By definition, the adolescent experience is easy to dramatize. Asking questions about identity and loyalty, navigating friend groups, and searching for meaning are all universal parts of those years. Unfortunately, stereotypes are a part of that, from the pretty cheerleader to the “jerk jock,” a term coined by “pop-culture wiki” and trope analyzing site TVTropes,org.[1] Students are not the only culprits. These stereotypes are Hollywood favorites, acting not only as a character development shortcut, but also as propaganda.

Describing the jerk jock trope as propaganda may seem like a dramatization itself. After all, it’s a classic cliche that’s as much a part of the American culture as our freedom of speech. And really, what’s the harm if the popular kids get a little unfair representation in the hallways or in media? Most importantly, what would be the point for movies to use this kind of propaganda? The term “propaganda” conjures up images of North Korea and government plots, but in reality, it can be more broadly described as a systematic process purposefully enacted by a group with the aim of instilling a specific attitude or response. Understanding the jerk jock stereotype as propaganda actually helps to better understand the origins, causes, and dangers of this cliche.

First, defining the jerk jock is an important starting point. Athletes in the mass media have consistently been “stereotyped as drug abusers, scholastic cheaters, and anti-heroes who are interested in winning at any costs.”[2] In fiction, jocks “dominate the school or college environment through physical violence and threats of brutal retaliation” and are “obnoxious, spiteful assholes with an out-of-control sense of entitlement” who “beat people up, get drunk and destroy property.” In more extreme storylines, the jock may “also be an incorrigible rapist.”[3] According to masters student Jason Beck, this representation is remarkably consistent in research, with a separate study finding that “70% of male teen characters in the top grossing films from 1999-2001 were portrayed as active substance users of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” Even more specifically, jocks were shown to be concerned with “physical appearance, risk taking, alcohol consumption, and sexual prowess.”[4] Simply, what this means is that jocks, both real and imaginary, are used to represent extreme masculinity. [5]

The representation of jocks as aggressive, violent, idiotic meatheads is actually a common technique in propaganda. Portraying people like this is referred to as “demonization,” or the idea that a group is immoral, dangerous, and threatening. Ultimately, historian and director for the Kent Center for the Study of War, Propaganda, and Society David Welch explains this is extremely effective propaganda. This technique uses simplified, black-and-white contrasts that “contain a greater emotional intensity,” “guide the audience’s sympathies,” and allow groups to be organized into “good and evil, beauty and the beast.”[6] One could argue that the jock trope can just be understood as a modern-day David and Goliath or a classic underdog story. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this technique was also used in harmful wartime propaganda.

One example is the British propaganda of the German “Hun” during the first World War. The Hun was usually drawn as a monstrous brute, most famously in a cartoon representing the German invasion of Belgium. Where Belgium was portrayed as a “defenceless child,” Germany was represented by a “threatening and overbearing bully,” as seen in Figure 1. [7] In other cartoons, Belgium was also drawn was a “woman ravaged by brutal Prussian militarism.”[8] Like the American jock seventy years later, Germany was portrayed as violent and immoral. Even though he was larger, the German bully picked a fight with the little guy and used his unfair advantage to get what he wanted.

propaganda-belgium
Figure 1: A famous cartoon symbolizing the German invasion of Belgium. Belgium was represented as a little boy and Germany was symbolized by a bully. Punch. (12 Aug 1914). Bravo, Belgium!

During the war, this David and Goliath trope was also successful because the British traditionally support the underdog. [1] American culture and identity has a similar fondness for the underdog: we celebrate Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, and the American Dream of immigrants who transform themselves from peasants into millionaires. Jock demonization benefits from the same affection for the downtrodden. We want the childish nerd to win and the bully to repeat history and face defeat. To summarize, while it might seem initially counterintuitive, a teen with questions about identity and their place in the world is very similar to a confused nation at war. Because teen movies already rely on an us-vs.-them dynamic of a small band of friends against the world, they actually lend themselves easily to such propaganda techniques.

Where the techniques used in jock demonization have clear connections to 20th century war propaganda, the jerk jock trope also has a uniquely American background. To some extent, jocks represent the traditional all-American identity–and the conflicts that exist within that culture. First, part of the importance of American jocks has to do with the role of sports in American society as an institution or even a religion.[2] Sports fully took on this role after the nineteenth century after World War I and the Roaring Twenties. [3] In our culture, athletes represent the “basic values of society, such as teamwork, competition, discipline, and obedience to rules”–all highly regarded by Americans. As a result, the jock becomes a stand-in for these traditional values in media. This means an athlete can either represent the American ideal or a corruption of that role model. Second, domestic politics of the later 20th century also played a role. After the Vietnam and Korean wars, young generations of Americans were generally disillusioned with American society. Teenagers in the 1980s were similarly frustrated with new conservative president Ronald Reagan. American film scholar and professor Timothy Shary notes that Regan’s administration and “naive ‘just say no’ approach…gave youth a renewed sense of irritation for adult society.”[4]

The media reflected these changes. Specifically, one study found that “in a random sample of sport films,” athletes were portrayed respectfully before the Vietnam War, while afterwards, they were “portrayed more negatively as violent, unintelligent substance abusers and cheaters.”[5] According to Texas State University Sociology Professor Toni Terling Watt, this evolved into themes of anti-authority rebellion in the 1980s and outright rejection of parental figures in the 1990s.[6] In the 80s, teens became “superior” to adults. In the 90s, teens were put “in charge.”[7] Instead of fighting with adult authority, films with demonized athletes focused on peer conflict where jocks represented the ultimate authority and hierarchy. As these Goliaths of the hallways, jocks represented not only the all-American culture and Reagan-esque authority teens were rebelling from, but also a corruption of these traditional values. Because they are popular, successful athletes, they are widely loved by parents, teachers, and authority figures alike. But the other children alone know the truth about their immorality and corruption–just like teens’ disillusionment with real-world all-American identity at the time.

However, utilizing a potentially un-American theme as propaganda seems counterintuitive and conspiratorial. The truth may be more capitalistic. Because of the boom in movie theater construction in the 80s, teens suddenly became an extremely important consumer audience for the film industry. To appeal to these new markets, Hollywood realized that it would have to include more teenage characters in movies that their targets could identify with. Where teenage characters in 1950s films were often “homogenous,” teens on screen in the 80s became more dramatic, varied, and diverse. Instead of only experiencing a “narrow path between good and evil” like in the 1950s, movies in the 1980s showed a “complexity of moral choices and personal options.”[8] Additionally, anxiety about peer relationships has been a timeless issue in film history, regardless of decade.[9] Therefore, pairing demonization with more targeted media products became extremely successful because everyone can–at some point–identify with the underdog, feelings of insecurity, unpopularity, and questions of identity. If the industry marketed movies to the “popular” kids and did not represent these universal struggles, their consumer audiences, and profits, would have been much smaller. In traditional enemy-based propaganda, the goal is easy to see: buying bonds, joining the army, and most importantly, correctly aligning your loyalties. In teen film propaganda, the motivation is just as simple. Advertisers and film executives wanted teens to feel heard.

Like traditional propaganda, films made use of important symbols and signifiers to clearly communicate this demonization to audiences. Visual tropes for jocks usually include letterman jackets, muscles and physical size, and roaming in large groups. Typically, these characters are white. If a non-white character is included in the jock’s posse, he is usually portrayed as a sidekick rather than the quarterback or “leader.” Cultural narratives also play an important role in the demonization of jocks. In addition to the representation of hegemonic masculinity, jocks also act as pictures of cultural privilege. Not only do they have racial privilege but jocks are also portrayed as socially powerful. Despite being cruel and violent, they are still popular, never punished, and well-liked. Jerk jocks still succeed, even if it’s not by the normal academic standards set for everyone else. Second, they embody physical privilege by being taller, stronger, and more powerful than others, and using that privilege to get what they want. Ultimately, because jocks embody both these social and physical privileges and use them for their own crude and cruel purposes, audiences are supposed to dislike them and be jealous of them.

Therefore, the demonization of this group is a product of both generic psychological processes and the anti-Americana political process. Propagandists and scriptwriters alike have used jocks as representations of immoral aggressors picking on the little guy so viewers are psychologically primed to hate the bully. Second, by representing the all-American authority, jocks triggered a knee-jerk reaction among 20th century teenage viewers to dislike them. Third, as embodiments of cultural privilege with evil intentions, jocks received both the hatred and jealousy of viewers.

To summarize, demonization of jocks has roots in WWI anti-German propaganda tactics, may have stemmed from teen frustration with authority in the 80s and 90s and political dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan, and was ultimately used as a tactic by the film industry to target teen consumers. The trope gains power from American sport culture, preexisting teenage social anxieties and high school drama, general psychology, and through application of visual tropes and cultural narratives about all-American and heteronormative masculine identity. Looking at five examples from 1984 to 1999, we see support for a range of these causes, motives, and tactics.

The first example, Revenge of the Nerds (Kanew 1984), is built completely around demonization of jocks. The plot focuses on two friends who try to take revenge on the athletes for their unending abuse and the jock caricatures do not disappoint. They are portrayed as white, physically powerful, aggressive, cruel, and stupid. Not only do they get the girl and torment the geeks, but they even manage to burn down their own frat house on accident. As propaganda, putting jockstraps on another student’s head in this clip and in Figure 2 might be the 80s equivalent of the Prussian bully threatening the Belgian child.

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Figure 2: A nerd being targeted in the locker room by jocks in Revenge of the Nerds (Kanew 1984). Screenshot from above YouTube link.

 

As another movie that thrives on extreme stereotypes, it is no surprise that Heathers (Lehmann 1988) includes almost all of these demonization tactics. Senior jocks Ram and Kurt are idiotic, immature, aggressive bullies who drink too much and are so obsessed with having sex that it eventually leads to their downfalls. They are tall, strong white teenagers who beat up younger geeks, even at a funeral, as seen in this clip and Figure 3, and are typically seen wearing their letter jackets. Because Heathers is a darkly cynical movie, it can easily be understood as a counter to the all-American narrative and naive authority of the Reagan era. The film is also a good example of the industry’s attempts to appeal at a wider range of niche audiences. However, while Ram and Kurt are clearly categorized as jerk jocks, they are not the true villains of Heathers, and serve rather as a comedic statement on the absurdity of high school, its students, and the tropes themselves. Though they do serve as comedic relief, Ram and Kurt are still extremely unlikable characters and can still be considered demonization propaganda even with the movie’s tongue-and-cheek attitude.

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Figure 3: A “geek” being attacked by Ram and Kurt at a funeral in Heathers after he flipped the jocks off (Lehmann 1988). Screenshot from above YouTube clip.

Demonization of jocks continued from the 80s into the 90s with films like Warriors of Virtue (Yu 1997), Can’t Hardly Wait (Elfont and Kaplan 1998), and She’s All That (Iscove 1999). Of all the examples, Warriors of Virtue introduces the most evil demonized jock in Brad. Brad is a high school quarterback and villain of the movie, which can be seen in this clip (4:40-5:30) and Figure 4. While Brad is a popular, handsome, all-American sports star with a beautiful girlfriend, the protagonist, Ryan, is the team’s young, disabled waterboy who loves comic books. As the jerk jock, Brad taunts Ryan, plagiarizes his winning football strategies, and puts him in dangerous situations to take advantage of Ryan’s hopes to fit in. Though the film is aimed at younger audiences, the movie’s demonization still has strongly political themes. Not only is Brad a corruption of the all-American ideal as an especially cruel and delinquent quarterback, his team posse is called the “Eagles” and dressed in patriotic red and white. Additionally, the solution to Ryan’s problems comes in the form of an ancient Chinese manuscript and lessons about karate rather than from any traditional American authority.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-10-58-46-am
Figure 4: Jock Brad spits water on the protagonist’s shoes after being given winning football advice in Warriors of Virtue (Yu 1997). Screenshot from the above YouTube link.

In contrast, Can’t Hardly Wait and She’s All That are more typical teen comedies that reflect 90s clashes with peers instead of adult authority. The jock of Can’t Hardly Wait, Mike Dexter, is a partying, sex-focused bully who encourages his friends to break up with their girlfriends so they can sleep with more women in college. Like all the other examples, Mike is also white, physically strong, and handsome, but unlike the others, he is more complex. Instead of being purely evil like Brad, Mike shows some depth as a character by protecting a nerd from the police when they are found drinking. However, he is demonized so strongly that this is not enough to change him as a person. As the clip and Figure 5 show, Mike still is an incorrigible jerk in college who fails because of his drinking problems.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-2-45-11-am
Figure 5: Though Mike is a popular jock in high school, his future is less bright in Can’t Hardly Wait (Elfont and Kaplan 1998). Screenshot from the above YouTube clip.

Finally, She’s All That includes the most nuanced demonization of jocks in the two main characters Zack and Dean. Both look like standard jocks. They are white, athletic, attractive, and muscular. Both are popular and date popular girls in school. As the clip and Figure 6 show, Dean (Paul Walker) teases Zack (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) for not having had sex recently, which turns into a brawl. The movie’s plot centers around their cruel bet to turn an unpopular girl, Laney, into the prom queen. While Zack starts to like her and is shown to be a good person, Dean consistently tries to sabotage his friend and trick Laney into sleeping with him, just like the old British accusation of Prussian rapist bullies. Therefore, it is no surprise that the true jerk jock is much more all-American, with blonde hair and more muscles than Zack, and even further embodies hegemonic masculinity.

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Figure 6: Dean teases Zack about his sex life in She’s All That (Iscove 1999). Screenshot from the above YouTube clip.

Ultimately, while the examples show some range in demonization of jocks from the 80s to the 90s, classic tactics of visual tropes and characteristics of immorality and aggression are consistent. In addition, one major difference is that films from the 80s use political propaganda themes while the 90s tended to be more psychological. Second, the question of a redeemed demonized jock was only raised in the 90s.

However, the jerk jock trope did not end in the 90s and is still prevalent today, from cartoons to cable crime shows. When considering similar images in the future, keeping these questions in mind is beneficial: Why are these jocks being visually portrayed in this way? How is the film trying to use demonization and stereotypes to connect to film audiences? Are jocks being portrayed in homogenous, oversimplified stereotypes or are they shown with diversity in their personalities and values?

Though demonization of jocks seems more lighthearted than most propaganda, it still has real-world implications, as well. Pay attention to the portrayal of professional athletes in mass media sports coverage. Often, athletes are shown in similarly simplistic terms as bad guys, especially in coverage of scandals. Additionally, these demonization tropes may also negatively impact male student athletes, as well. A study at an “elite academic institution” measured faculty members’ opinions of male athletes, resulting in a few positive adjectives, but at least one of the following words in each professor’s response: “dumb, violent, rapist, or drug abuser.”[1] Of these faculty members, 45% believed that these athletes were less intelligent than non-athletes and 44% believed they were more likely to cheat.[2] Studies of male athletes have not supported these stereotypes.[3] While these assumptions cannot simply be the result of movie stereotypes, these studies introduce the dangers of group demonization, even if the result may just be a biased grade.

Ultimately, demonization of jocks in media is very successful. It acts as a storytelling shortcut, evokes empathy from the viewer, and builds on classic themes. Most of the films cited as examples have been very popular, even withstanding the test of time. Whether they were only successful because of their use of jock demonization is not clear. However, it is extremely ironic that the cynical teens of the 80s and 90s responded so well to anti-establishment demonization of jocks created for them by that same establishment they hated. These can serve as a warning to think more carefully about what messages media offers you and why.

Most importantly, jock demonization makes the case for better media literacy and better understanding of the prevalence of propaganda in everyday life. Though it is undeniably successful, these cases raise a crucial question: is selling more movies good enough to justify group demonization? Perhaps this is a trend best left in the last century.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is demonization of a group more okay if that group is typically not discriminated against in terms of race or gender?
  2. Based on your own experiences, how fair would you consider the representation of jocks in these films?
  3. Do you think the demonization of jocks in modern films can be considered propaganda?
  4. Does this propaganda trend continue in films today? How is it different?

Future Resources

Annie Murphy Hall, “The dumb jock stereotype can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” New York Times, April 24, 2014.

In this New York Times article, Annie Murphy Hall explores the potential of “dumb jock” stereotypes to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Aubree DuBlois, “Dumb jock stereotypes in children’s media. Huskies’ Adventures in Wonderland: Children’s Literature, Spring 2013, March 2, 2013. 

This blog post written by student Aubree DuBlois for a literature course at the University of Connecticut at Storrs lists examples of dumb jock stereotypes found in popular children’s media.

Longo, Gabrielle, “Scoring a Goal against the “Dumb Jock” Stereotype” (2015). Academic Symposium of Undergraduate Scholarship. Paper 29

Longo’s undergraduate thesis examining the prevalence of the “dumb jock” stereotype and uncovering its inaccuracy.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Athletes Aren’t Dumb Jocks: We’re the Face of Change.” Time. July 14, 2016. 

In this opinion article, famous basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explains that the dumb jock stereotype has partially kept athletes from speaking out on social issues. He says athletes are important role models and need to help make America a better place.

Teaching Tolerance. “Culture in the Classroom.” The Southern Poverty Law Center. 2016. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center provides this resource to teachers as a guide for dealing with stereotypes in the classroom. The page includes videos, activities for teachers, and other resources.

[1] TV Tropes. (n.d.). Jerk jock. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/JerkJock.

[2] Marie Pease Lewis is a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona. . Lewis, M. P. (1988). Fair or foul? An investigation into the common stereotypes of athletes (Doctoral dissertation). p. 94. Retrieved from The University of Arizona University Libraries.

[3] Tropes.

[4] Beck is a Masters of Communication candidate at Bringham Young University. Beck, J. M. (2011). A comparison of male athletes with teenage peers in popular teen movies (Masters thesis). Retrieved from BYU Scholars Archive.

[5] Adelman and Taylor created this resource as part of the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. The report was intended to be used improve policy and research in schools.

Adelman, H. and Taylor, L. (n.d.). About jocks as a youth subculture. Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. Page 2. Retrieved from http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/youth/jocks.pdf.

[6] Welch, D. (2014). Propaganda, power, and persuasion: from world war I to Wikileaks. London: I.B. Tauris.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Lewis, 1988, p. 14-18

[11] Ibid 18

[12] Shary, T. (2005). Teen movies; American youth on screen. London; New York: Wallflower, 2005.

[13] Beck, 2011, p.6

[14] Watt, T. T. (2006). From american graffiti to american pie: The portrayal of adolescents in teen movies. Conference Papers–American Sociological Association, 1.

[15] Ibid

[16] Shary 2005

[17] Watt 2006

[18] Beck, 2011, p.8

[19] Ibid

[20] Lewis, 1988, p. 94

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