Scoring Points with Athletic Characters
Tough. Driven. Focused. Determined. Winner.
Dumb jock. Butch. One-dimensional. Bully.
All of the above describe athletic characters we commonly see on TV and in movies. While we have started to move past so many stereotypes in the media it seems the role of the ‘athlete’ hasn’t caught up. Unfortunately, I’m sure we have all seen the far too common scene where a ‘jock’ pushes a ‘nerd’ into the lockers many times.
Some of the most common stereotypes seen onscreen portray athletes as self-absorbed, bullies, ‘dumb jocks’, one-dimensional and selfish. However, in reality, athletes are incredibly diverse and have the potential to display a number of positive traits. For example, research has found that student athletes have better leadership skills than non-athletes and kids and teens who partake in team sports develop important social skills including empathy and leadership. Furthermore, one study found that compared to non-athletes, student athletes had higher school attendance, graduation rates, and lower dropout rates. These findings should not be simplified to “athletes are smarter or better than non-athletes”, but rather athletes are not simply ‘dumb jocks’ who are only good at one thing, sports. Within sport, they learn specific skills and develop certain qualities such as motivation, discipline, determination, and time management that help them succeed not only in sports, but in school and other domains as well.
One other very common misconception in the media is that most athletes onscreen are boys. Girls are often are portrayed as 1) being bad at sports, 2) simply not athletic at all or 3) participating in only stereotypical ‘feminine’ sports (i.e., cheerleading, dance), which is very problematic. Young girls are constantly being bombarded with characters and messages that suggest they will be viewed as butch, unattractive and masculine if they participate in sports. In fact, research has found that children (8-10-years-old) are aware of gender stereotypes that are prevalent in sport. This awareness actually affects their behavior and participation in certain sports such that girls avoid more masculine sports to fit the social norms related to gender.
As creators of characters that kids love to watch (and emulate), you have the power to create characters and settings that go beyond the common stereotypes we still see onscreen. You have the power to not only entertain kids, but to inspire them as well.
Here are some actionable insights to help you do this!
Expand your repertoire. There are so many unique physical activities that aren’t necessarily competitive sports but are quite common such as hiking, yoga, dance, bowling, paddling, skiing and frisbee. By showing children a range of physical activities and sports, you are not only introducing them to activities they are likely not exposed to, but you are also showing them that there is a sport for everyone!
Show being sporty or active as attainable. An athlete does not always have to be extremely talented or super strong to participate in sports or physical activities. Thus, showing a range of diverse characters participating in sports and having fun may help encourage children to participate in activities they may think they ‘aren’t good enough for’
Break out of old gender stereotypes. Firstly, not all female athletes have to be portrayed as butch or masculine. You can show girls being tough, focused, and successful and still show them being girly and fashionable (Or not!). Secondly, not all male athletes have to be portrayed as strong or aggressive. You can show boys who are more fragile and not aggressive and enjoy participating in more stereotypical ‘feminine’ sports such as skating (Or not!). Having complex characters with a range of athletic abilities and interests is imperative to help children see that participating in sports is not only for certain types of people with only certain qualities and talents.
Cut the scenes where athletes (and all kids) hide how smart they are. In real life, kids who excel in school are often respected and admired and kids should not be observing characters being ashamed of their intelligence or ‘good grades’. Athletes should not be portrayed as one-dimensional such that they do not only have to be good at sports, but they can also be good at school as well.
Show the other sides to athletes. A lot of athletes are high achievers, leaders, extremely well spoken, and outgoing. They can also be very creative, musical, and involved in the community. Showing all aspects of a character is very important.
Show kids being active. A lot of characters on screen are either an ‘athlete’, or they do nothing. Show your characters partaking in a range of physical activities or sports and explain how important and fun exercising can be!
Athletic scenes are full of potential for conflict, drama, and comedy, without falling back on a narrow view of athletes. Moving beyond athletic stereotypes will not only give you tons of material to work with but you’ll have an inspired and devoted audience!
Sue Comeau, B.Sc. (Kin), M.A., CSEP-CEP
writes on fitness and healthy lifestyle, and is the author of The F.I.T. Files, for kids.