Adolescence is dramatic. Asking questions about identity, navigating friend groups, and searching for meaning are universal parts of these years. Unfortunately, stereotypes are a common part of adolescence, too, and range from the awkward nerd to the pretty cheerleader and the jerk jock. Students are not the only culprits. These stereotypes are favorites in Hollywood and can be seen in movies, comics, cartoons, and TV shows. In such media, stereotypes are popular because they act as character development shortcuts. But from a cynical perspective, they can also be seen as a type of propaganda.

Comparing movie characters to propaganda can seem like a jump, especially in the case of jocks. After all, the jerk jock (to borrow a name from “pop-culture wiki” and trope analyzing site TVTropes.org),[1] is a classic cliché in American culture. And really, what’s the harm if 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” usually makes one think of North Korea or wartime posters. 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. In the case of jock stereotypes, the characters do not represent the same direct propaganda. Instead, they reflect the ideology that wartime propaganda builds upon and applies it to entertainment. By applying this definition to stereotypes in movies, we can better understand their origins, causes, and dangers of how this cliché can hurt both professional and student athletes. This article will focus mostly on the jerk jock in movies from the 1980s-1990s.

First, what exactly is a jerk jock? In mass media, athletes have consistently been “stereotyped as drug abusers, scholastic cheaters, and anti-heroes who are interested in winning at any costs.”[2] TVTropes explains that in fiction, jocks “dominate the school or college environment through physical violence and threats of brutal relation.” They 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]” Part of this stereotype may be connected to general stereotypes about teen boys. According to graduate communication researcher Jason Beck, of the “top grossing films from 1999-2001,” “70 of male teen characters…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] This means that jocks, both real and imaginary, are also used to represent extreme masculinity.[5]

Basically, jerk jocks are portrayed as aggressive, violent, idiotic meatheads. In propaganda, representing one group as immoral, dangerous, and threatening is actually a common technique called “demonization.” David Welch, a historian and director for the Kent Center for the Study of War, Propaganda, and Society, says demonization is extremely effective propaganda. The 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 jerk jock trope is just an innocent, modern-day David and Goliath or a classic underdog story. But it’s important to acknowledge that this technique was also used in harmful wartime propaganda.

When propaganda uses demonization to show this kind of David and Goliath struggle, it uses three tactics: 1) an “us vs. them” narrative that shows differences through 2) immorality and 3) weakness vs. great physical strength. Jerk jock stereotypes are built on the same tactics of demonization. This overlap can exist between two very different types of media because a student can experience similar types of emotions as a citizen whose country is at war. To be clear, adolescence cannot compare to the traumas of war. But war propaganda and teen movies use similar tactics because they’re appealing to similar base human emotions, just on a different scale. A teen with questions about identity and their place in the world is very similar to a confused nation at war. This means that the “us vs. them” dynamic in anti-enemy propaganda appeals to the same senses of community and defiance that are found in movies that show a small band of friends fighting the social hierarchy. Also, fear of not fitting in and physical abuse from jocks is a less extreme version of citizens’ fears of wartime attacks. The question of fear actually includes another propaganda technique: the fear appeal. Psychology professors Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aroson explain that propaganda can touch upon “dark, irrational fears” in order to get viewers to think emotionally, not rationally.[7] In war propaganda, that fear is also becoming attacked by the enemy. In films with jerk jocks, the stereotypes appeal to the audiences’ fear of being physically targeted by larger students and threatened with social isolation.

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 August 1914). Bravo, Belgium! 

To understand how this works, we will look at a war propaganda case study. British propaganda of the German “Huns” during the first World War uses all three of these tactics. As the title “Bravo Belgium” suggests, the comic was drawn to encourage support for Belgium among the British. The viewer is encouraged to cheer Belgium on in their fight against German invasion in an “us vs. them” narrative. Britain wanted to support Belgium here because Germany is portrayed as stronger and immoral. In Figure 1, Belgium was shown as a “defenseless child” and Germany was drawn as a “threatening and overbearing bully.”[8] Other cartoons drew Belgium as a “woman ravaged by brutal Prussian militarism.”[9] In other words, Belgium is always represented as being small and weak but Germany as physically strong. Like with American jocks 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. Even the positions of the characters look a lot like the classic “jock-intimidating-a-nerd-by-his-locker” scene in Figure 2.

 

Royalty-Free Stock Photography by Rubberball
Figure 2: In this stock image, a jerk jock shoves a younger nerd into a locker. The bully’s stance and the position of the figures is very similar to Bravo, Belgium! Kemp, M. (n.d.). High school jock pushes nerd into locker. GettyImages.

This “us vs. them” narrative was successful in these war comics because the British ideology traditionally support the underdog.[10] American culture has a similar fondness for the downtrodden: it celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, and the American dream of poor immigrants who transform themselves into millionaires. Jock demonization also plays up the same love for the loser. We want the childish nerd to win and the bully to repeat history and face defeat. Demonization techniques used in the jerk jock stereotype have clear similarities with WWI European war propaganda. However, the jerk jock trope is also connected to other, unique pieces of American culture. 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.[11] Sports fully took on this role after the nineteenth century after World War I and the Roaring Twenties.[12] In American 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.”[13]

Movies 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.”[14] According to Texas State University Sociology Professor Toni Terling Watt, this evolved into themes of anti-authority rebellion in the 1980s and rejection of parental figures in the 1990s.[15] In the 80s, teens became “superior” to adults. In the 90s, teens were put “in charge.”[16] 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 against, 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.

But why would a mass media movie use an un-American theme as propaganda? The suggestion sounds like a conspiracy theory. The truth has more to do with the difference between ideology and propaganda. America has a built-in ideology that supports revolution and the underdog, perhaps because of the country’s own revolution. Propaganda—and movies—can’t be successful if they directly go against an ideology as beloved as this one. French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul argued that propaganda had to touch upon a subconscious belief,[17] like ideology. Therefore, movies are more likely to resonate with viewers if they use this kind of ideological character stereotype, even if it also reflects current political dissatisfaction. When movies resonate more, movie production companies make more money. In the 1980s, the United States saw a huge increase in movie theater construction. Because theaters were more available, teens became an extremely important 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 audiences could identify with. In the 1950s, teenage movie characters were often “homogenous.” Teens on screen in the 80s became more dramatic and diverse. Instead of experiencing a “narrow path between good and evil” like in the 1950s, movies in the 1980s showed “complex moral choices and personal options.”[18] Additionally, anxiety about peer relationships has been a timeless issue in film history, regardless of decade.[19] 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 aligning loyalties. In teen film “propaganda,” the motivation is just as simple: advertisers and film executives wanted teens to feel heard so they would spend more money at the theaters.

Like traditional propaganda, films made use of symbols and signifiers, or special visual codes within a society,[20] to clearly communicate this group 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 character of color is included in the jock’s posse, he is usually portrayed as a sidekick rather than the quarterback or “leader.” In addition to this racial privilege, jerk jocks also act as the picture of characteristics that American society values. First, they are socially powerful. Despite being cruel and violent, they are still popular, never punished, and well-liked. Jerk jocks still succeed, even if it takes cheating to get there, but are somehow never caught. Second, they have physical privilege by being taller, stronger, and more powerful than other and using that privilege to get what they want. Because jocks seem to have it all but use those qualities to pursue their own selfish goals, audiences are supposed to dislike them and feel jealous.

Therefore, the demonization of this group is a product of both psychological processes like fear and jealousy and a political reaction against Americana identity and authority figures. To sum it up, propagandists and scriptwriters alike have used jocks as representations of immoral aggressors picking on the little guy, trying to encourage audiences to dislike those bullies. Second, by representing all-American authority, jocks may have triggered a knee-jerk, rebellious, and negative reaction among 20th century teenage viewers. Third, as embodiments of cultural privilege with evil intentions, audiences were likely to respond with hatred and jealousy to jock characters. Overall, demonization of jocks has many similarities to WWI anti-German propaganda tactics. It may have stemmed from teen frustration with authority in the 80s and 90s because of political dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan. Whether intentional or not, targeting teen consumers in this way would have been a smart strategy to target teen audiences and their spending money. The trope gains power from American sport culture, preexisting teenage social anxieties and high school drama, jealousy, and by using visual tropes that symbolize all-American, heteronormative masculinity. Looking at five examples from 1984-1999, 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. In the movie, the jocks “get the girl,” torment the geeks, and accidentally burn down their own frat house. As far as propaganda goes, putting jockstraps on another student’s head in Figure 3 might be the 80s equivalent of the Prussian bully threatening a Belgian child.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-2-37-30-am
Figure 3: A nerd being targeted in the locker room by jocks in Revenge of the Nerds (Kanew 1984). Screenshot from the 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 (Patrick Labyorteaux) and Kurt (Lance Fenton) are idiotic, immature, aggressive bullies who drink too much. They’re also extremely obsessed with sex. They are tall, strong white teenagers who beat up younger geeks, even at a funeral, as seen in Figure 4, and are typically seen wearing their letter jackets. Because Heathers is a darkly cynical movie, it can be an example of the 80s counter to all-American standards and naïve authority figures. The film is also a good example of the industry’s attempts to appeal to 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. Instead, they act as a comedic statement on the absurdity of high school and its clichés. But even though they mostly serve a comedic relief function, Ram and Kurt are extremely unlikeable characters and can still be considered demonization propaganda.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-2-39-35-am
Figure 4: 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 introduces a particularly evil jock with Brad (Michael Dubrow). Brad is a high school quarterback and the villain of the movie, as seen in Figure 5. He is a popular, handsome, all-American sports star with a beautiful girlfriend. In contrast, the protagonist Ryan (Mario Yedidia) is the team’s young, disabled waterboy who loves comics. As the jerk jock, Brad taunts Ryan, steals his winning football strategies, and puts him in dangerous situations to take advantage of Ryan’s hopes to fit in and make fun of his disability. Though the film is aimed at a younger audience, Brad actually reflects some of the revolts against Americana that Shary describes. Instead of being kind and upstanding like an all-American jock should be, Brad is cruel and delinquent. An interesting detail is that the football team is called the “Eagles”—an American symbol—and dressed in patriotic red and white. Additionally, the solution to Ryan’s problems comes from an ancient Chinese manuscript and karate lessons, not traditional American authority.

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-10-58-46-am
Figure 5: 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 adults. The jock of Can’t Hardly Wait, Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), 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 because these 90s movies portray peer clashes, they start to allow the jocks some variety. Instead of being purely evil like Brad, Mike protects a nerd form the police when they are found drinking. However, he is so demonized that this is not enough to fundamentally change him as a nicer jerk jock. As Figure 6 shows, Mike is still an incorrigible jerk who fails out of college because of his drinking problems.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-2-45-11-am
Figure 6: 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 (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and Dean (Paul Walker). Both look like standard jocks. They are white, athletic, attractive, and muscular, though Dean looks more all-American thanks to his bigger build and blonde hair. Both are popular and date popular girls in school. As Figure 7 shows, sex is also an important priority, as Dean teases Zack about not having had sex recently, which turns into a fight. The movie’s plot centers around their cruel bet to turn an unpopular girl, Laney, into the prom queen. While Zack acts as a counter-example to the stereotype by starting to like Laney and care for her, Dean still represents more of the genuine, all-American jock identity. As a true jerk jock, Dean consistently tries to sabotage his friend and trick Laney into sleeping with him. These actions sound very similar to old British accusations of Prussian rapist bullies. However, the jocks don’t act as blanket caricatures like they did in Warriors.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-2-48-44-am
Figure 7: 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 (in muscular build, clothing, and large friend groups) and characteristics of immorality and aggression mostly stay the same. However, one major difference is that films from the 80s may use political propaganda themes while the 90s tended to be more about emotions like jealousy. Second, the redeemable jerk jock was more common in the 90s. Though there are some counter-examples from the 80s, like Andrew (Emilio Estevez) in The Breakfast Club (Hughes 1985), that decade was more likely to rely on the uniformly demonized group.

The jerk jock trop did not end in the 90s and is still prevalent today, from cartoons to cable crime shows. While we still see evil, demonized jocks, the current trend still includes a lot of counter-examples, such as Troy and Chad from High School Musical (Ortega 2006) and Steve from Stranger Things (Duffer and Duffer 2016). Sports movies as a genre themselves also offer good counter-examples, as seen in movies like Remember the Titans (Yakin 2000). When considering similar images in the future, it may help to keep some questions in mind: Why are these jocks being visually portrayed in this way? How is the film trying to use demonization and stereotypes to connect to film’s 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. Pay attention to the portrayal of professional athletes in mass media sports coverage. During scandals, they are usually described in simplistic terms as “bad guys.” Additionally, these 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.”[21] Of these faculty members, 45% believed that these athletes were less intelligent than non-athletes and 44% believed they were more likely to cheat.[22] Studies of actual male athletes have found these stereotypes to be false.[23] 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 films can be effective. It acts as a storytelling shortcut, evokes empathy from audiences, and builds on classic themes. Most of the films cited as examples were extremely popular, even withstanding the test of time. Of course, these movies weren’t only successful because of their use of jerk jocks. However, it is extremely ironic that the cynical teens of the 80s and 90s responded so well to anti-establishment demonization of jocks that was 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? Maybe this is a trend best left in the last century.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is demonization of a group more acceptable 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 the tendency to demonize jocks 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] Pratkanis, A . & Aronson, E. (1991). Emotional Appeals. Excerpt from A. Pratkanis and E. Aronson (Eds.), Age of Propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion (p. 161-178. New York: WH Freeman and Company. p. 162.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

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

[12] Ibid 18

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

[14] Beck, 2011, p.6

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

[16] Ibid

[17] Elul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. The characteristics of propaganda. United States: Vintage Books, p. 27-29.

[18] Shary 2005

[19] Watt 2006

[20] Grossberg, L., Wartella, E., Whitney, D., and Wise, J. (2006): Mass media in a popular culture. 2nd ed. United States: Sage Publications, Inc. p. 150.

[21] Beck, 2011, p.8

[22] Ibid

[23] Lewis, 1988, p. 94

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