Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Hegemonic Gender Identity and Outward Bound: Resistance and Re-Inscription?

Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Hegemonic Gender Identity and Outward Bound: Resistance and Re-Inscription?

Article excerpt

Historically, Outward Bound's outdoor and adventure education programs were seen as curricula that would make 'men out of boys' (Marsh and Richards, 1989). (1) Currently, Outward Bound is also seen as a space for some women who resist dominant codes of femininity. As an outdoor educator, I must lift, paddle, carry, decide, judge, navigate, know, problem solve, direct, and be dirty; I must do many things popularly thought to be both strong and 'unfeminine.' A powerful sense of freedom and possibility can be found in the long and sometimes difficult days of a wilderness journey. Like many women who work outdoors, I have found this space one in which I can escape some culturally constructed limiting stances reserved for women. Yet, I have also found that the simultaneous workings of possibility and regulation with respect to gender discourses are more complex than they initially appear in outdoor pedagogical contexts.

There is a pervasive myth that 'wilderness,' in its distance from media and cultural centres, is the great equalizer; that social difference, particularly as it pertains to gender, doesn't matter when we enter the woods (Morch, 1997; Warren, 1985). Women have, after all, time and again shown themselves to be competent wilderness guides and travelers, despite this being seen as traditionally male space. However, this is most often expressed in the assertion that women can do anything men can; such declarations fail to problematize the construction of male as norm (Morch, 1997). Alternatively, some educational programs assume that women must do less, carry less, and travel shorter distances 'out there.' Neither view is very helpful or very accurate of the actual lived experience of gender in the outdoors.

The reality is that the 'wilderness' is no level playing field. Women outdoor instructors often struggle to gain respect from their students equal to that accorded their male co-instructors (Newbery, 1999) and to credit themselves with the competence they possess (Loeffler, 1997, 1999). Masculine subtexts of wilderness travel have long been recognized (Beale, 1988; James, 1988; Joyce, 1988; Warren, 1985), and many programs, like Outward Bound, unproblematically invoke liberal notions of adventure that tend to encourage rugged individualism and efface difference. Discourses of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability all operate in wilderness contexts, influencing who takes part in outdoor activities, and under what conditions. Social meanings and expectations follow us to even the most remote corners of the boreal forest.

The personal challenges I faced in being a woman wilderness instructor spurred a research project exploring how women Outward Bound instructors understand, live, and negotiate constructs of gender in the context of their work. I wanted to understand if and how other women who work outdoors felt the contradictions, the dissonance of walking against the grain when the grain of 'normal woman' has been ingrained. This research project's clearest, yet not entirely comfortable epistemological home lies within a poststructural ethnographic realm, in part because I view the project not as a representation of the "real" of gender in OEE contexts, but as a particular telling, itself an effect of discourses (Britzman, 1995; see Britzman, 1991; Davies, 1989, 1993). Primarily, however, my focus in understanding how gender is discursively organized leant itself to poststructuralism which is most effective at theorizing contradictions and accounting for multiple, dynamic, competing layers of meaning. While field work did not involve in-depth participant observations, I did investigate a cultural and pedagogical space I was very familiar with, and I spent significant time with research participants (n=4), conducting multiple semi-structured interviews over a six month period in 1999 and 2000.

Research participants, were all between the ages of 27 and 32, all identified as white and educationally privileged, variously identified as queer, lesbian, or heterosexual, and were variously raised in working class and middle class families. …

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