Taking back the word “jock”

I was recently included in a feature over at Library Journal about zinesters who have recently come out of retirement.

As part of the feature, Christopher Wilde  of the Queer Zine Archive Project reviewed three of my zines, and he wrote:

Fans of Caitlin’s previous girl-jock tales will note she is now a marathon runner and blogs about fitness and feminism.

I got all giddy at the description of my sports and fitness writing as “girl-jock tales.”  I love girl jocks.  When I think of those two words together, I think of hair pulled into ponytails, muscular calves, athletic socks worn with soccer sandals.  I think of girls who don’t sway their hips coquettishly, who strut with confidence.  Girls who wear baggy basketball shorts and faded t-shirts from club volleyball teams.  Girls with bruised elbows and scraped knees that peek out from the skirts they wear only on game days.

In case I haven’t made it obvious by now, I was totally a girl jock. I was so much a girl jock that there are more photos of me in my senior high school yearbook in my varsity letter jacket than without it.  I was not a gifted athlete, but I was an athlete, and proud of it.

Sadly, not everyone shares my pride in being a jock.  In fact, “jock” is generally wielded as an insult, the kind of word slung with derision when describing some homophobic meathead who is used to being fellated by his community because he’s super-good at throwing a ball.  Jocks are usually seen as spoiled, arrogant, dopey, hostile.

I mean, think of every teen movie you’ve ever seen, and the way the male athletes are portrayed.  They are almost always assholes.  Big, stupid, oxlike assholes.  Bring It On’s football players come to mind, particularly the scene where they hassle the dude cheerleaders even though they had just been annihilated on the football field.

And of course, it’s not like this is limited to movies.  Over at the Pursuit of Harpyness, BeckySharper takes aim at a recent trend in pro-baseball hazing, where rookie pitchers are made to wear – gasp! – backpacks meant for little girls.

From the original New York Times article:

In this tradition-bound sport…a hazing ritual that has gone on for years seems to have reached a new level of absurdity at major league ballparks: rookie relievers are being forced to wear schoolgirl backpacks — gaudy in color, utterly unmanly — to transport gear.

First of all, on behalf of myself as a little girl, who somehow managed to survive the kind of shit that would reduce grown men to puddles of pee, I’d like to say fuck you to the players who think that equating adult men with little girls equals some kind of abject humiliation.

But secondly, it does very little to break the stereotypes of male athletes as misogynist, homophobic shits. In fact, it pretty much reinforces it with steel beams and brick walls.

This is super frustrating to me, as someone who loves being an athlete and who loves to play sports and get physical and sweaty and sore.  It feels like this essential part of me has been besmirched by association with the worst of what American dudebro culture has to offer.

My friend Nicole recently compiled and edited a zine called “Get Fit for the Pit #1” (which you can – and should! – buy from Click Clack Distro) that addressed this very problematic link between sports and asshole dudebros.  Nicole and the other contributors to the zine come at the question from the perspective of people who are immersed in punk rock and alternative youth culture, and they write about the way they had associated physical activity and sports with the kind of jock culture they disdained.

Nicole, in her essay “Freak on the Pitchers Mound,” writes:

In high school, the divide showed much greater between the punks and the jocks. The jocks (and included in that are cheerleaders, as I know first hand tumbling takes mad skill) were the ones throwing homophobic slurs to me and my friends in the hallways.

Nicole goes on to write about playing association ball anyway, which was great until the day she decided to dye her hair pink:

Crossing that line was like walking a tightrope above a fiery pit of self-important punks on one side and meat-headed jocks on the other. The girls I played softball with started the name calling.  “Freak!” would be a normal thing for me to hear as I stood on the pitchers mound.

Most people who were not jocks in high school have some story or other like this.  Brian tells me that when he was a teenager, he and his stoner buddies used to mock the jocks, who mocked them right back.  I certainly saw my share of bad-jock behavior as a high-schooler and college student in Oklahoma, which is like ground zero for this kind of thing.

What’s the end result of all of this internecine tribal sniping?  That the asshole jocks get to claim all of the sports for themselves, and in the process they drive everyone else away from them.

That is so fucking sad to me. How many kids out there could benefit from a physical outlet for their aggression or their frustration?  How many people who don’t play sports now because they are intimidated might have actually found themselves enjoying a game of soccer or really digging triathlons?  And yet they never even think to pick up a basketball or put on a pair of running shoes, because in their minds, sports are only for assholes.

So I think it’s about time we take back the word “jock.”  Let’s take it back from the major league ball players in the pink backpacks and the high school football players who call everyone “fag” and the teenagers who think anyone who doesn’t dress like an Abercrombie & Fitch model is a freak. Let’s smash the parts of culture that say to be a jock is to be a homophobe, and to be an athlete is to be an arrogant dope.

Sports is so much bigger and better than this.  Let’s not abdicate it to the worst of our culture, not when it has the potential to represent the best of it.

6 responses to “Taking back the word “jock”

  1. TRU DAT!

    I was not athletic at all in high school, but as I got older I became more and more interested in exercising and sports. Now I find myself wondering if I sound like “a jock” when I gush about training to my mostly sedentary friends. Not that I give a shit, but the stereotype still stands. I just hope I can help them realize that not everyone who likes working out and team sports is a douche.

    • It seems to me like you do a good job of that! I mean, that’s all that we can do – pursue our sports/athletic/fitness goals while trying not to be arrogant dicks about it, and recognizing that our love of sports/fitness doesn’t somehow make us superior to others who don’t share that passion.

  2. Word. Even though I have been very physically active for many years, I have an aversion to the word jock. When an old friend on Facebook commented he never would have figured me for a jock I replied that I don’t consider myself a jock but rather a wellness enthusiast. It seems to me a more accurate description because of all the negative connotations, which you detail so well, that I associate with jock.

    • You’ve pretty much nailed it. I don’t know, maybe the word “jock” can go away, but I really hate the idea that being in sports and athletic competition is something only for homophobic, misogynist buttheads, and I’m deeply invested in fighting that.

  3. Keep fighting that good fight, Catilin. Not easy. There are so many – as I grew up calling them – “jock douchebags”, that getting people to understand that exercise and fitness are not the exclusive domain of the asshole is a herculean challenge. The older I’ve gotten, the more fit I’m trying to become – but I’ll admit, every time I want to involve myself in an athletic activity, I have to fight the voice in my own head, that looks at me snidely and snears in disgust, “Jock douchebag.” As I said, keep up the good fight.

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