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ISW Journal

Literature from Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ISW)

chevy-thumbnailChevy van Dorresteijn


A few times per week I go to the local gym to work out. On the mirror, right above the dumbbells, there is a sign that reads: If you are too weak to return your weights, please contact the fitness staff and the girls will be happy to assist you. Even though it is meant as a humoristic way of saying that people should put their training equipment back, it is but one of many examples of how modern-day society still thinks and behaves according to archetypical gender norms. One just has to look around and it is visible almost everywhere. For example, media coverage often focuses on male athletes. When at last attention is paid to female athletes, it is mainly at sports that have a more gender-neutral connotation, such as (field) hockey and tennis. Therefore, attention in these sports is more equally divided between males and females. There is hardly any sports where females receive substantially more coverage than their male counterparts.

Let me give another, non-sport example: in the Netherlands millions of people listen to the Top 2000 on Radio 2. This is a list of the 2000 best songs ever made, according to the people who voted. The first edition aired in 1999. Yet, 2016 is the first year with a female disk jockey. For over fifteen years it has been one masculine stronghold. Even though it has been contradicted that disk jockeying is just for males year after year in the run-up to the Top 2000 (e.g. Romeijn, 2015) it has taken over one-and-a-half decade to actually dismantle this gender stereotype.

For this research, I am interested why gender stereotypes are (still) an issue. How is it possible that in this day and age our so-called progressive and tolerant society is still so caught up in stereotypical thinking? Especially in the Netherlands, where females are “among the most emancipated in Europe” (CBS, 2009). But are they? Are the Dutch actually still caught up in stereotypical thinking? Perhaps the aforementioned examples are just leftovers from older times, when gender stereotypes were much more vivid and concrete. In this research I will try to find an answer to the question whether gender stereotypical thinking is still an issue for Dutch youth and for what reasons. I have chosen the soccer pitch as my field of research for the practical reason that I am well familiar with this field and its dynamics.

My Research

Hegemonic masculinity is the most important concept in this research. The term was coined by Connell in the early eighties and is defined as: “the pattern of practice […] that allowed men’s dominance over women to continue” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 832). Although the concept is far from uncontested, it is a much-researched one. An interesting approach is to link the concept of hegemonic masculinity to sports. Gorely, Holroyd and Kirk (2003) point out that “the focus of much popular as well as academic debate [on] an emerging concern for the education of boys has highlighted the importance of sports as a site for the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity” (p. 430). Later on in this paper, I will further elaborate on the differences between males and females and the role sports play in their lives. For now it is sufficient to note carefully that the way sports is perceived is somewhat different gender-wise.

Yet, a lot has changed over the years. In this postmodern age, traditional gender norms are questioned, reshaped and ─ to  paraphrase famous sociologist Bauman ─ ‘liquefied’ (2000). One example of this notion of blurring  gender stereotypes is found  in  an  ethnographic research  by Anderson and McGuire (2010) where English rugby players “sharply contested” the traditional gender interplay and claimed it was “an out-of-date, orthodox version of masculinity” (p. 249). Whether consciously or subconsciously, on the academic or on the recreational pitch, what used to be fixed is loosened and what has been certain, calls for further investigation. In the tension between those who are more conservative about gender interplay and those who are more flexible, a contest of space comes into existence. My research is formed around the question if and how Dutch soccer players experience this emerging battle.

To be more precise, this research started with the following research question: how do young Dutch soccer players experience blurring gender stereotypes on and around the pitch? I have conceptualized this research question into four parts. First, the soccer culture; what is it and what characterizes an archetypical soccer culture. Second, how gender is perceived and concretized in general. Third, the rise of women’s soccer and how women position themselves in the world of soccer. And fourth, the so-called ‘appearance-paradox’ which emerges when people or certain characteristics are categorized as both masculine and feminine. Finally, I will conclude and contextualize my findings and link it to the concept of hegemonic masculinity.

This research is a small-sized ethnography, spanning from September until November 2016. Through participant observation and in-depth interviews I have tried to frame soccer culture and the role of gender stereotyping in soccer culture. The ethnographic approach allowed me to step away from prejudiced, superficial stereotypes and to understand the soccer culture from within ─ both as a participant and as an academic researcher. The most important research technique I used was the in-depth semi-structured interview. These interviews lasted about one hour and were transcribed intelligently for secondary analysis. In total I have done four interviews, with two males and two females. All interviews were held in Dutch and translated by me for this paper.

Selection of the respondents was done conveniently, based on their relation to soccer. They needed to have an original perspective on soccer which would be an addition to the story of the other respondents. Therefore, all respondents are actively taking part in the soccer culture in their own, unique way.

The first respondent will be referred to as Sam. He is a 26-year old male who has been playing at his club in Hilversum for about twenty years now. During this twenty years he has played in all sorts of teams; from highly fanatical teams (first teams, mostly on a high level) to less fanatical teams (mostly on a lower level). He has also has been a trainer of female teams for about eight years at another soccer club in Hilversum. He is a fanatical fan of Ajax, the most famous club of the Netherlands, and has had a season ticket for years. If Ajax plays a home game on Sunday he would leave right after his own soccer match to travel to Amsterdam and enjoy the match of Ajax.

The second respondent will be referred to as Nick. He is a 23-year old male who has been playing for multiple clubs in Hilversum, Utrecht and Amsterdam since he was five years old. He has been playing mainly in first teams and played over two years at a semi-professional club in Utrecht. The last couple of years he has been playing on a relatively low level with some friends in Amsterdam.

The third respondent will be referred to as Anne. She is a 28-year old female who has been playing for clubs in Enschede and Utrecht for over twenty years now. When she was six she was the first girl who played soccer at her club in Enschede. When she went studying in Utrecht she joined a female student soccer team. When she graduated she kept on playing soccer in Utrecht. However, she was forced to join another team because the aforementioned club in Utrecht only allows students. She has been playing with pretty much the same group for ten years now.

The last and fourth respondent will be referred to as Julia. She is a 42-year old female who started playing official soccer just last season. Yet, she has been playing soccer non-officially since she was a little girl. She used to play soccer with her brother and his friends. When her brother joined a sports club in Utrecht when he was young, she always went along to watch. For some years she has been a bartender at the same soccer club I did my participant observation. As a bartender she offered an additional insight into the soccer culture, mainly regarding the after-match part. She also has an adolescent daughter who has been playing soccer in Spain for some years.

Soccer Culture: Beer and ‘Gezelligheid

To truly understand how gender interplay is affecting the atmosphere on and around the soccer pitch, one has to understand what soccer culture is about. Soccer plays a huge part in the lives of many young people. Think about Sam, whose Sunday is filled with both his own soccer match and then his trip to Ajax. Or think about Nick, who used to play at a semi-professional soccer club and thereby automatically filled lots of afterschool hours with soccer. chevy-fig-1Soccer can also literally take over your day: “I have been spending my Saturday around the soccer pitch since I was six years old. You start early and end late. The entire day you just hang around the club” (Anne). This activity of ‘hanging around’ is very important for the respondents. When asked about what soccer culture meant for them, no one explicitly talked about soccer itself. It always came down to, often post- match, social interactions: the ‘derde helft’ [the third half]. Which is simply an academic way of phrasing drinking beer and having a nice time together after the match (figure 1).

All respondents intuitively knew what I meant when I asked them about ‘soccer culture’, yet, turned out to be quite hard to define:

Nick: It is a certain kind of atmosphere, but what exactly makes soccer different? I couldn’t tell you now. (…) I cannot compare another club or sports with the soccer atmosphere. [Field] hockey and tennis are more ‘kak’ [posh] and soccer is more for the common man. It’s different with tennis and hockey. They are more ordinary sports. It is a bit of everything. It is always very ‘gezellig’.

It is interesting that Nick makes a notion of soccer being less elite than certain other sports. Other respondents also compared the soccer culture with other sports:

Anne: Well maybe, with [field] hockey people are also hanging around the pitch. Yet, I think that it is more suitable for the soccer pitch in terms of origins, social class, social environment etcetera. (…) Soccer is more for the common man.

Although the question remains if soccer culture is in fact a unique culture and if it differs from, for instance, other sports cultures, in the end, soccer seemed to be a mutually understood, somewhat indefinable language. Even though the specific culture differs per club (Nick), the mainlines are roughly the same: “I know someone who plays (…) in Amsterdam and from what I hear, it is exactly the same” (Anne). Sam referred to international soccer tournaments. Even though you know nothing about the other and come from a different country, soccer is an international language that everyone speaks. This language of soccer is centred around one recurring theme: ‘gezelligheid’, a Dutch word that has no English equivalent.


When something ─ or someone ─ is ‘gezellig’ every Dutch person intuitively knows what it means. It roughly translates to something that is cozy, pleasant, friendly, comfortable, warm, charming, amusing and more adjectives that swirl as a cloud around the concept of ‘gezelligheid’, but fail to pinpoint the actual meaning of it. Therefore, I will describe it in the terms of what my respondents had to say on this subject. For instance, Nick and Anne frequently referred to drinking beer ─ or wine in the case of Julia ─ as a major element of the soccer culture. No one explicitly mentioned alcohol as a necessity, but alcohol often helps in creating this ‘gezellige’ atmosphere and this atmosphere is in fact a prerequisite for all respondents:

Anne: Our team is a true ‘vriendenteam’ [team consisting of friends]. Soccer is truly important, but I think that if it wasn’t so ‘gezellig’, we would all quit.  I  think everyone really loves the really long Saturdays spent at the club.

Sam referred to ‘gezelligheid’ in terms of “drinking beer and shallow humour; mostly sexist”. This notion of an atmosphere characterized by shallow, sexist humour already hints at the point of issue here; how stereotypical thinking develops and how it is reproduced.

Ultimately, it matters less what soccer culture is and matters more what soccer culture does. Why is this culture of beer-drinking ‘gezelligheid’ an important factor in the respondents’ experience of gender in their everyday (soccer) life? Soccer as an unconscious language not only makes it hard to define its culture, but more importantly, it shows how deeply embedded underlying stereotypes are. This notion of what soccer is supposed to be like and the surety of how this image is portrayed and disseminated is hugely important in understanding how gender stereotypes are continuously being acknowledged and revitalised.

(Doing) Gender in Soccer

The famous French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman (…); it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary  product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine” (1949/2010, p. 330). Gender used to be a fairly undebated topic. Men and women had very concrete tasks in society and the division between the sexes was pretty straight-forward. The most obvious example would be the very 50s-styled image of the man earning the money and the woman as a domestic counterpart. Yet, times have changed and in this era of continuous reflexivity, traditional frameworks are ─ as I have stated before ─ reshaped and liquefied.

In everyday life we are confronted more and more with the transforming gender discourse. Think about recent public discussions on gender-neutral toilets. And, being a student in Amsterdam, how could I not mention the Amsterdam Gay Pride, one of the biggest celebrations of the LGBT- community? We are increasingly forced to reflect on the outlines of gender, what it is and what it means for us. The resulting inner conflict is best phrased in the following respondents’ statement:

Anne: It is difficult, because one might attribute characteristics to masculinity and femininity that might not be part of it. Now I’m thinking of stuff like nail polish and certain clothing. However, we only allocate these things to be feminine. (…) Thus, I do not want to degrade into stereotypes. (…) I don’t think it [stereotypes] is that fixed. There are no fixed categories. I do not think masculinity and femininity can be explained in a couple of… I mean, I think it is stupid if you talk about femininity and you are discussing nail polish. It is not that clear. Or if you talk about masculinity and you are talking about beards.

During the interview, Anne displayed a constant sense of ambiguous uneasiness with this topic and said she “did not want to be so impetuous”. This attitude was exemplary for all respondents, but some dared to cautiously formulate some general remarks: “I think the main difference between men and women is, and this sounds more harsh than I intend to, men are usually alpha males: tough and big, and women are more social” (Julia). This notion of men being alpha males puts the following not- so-subtle metaphor for the difference between men and women in an interesting perspective: “if you open the Playboy, it is typical for a male to look in it and for a hot woman to be in it”, he then laughed very hard. This was obviously meant humorously remember the earlier comment about soccer culture being somewhat shallow and sexist ─ and later on, Sam phrased it less crude: “if you ask for the real stereotypes, it is the difference between RTL8 and RTL7[1]. Men love vulgarity, machines, physical power. Women like beauty, caretaking, animals”. However, directly after this quote he said the following:

Sam: Yet, in daily live I think it has converged more and more. I think in reality the [gender] gap does not exist (…) I think men, if you look at male advertisement, have become more feminine. In general, men have become more well-groomed, more feminine, or at least what is mainly characterized as being feminine.

In this short fragment he has shifted from a stereotypical view to a more nuanced, reflexive view. These kind of paradoxes can be found everywhere in and around the soccer pitch, for instance, through an analysis of (the rise of) women’s soccer.

The Rise of Women’s Soccer

Women’s soccer is rapidly gaining in popularity. In 2009 women’s soccer was the fastest growing team sport in the Netherlands (De Telegraaf, 2009) and it still is (NOC*NSF, 2015). Even though there are over 150,000 female soccer players, which is more than ten percent of around 1.2 million soccer players in total (KNVB, 2016, p. 8), it is often still frowned upon when a women plays soccer:

Julia: The first time I trained with men, they were like ‘why are you joining, because you are not good enough’. Only after three times they were convinced that I was good enough to join them. You have to prove that you’re able to hit that ball. (…) A lot of guys are like ‘it’s not so bad’.

After the last sentence, Julia laughed really hard about the stupidity of that last statement, because why wouldn’t women be able to play soccer? In this case there is a contest of space. A battle emerges about whether a female is worthy enough to play with ‘the big guys’ ─ literally and figurative. I have to add, we are talking about older men here. These men who also grew up in an age where soccer was a male-only business:

Julia: It never occurred to me to play soccer, because I did not like it. But maybe that is because soccer used to be for guys. (…) When I was young, a girl wouldn’t play soccer. You would do ballet or go horse-riding.

Yet, my other ─ considerably younger ─ respondents said pretty much the same: “I find it [women’s soccer] funny to watch. You notice that they have another style, a different technique than men… (…) ‘Less perfected’. (…) There is a big difference” (Nick).  Nevertheless, most men are gradually realising – in a learn by example way ─ that women are slowly, but steadily conquering their place in soccer:

Anne: [Playing soccer as a girl] was kind of special, yes. It was really unique. When I started at what is now the biggest soccer club in Enschede[2], I was the first girl. (…) If you play soccer nowadays it is not as odd as it used to be. Less spectacular. I think you’ll get a lot less reactions.

This  increase  of women playing  soccer  also  touches upon  another  dogged  stereotype.  Women playing soccer used to be stereotyped as fairly masculine, short-haired and with a heavy physique. This is changing rapidly and young female soccer players are now typified as “meisjes-meisjes” [girly girls] (Julia) or “not masculine, but not very feminine, either” (Anne). This remark was also made by Sam, who trained at a club where fifty percent is female:

Sam: If you look at the veterans at [my club], they are all ‘dykes’, this might sound impolite, but eighty percent is into women. Of course there still are some lesbians [who play soccer], but most [young] girls are straight.

Relating to this, there seems to be an overrepresentation of gay female soccer players. Unfortunately, this paper can only briefly cover the topic of sexuality. In women’s soccer it is fairly normal to be openly homosexual, whereas there are very few openly homosexual male soccer players. Both in the recreational and the professional male soccer environments there seems to be an atmosphere that is not ‘gay-proof’, in the sense that people are not easily inclined to ‘come out’ (Anne). This tough atmosphere is indirectly confirmed in the following anecdote:

Sam: We used to have one [a gay person] in our team. Some people made some jokes about it and then nobody thought different of him. (…) Of course, you will get some jokes, but if you can’t laugh at yourself…

Even though these jokes are made without bad intents, someone who does not fit the archetypical description of a male soccer player can easily get discouraged in this kind of world. As a non-homosexual researcher I can only imagine what it would be like to ponder on telling about my sexual preference. My main point is that all is well and ‘gezellig’ in soccer as long as you stick to the script. But that script is being re-written, which creates an intriguing paradox.

The Appearance-Paradox

In line with Goffmans analogy of life being a stage (1956), I would like to propose the following working hypothesis: the soccer pitch is a stage. A stage where men and women act out their gender- specific parts or scripts. Joseph Harry, long-serving specialist in gender and sexuality, even stated that the meaning of sports is different for men and women:

For men sports seem to be a means of validating male ideals and superiority to women. For women, sports ideology is not supportive of traditional gender attitudes, even among those women who subscribe to the ideology of sports. (1995, p. 115)

Harry’s line of thought is already demonstrated in respondents’ statements mentioned earlier, e.g. the joke about the Playboy and men being alpha males. However, respondents had a lot more to say about the different motives for men and women to play soccer. I will give two more examples:

Sam: Men have a natural drive to perform. Whilst these women were really doing it for the social aspect. The first part of the training they were primarily concerned with catching up on each other’s  school day.

Nick: Males are more aggressive, they want to be the alpha male. I think women are more interested in winning as a team. Men are selfish jerks who do not pass the ball and I think women are collaborating more and care less about scoring themselves.

There we are, back to stereotypical thinking. However, as I have pointed out multiple times, stereotypes are subject to change in this era of ‘liquid modernity’. I cannot stress enough how these paradoxical thoughts kept returning in everyone’s reasoning.

I asked all my respondents to name some manly and some womanly soccer players. It is interesting how hard it was for respondents to name some present-day masculine soccer players. Nearly all players mentioned had retired long ago, e.g. Jaap Stam, who stopped playing ten years ago and even Willem van Hanegem, who used to play in the seventies. It shows how contemporary male soccer players are seldom seen as truly masculine. A manly soccer player was qualified as “not busy with their appearance” (Anne), “not going for the nice picture” (Julia), “tough, fanatical and not a whiner” (Nick) and “linked to a heavily-built physique” (Sam). On the other side of the spectrum, all respondents directly named Cristiano Ronaldo (figures 2 and 3) as a feminine soccer player. He is “metrosexual” (Sam), “always neat and tidy” (Julia), “preoccupied with fashion and appearance” (Anne) and “focused on a lot of other things than soccer” (Nick). On the other hand, respondents were aware of “a weird paradox” (Anne), because he has a “killer body that is the paragon of manliness” (Sam) and therefore it is strange that he “is both feminine and masculine” (Anne).

chevy-fig-2Fig. 3: Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or in 2014


Fig. 4: Ronaldo in Armani underwear






In hindsight all respondents, after some consideration and questioning, admitted that Ronaldo could be seen as both a masculine and a feminine soccer player. On the one hand he is one of the best soccer players of all time, recently he won the Ballon d’Or (figure 3) ─ the prize for worlds’ best soccer player ─ for the fourth time in his career. On the other hand he earns a substantial additional income with modelling. This shows the difference between unconsciously formed standards of what a male soccer player is supposed to be like and a consciously formed modern-day view of how male soccer players nowadays actually are.

The same contrast came to light when asked about Memphis Depay[3]. Last year he made the news by arriving at the training complex wearing a flamboyant hat (figure 5). It received mixed reactions, a lot of Dutch people felt that a soccer player should not dress so eccentrically.  I observed the same mixed feelings in the respondents’ answers:

Anne: [Depay] should know for himself. But it is a shame, I think. Perhaps it is distracting from soccer itself. (…) He is such a good player, so [he should] quit this nonsense.

How interesting that being feminine is linked with not being focused on soccer itself. Consequently, it implies that soccer itself is unwomanly. Even though all of the respondents showed reflexive reasoning on the topic of gender, it shows that gender stereotypes are still very much alive and deeply embedded. In this sense, I would like to recall Goffman. There is a distinction to be made between a performance and performative.   ‘Performing   gender’   means   playing   a   pre-expected part, however, labelling gender as ‘performative’, means ‘doing gender’; every action forms our gender. Thus, actions presuppose gender and not the other way around (Butler, 1988). It is this discrepancy between what people think ─ consciously ─ and what people do ─ unconsciously ─ that creates the paradoxical behaviour in the respondents’ statements.

In this case, the upcoming of gender-mixed teams ─ men and women playing in the same squad ─ is an interesting trend to follow. For a long period people have made a plea for mixed soccer teams, but until now this has not been implemented on a big scale. However, with more and more girls playing soccer, it is probably a matter of time before ‘gender cross-pollination’ will be a natural thing in soccer. Maybe then, selection will not be based on gender, but based on the actual soccer qualities. Only time will tell how this might affect gender perception.


In this small-scale research I have explored the soccer culture to see if the concept of hegemonic masculinity is still an actual issue. Because the population was fairly limited, it is hard to conclude anything substantial. Some interesting remarks can be made, though. The continuous cycle of male dominance to gender socialization to gender inequality and back to male dominance seems to be disrupted. In current times conservative, traditional stereotypes (‘solids’) are becoming more and more questioned, reformulated and reshaped, i.e. they are ‘liquefied’ (Bauman, 2000). However, both male and females are still coping with a deeply embedded gender interplay. All respondents possessed a typical postmodern inner reflexiveness, yet, found it difficult to shake off gender stereotypes. In this phenomenon of being ‘caught between minds’, one can see a transition to a new more gender-neutral era. Still, the outlines of this new era are being drawn as we speak. Only time can tell if my respondents are right, that one day female soccer players will be just as legit as male soccer player.

For the time being, carefully constructed gender socialization of the Dutch youth is still causing continuous contradicting statements regarding the disavowal of archetypical gender characteristics. Whether consciously or unconsciously, one nearly always falls back into old gender-biased patterns. This is the difference between thinking something and doing something. It would have been very interesting to observe my respondents in an actual soccer game to verify if what they say is also what they do. In the Netherlands there is a saying: ‘afleren is moeilijker dan aanleren’, breaking a habit is harder than picking up one. Most of the Dutch youth have become aware of this and I believe it is just a matter of time before we will practice what we preach. Only then will we not only ‘do gender’, but also ‘do gender equality’.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


[1] These are both Dutch television networks. RTL7 is mainly focused on males, which they openly advertise with their slogan ‘Meer voor mannen!’ [literally: More for men!]. RTL8 is their female counterpart, which is often typified by the Dutch as a ‘vrouwenzender’ [broadcasting channel for females]

[2] Enschede is a fairly big city for Dutch standards. Looking at the number of habitants, it is just under the top ten biggest cities in the Netherlands. Therefore, it is safe to say that the lack of female soccer players is not due to a lack of (sporting) females.

[3] Depay is a Dutch international, currently playing for Manchester United. He is often seen as a “fashionable” (Nick) guy who is often more occupied with his appearance than with his soccer qualities.


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List of images

Figure 1. Manchster, S. (2012). Intertwined gender roles. Retrieved from how-to-decide.html

Figure 2. KNVB (2013). Typical post-match image in soccer. Retrieved from

Figure 3. EPA (2014). Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or in 2014. Retrieved from Lionel-Messi-favourites-Gareth-Bale-five-Premier-League-stars-named.html

Figure 4. EPA (2010). Ronaldo in Armani underwear. Retrieved from shift-undies-wont-win-female-fans.html

Figure 5. ANP (2015). Depay wearing a hat to soccer practice. Retrieved from

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