Bullying at School: Boys policing the boy?
Presentation for the Ph.D.-seminar: Men and Masculinities
By Ph.D.-student Paul Horton
Bullying discourse is focused on individual behaviour; behaviour that is perceived as ‘extreme’.
This is highlighted by Dan Olweus’ definition of bullying, the definition that is most widely used:
A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to
negative actions on the part of one or more other students (Olweus 2003, 9).
Olweus also states that for bullying to occur, there must be aggressive or ‘evil-minded’ behaviour
involved. Thus ‘bullies’ are seen as ‘aggressive’ and ‘evil-minded’ and bullying is seen as a subset
of aggression. While not trying to defend bullying behaviour, I feel that the broader context has
been lost, not least the role of gender norms, despite findings pointing in this direction. The World
Health Organization, for example, found that four times as many boys bully than girls, while
research in England suggests five times as many boys bully. Rather than accepting the idea that
boys bully more because they are boys, or particular types of ‘evil’ boys, I would suggest that
bullying is a way of both performing and policing ‘the boy’. The context is central, as boys draw on
patterns found in their social setting when performing and policing – I will therefore try to illustrate
with some short examples from my earlier fieldwork at an all-boy’s high school in New Zealand
(see Horton 2004).
A consideration of New Zealand’s specific gendered history highlights how certain ways of being
have been deliberately promoted at the expense of others considered ‘inappropriate’, which in the
case of homosexuality was even criminalised until 1986. Boys’ definitions of masculinity and
femininity largely reflected the New Zealand context, with boys pointing to a dichotomy between
those who are physical, big, strong, and who hide their emotions, and those who are less physical,
small, weak, and who show their emotions too readily.
Findings suggest that gay and lesbian youths are over-represented in bullying statistics in New
Zealand; a finding that is also found in other countries. Bullying often revolves around misogynist
and homophobic language, and my own research in New Zealand found that terms such as poof,
fag, queer, and gay were widely used. While the meanings are known and serve to derogate
homosexuality through their usage, students were not actually implying that the people were gay;
rather the terms were used against those considered non-masculine or effeminate. Three students
highlighted this when explaining the use of the word ‘sissy’:
Nigel: Um, oh yeah, sissy explains the like Michael Jackson and Elton John and stuff like
Ken: It’s like, like gay, like
Nigel: Like a woman
Ken: Just like gay, like a gay but
Callum: Not really physical people
Ken: It’s sort of a stupid one though
Nigel: They’re all sort of terms that were meaning like well some of them are terms that
were meaning like homosexuals but they weren’t actually meant like homosexual
when we use them
Ken: It means like you’re a bit of a wuss or something
Wayne Martino (1999) argues that the term wuss stems from two words, weak and pussy. This was
supported by one boy’s explanation, when he explained the term as meaning “pussy boy”. While
norms of masculinity in New Zealand exclude the non-heterosexual, they also tend to undermine
the academic goals of schools, whereby engagement in studies is prioritised, at least publicly.
Schools may also undermine these goals themselves by prioritising more masculine activities, such
as rugby, both at the school level, through prize giving and acknowledgement of achievement, and
at the more personal teacher level, through favouritism. A number of studies have found that
bullying is related to academic engagement, with students bullied either because they are working
too hard, or because they are perceived as dumb. Findings have also found that bullies tend to get
lower than average grades. Callum’s reply to my question “Is it cool to be smart?” highlights the
importance of both grades and engagement in school work:
Callum: In a way you want to be, but it’s not that cool to be smart. Like you want to
be but then again you don’t want to get ripped out everyday ‘cos you’re
going too hard.
PH: OK, so you don’t want to be seen to be working too hard?
Callum: It’s like when you study for exams and that, like you could be studying for
about four weeks before and then like people go ‘oh have you started
studying?’ you’re like ‘no I haven’t started yet.’ Just so they don’t think
you’re going too hard out.
Callum: Do average, pretty average at school work
PH: OK, average, pretty average?
Callum: Like you don’t want to go too hard out and get in the 90s and that or else you’ll get,
thinks you’re a nerd anyway if you do that
PH: What about going less hard out? Getting lower marks?
Callum: If you get low marks, you get called like a dumb ass, if you get like average results
like 40s or
50s and 30s, you don’t really get hassled as much
PH: So you want to sit in the middle somewhere?
Callum: Sit in the middle, yeah.
The differences between the academic and certain sports were also underlined by a number of boys
in discussions about popularity and masculinity:
PH: How would you define popularity?
Ryan: Good at rugby
PH: Good at rugby?
Ryan: Yeah, like your sport
Gary: If you’re like good at your sport and that then you’re pretty well known
Ryan: Yeah you haven’t got brainy guys known around this school eh.
Richard expanded on this when he stated:
Yeah, in general it’s not as good to be good at academics as it is to be good at sport. And then like
not play soccer, ‘cos a lot of guys who play soccer get ripped out, you might say, and it’s
generally not a good thing. Yeah, there’s a big difference between some things.
As did Callum when explaining what he considered ‘manliness’:
Callum: Normally sport people you’d say.
Callum: Like the nerd people, you tend to think that they’re weak and hopeless
but sports people, like contact sports like rugby and that, think they’re
PH: OK, so a bit more physical sports?
PH: Would soccer come under that?
Callum: Nah, not really ‘cos they get wee taps on the shin guards and go crying
Indeed, soccer is often referred to as a girl’s sport in NZ, while rugby was made compulsory in an
attempt to protect the ‘manliness’ of the nation. Praising the compulsorisation of rugby in all-boys
schools, Truby King – the founder of the Plunket Society and Chief superintendent of Seacliff
Asylum – stated in 1906 that too much emphasis on academic work led to “sexual irregularities and
insanity itself” (in Phillips 1996, 85).
Highlighting the ways in which bullying may be part of the performing and policing of
masculinities, boys suggested that some people deserve to be bullied. Nigel stated that “most of the
people who do get bullied deserve it anyway”, while Richard pointed to the benefits of being
In some cases getting bullied can be a good thing because it makes you grow up, not act so
childish and really creates your character a bit more.
Craig suggested that some people deserve to be bullied, depending on their behaviour:
PH: Do you think some people deserve to be bullied?
Craig: Depends, if they get the chance to improve and become a non-target and they don’t
take it, then yeah probably
I would argue that the performing and policing of masculinities are two sides of the same coin with
regards to bullying – bullying may be a way of both performing the masculine self, as a means of
differentiating from the other, and a way of policing the boundaries of the ‘normal’. While I would
suggest that students draw on their social environment in their performing and policing, one could
ask why not all students perform their masculinities in accordance with such norms. I would suggest
that it is not possible for some students, as they not only position themselves; they are also
positioned by others. Some norms of masculinity may also challenge their own social trajectory.
While students seek to position themselves favourably, they also seek ontological security. Indeed,
the contradictions involved in the daily positioning were fascinating. I gave all boys a picture list of
famous men and asked them to identify the three most masculine and the three least masculine. One
student chose Tiger Woods as the most masculine and when challenged on his decision to choose a
golfer, he defended his position by arguing that Tiger can hit the ball really hard. Another boy was
less successful in his positioning, when he ‘failed’ to select Elton John as least masculine, to which
it was suggested that Elton John’s homosexuality was justification enough. The boy in question
attempted to justify his answer by arguing that he liked Elton John’s music, which elicited laughter
from the other boys. In explaining the derogatory term ‘geek’, one boy started by stating that geeks
are those guys who wear glasses, despite the fact that he himself was wearing glasses; a fact his
friend quickly pointed out to him. Craig defined the term geek in the following way:
I’d say geek as in hard out achievers who don’t socialize as much, well like normal people should
and they’re way too concerned about the grades.
It is interesting to note that Craig was a ‘card player’, one of the groups given as an example of
being unpopular by many boys, and was also taking six subjects instead of the required five. Such
contradictions, I would argue, suggest that the performing and policing of masculinity is messy,
which then makes the constant performing and policing all the more crucial.