Saturday, 25 September 2010

Character Study: The Jock / The Athlete

The Jock.

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.

The Athlete is different.  Though I think there's a grey area where The Athlete hangs out with the Jocks and slides a little.  The Athlete is the person that is successful at sports without becoming a complete 'dumbass'.  The Athlete makes regular appearances in YA as well.  Just think of 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?

Jocks, and all of the cliches that are associated with them, make an authors task an easier one.  We are much more likely as a reading collective to buy into a character (that happens to be entitled a Jock) as a jerk.  Then the character arc and evolution can begin.  But most of the time, the character being portrayed as a rehabilitated Jock was an Athlete in the first place.  It was the perception of the protagonist, and the audience, that boxed him into the wrong corner in the first place.  As a reader I am all too ready to buy into that perception because of my own experiences with 'dumbasses'. Mr Darcy (if he possessed mad equestrian skills) would have been an Athlete wrongly attributed the Jock label.   In essence Jock is just another label for jerk.  In this case though, the jerk needs to possess athletic ability or be on a sporting team to qualify.

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.

Discussion points:
  • 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?
**Which celebrity is depicted in the above picture?  Think you know?


Anonymous said...

OMG!!! Is that a very young (and very fine) Jon Hamm? DAMN!!!

Em said...

I love Junior as a star athlete in "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." I would say he definitely subverts the cliche.

Michelle said...

Interesting thoughts here, Adele. I would say that what makes a jock a jerk is the fact that we, as readers or the narrator, jump to the assumption that that said jock is a stereotype. We fail to look beyond the stereotype to see the human underneath. There may be a perfectly understandable reason why the jock is acting according to stereotype, and that once we get to know them, we can appreciate them more as an athlete. The same can be said for any stereotype - Nerd, Cheerleader, Prep, Stoner. The key is to uncovering the person behind the stereotype.

Lisa Schroeder said...

This line cracked me up! "They end up bagging our groceries, cleaning public toilets and flipping burgers at McDonald's after high school."

I actually know quite a few jocks who went on to be teachers and football coaches. I'm thinking that is probably - teachers so they can BE football coaches. :)

jpetroroy said...

Mmmm....young Jon Hamm.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing something at the moment with a jock protagonist but have invested a lot of time in making him different and not a cliche. It's fun! :)

I really enjoyed Luke from The Book Of Luke because there was more to him that the surface which is nice. Also, I enjoyed Todd from A Match Made In High School. I really like the original take on stereotype characters that Kristin Walker incorporated into the entire book actually. It wasn't predictable even though it had recognizable characters and elements.

Jordyn said...

I feel like the only person in the world who DOESN'T have this perception of jocks/athletes. To me the only difference between jocks and athletes is that jocks are more sports-obsessed than athletes... like either they're in EVERY SPORT THEY CAN or super super super motivated/great at the one their in so that it kind of takes over their lives.

But as for my perception... I was always sort-of friends with the jocks/athletes, most of my friends played sports, and there was a huge jock/nerd overlap at my school. I recognize the stereotype, I just have no actual experience with it so I've never really liked the portrayal of HS athletes/jocks as this. Same with the whole cheerleader stereotype...

I think a lot of the love interests in my novels are jocks/athletes actually, but it's never pushed as the focal point of their personality, it's just a part of them.

John The Bookworm said...

Ah, to be older and out of high school, and to have the 'Jock Jade' fade to the point where this is an easy discussion topic. As the resident geek in school, I still have a wee bit of an issue with Jocks (who are very different from the Athletes, I will agree).

I do think they are underwritten, though. There are non-horrible jock's in school, just as there are horrible geeks. It's all a matter of the person. That being said, I haven't really read anything that I would say is cliche breaking, but I hear that Chris Chrutcher writes some awesome sports stories. Ones that don't have asshole characters.

Either way, I'd like to see YA lit make my views on the sport-obsessed muscle-y Jocks less jaded. But the high school hate is hard to break. :)

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

i think there's too many jocks, and not enough athletes in YA lit. that, or they have neither (as in no sports mentioned at all) which also bugs me. but i agree with the above commentator who said that jocks are jocks because we the readers jump to the stereotypical conclusion. oh well, i dont mind being proven wrong :)

Mari - Escape In A Book said...

One of my very best friends were a jock type, and I know some people really liked him and looked up to him while others could barely stand to be in the same room. Underneath that jock attitude there was a person, but I have no trouble understanding why jocks are disliked so much. The behavior which characterizes a jock isn't nice.

Some are jocks but I think a lot of guys for some reason, that I cannot understand, think that acting like a jock is a good way to hide their true self.

I would like to see both characters further explored, but perhaps I first should read some more contemprary YA.