He's a staple of the YA contemporary crowd but his archetype can be found across YA. You can be slap bang in the middle of a fantasy novel and immediately know the guy I am talking about.
According to Urban Dictionary there is a line that separates The Jock from The Athlete and I would have to agree. Although in my high school it was the line that separated the footy (Aussie slang for Australian Rules Football) boys from guys that possessed a) a brain and/or b) some kind of ethical code.
But I am not being fair to real teen boys out there, or YA characters either. People are more than their label, a label they rarely choose or claim as their own.
Jocks have feelings....surely?
Rather harshly, Urban Dictionary defines a jock as "...a person, who, contributes little or nothing to society." While I am attempting to be judicious here, my teen self is crying out - "hell, yeah" - for that summary.
Then I spotted a further definition "...dumbass athletes who get all the chicks in high school. They end up bagging our groceries, cleaning public toilets and flipping burgers at McDonald's after high school. They usually like group showers with other jocks after doing their dumbass sports." Sounds like someone's a little bitter huh?
The thing is....while jocks can be cruel, stupid, disrespectful or even enjoy group showers - these are all stereotypes. Sometimes the Jocks do have a brain, intelligence even. Sometimes Jocks are monogamous boyfriends. Sometimes Jocks are gay. Sometimes Jocks go on to bigger and better things than high school. Sports aren't what make people into Jocks. Sports aren't 'dumbass'. It's like that saying - "guns don't kill people, people kill people" - to be successful at sports you usually have to have focused determination. This determination helps in sports and it sure proves to be helpful when you are torturing your fellow classmates and underclassmen.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen series and you have a whole host of Athletes. DJ's brothers all fall firmly into The Athlete category, mostly as they are relatively well rounded and are shown in a family light, rather than on the social scene. Even Brian, a character I don't respond to as a reader, falls into The Athlete category....though he has moments where The Jock label suits him like a glove.
If I think back to the wonderful Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Piece, I can categorise many of the boys that attend (to simplify) knight school could fall into either category. So it makes me wonder - are these labels all that useful if all that separates The Athlete from The Jock is a conscience?
The Jock, The Cheerleader, The Stoner, etc can all be used a characterisation short cut in storytelling. They are stereotypes formed by what a majority of us experienced in our own lives. Stereotypes sometimes happen out of sheer frequency. But under every 'dumbass' there is a person behind the mask. A person that is more than stupid acts performed in a pack. It's a theme exploded in the 80s classic film The Breakfast Club and the divisive documentary American Teen (which I love). Is it then a case of Jocks being the underwritten, two dimensional, black hat wearing characters where The Athletes are the ones that are well rounded? Are The Athlete and The Jock in fact, the same person? Separated by the way in which the author chooses to justify their actions? Or is it a malleable thing - they can slide from one side of the scale to another? Something to ponder.
- What Jock or Athlete have you come across in a book that subverted the cliche?
- Does your own teen experience help the author short cut/reinforce two dimensional depictions?
- Is branding a supporting or occasional character with Jock save the author from having to expand their characterisation?
- Do you have a favourite Jock or Athlete from your own YA reading? Is there a character from fantasy who fits the label despite their sport involving arrows or mallets?