don’t work: ‘underachievement’, masculinity and the harassment of ‘sissies’, in Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V. & Maws, J. (Eds) Failing Boys: Issues in Gender and Achievement. London, Open University Press.
  12. Epstein, D. & Johnson, R. (1994) On the Straight and Narrow, in Epstein, D. (Ed) Challenging Lesbian and Gay Inequalities in Education. Buckingham, Open University Press.
  13. Jordan, E. (1995) Fighting boys and fantasy play, Gender and Education, 7(1), pp 69-86.
  14. Jordan, E. & Cowan, A. (1995) Warrior narratives in the kindergarten, Gender & Society, 9(6), pp 727-743.
  15. Kamler, B., Maclean, R., Reid, J. & Simpson, A. (1994) Shaping up Nicely: The Formation of Schoolgirls and Schoolboys in the First Month of School. Canberra, Department of Employment, Education and Training.
  16. Keddie, A. (2001) Little boys: the potency of peer culture in shaping masculinities, Unpublished Doctoral thesis. Geelong, Deakin University.
  17. Lowe, K. (1998) Gendermaps, in Yelland, N. (Ed) Gender in Early Childhood. New York, Routledge.
  18. Mac an Ghaill, M. (1994) The Making of Men. Buckingham, Open University Press.
  19. Martino, W. (1999) Cool boys, party animals, squids and poofters. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), pp 239-264.
  20. Mills, M. (1999) Homophobia & Anti-Lesbianism in Schools: Challenges & Possibilities for Social Justice. Sexualities & Schools: Melbourne Studies in Education, 40(2), pp 105-126.
  21. Misson, R. (1996) What’s in it for me?: Teaching against homophobic discourse, in Laskey, L. & Beavis, C. (Eds) Schooling & Sexualities. Geelong, Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin University.
  22. Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (1995) Can I use the word ‘gay’? in Brown, R. H. & Fletcher, R. (Eds) Boys in Schools. Lane Cove, Finch Publishing.
  23. Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (1997) We want to address boys’ education but…, in Kenway, J. (Ed) Will Boys be Boys?. Deakin West, Australian Curriculum Studies Association.
  24. Redman, P. (1994) Rethinking Sexuality Education, in Epstein, D. (Ed) Challenging Lesbian and Gay Inequalities in Education. Buckingham, Open University Press.
  25. Seidman, S. (1993) Identity and Politics in a ‘Postmodern’ Gay Culture: Some Historical and Conceptual Notes, in Warner, M. (Ed) Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
  26. Thorne, B. (1993) Gender Play. New Jersey, Rutgers University Press.