Sport in books and cartoons for young people: from play to education?


Among the many subjects addressed in cultural productions intended for young people , sport today occupies a significant place. However, its presence is not new. From the 1960s, Babar, for example, skied in an album by Laurent de Brunhoff. Before him, Bécassine also tried different sports. And many other iconic characters engage in physical activities during their adventures.

It is impossible to mention here all the productions concerned. Like the twelfth Asterix album leading the famous Gaul to the Olympic Games, adapted in the 2000s into video games and cinema, the sporting theme circulates in many media aimed at young audiences: literature (comics, mangas , albums, documentaries, children’s press, stories, etc.), video games, cartoons, etc.

However, these representations of sport, composed by adults for children and adolescents, are never neutral. They regularly aim to educate the young readers and viewers to whom they are addressed. These presentations of sport are interesting to study because they reveal what a society chooses to show in bodily practices and, in doing so, the models, norms, values ​​that it wishes to transmit to younger generations.

From textbooks to documentaries, learning through sport

Of course, some materials, like textbooks , are overtly aimed at educating children. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries , more and more illustrations linked to physical activities and sport were included in educational booklets for different disciplines.

Their evocation serves above all as a support for learning – reading, solving mathematical problems, discovering how the body works, etc. – including those relating to moral teaching. In this context, the sporting practices of the characters, in the same way as other activities, become a pretext to expressly promote “good” behavior or “correct” attitudes to students, by praising certain qualities: effort, prudence, temperance, etc.

These teachings by the sporting body and its representation extend into other media, from displays to the famous “images” and “good points” distributed to the most deserving and deserving.

But education does not stop at the school gates. Historically, the education of readers is not unrelated to the purposes of children’s literature . More recently, sports are also often used by creators, authors, publishers, etc. to transmit all kinds of knowledge to young readers.

The profusion of works, documentary or not, on famous sportsmen and women , major events and competitions (like the Olympic Games for example), existing activities, their rules and their benefits (notably health), paints an encyclopedic panorama and feeds a story, often laudatory, about sport.

Printed publications are not the only ones affected, as evidenced by the famous popular science program born in the 1990s, It’s not rocket science , which devotes several episodes to sport. The latter then becomes an activity like any other serving to transmit knowledge to children and adolescents, and to frame its practice as well as its representation.

Sport, an attractive subject to edify young audiences?

Certain albums or novels connect the sporting adventures of their protagonists to the learning of their heroes. The lessons that readers should draw from this obviously vary depending on the authors and publishers, but also the contexts.

Publishing houses specializing in youth, such as L’École des Loisirs , for example, associate keywords in their catalog with works involving physical practices. These reveal the themes covered and the questions asked within the published books: friendship , fear, relationships between girls and boys, with adults, etc.

If sport proves to be a fantastic subject for reaching young audiences, it is also because it has a fairly strong power of seduction. However, the attractive side of contemporary productions for children and youth should not hide the moral messages, norms and values ​​conveyed to them. For several decades, television channels have offered programs, popular among young people, which actively participate in their moralization.

As the 2000s approached, young French viewers were able to discover a cute little turtle named Franklin , initially born in the albums of Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark . The numerous physical activities (cycling, football, ice hockey, baseball, etc.) carried out by the anthropomorphic characters in this series create a calm, bucolic and attractive atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the lessons that Franklin draws from his initiatory journey (on friendship, respect, team spirit, perseverance, etc.), announced at the opening of each episode, remind us how the construction of the The child viewer is a key issue in the series. But if this last example is particularly transparent as to the educational objectives pursued, this transmission is not always done explicitly in the materials intended for the youngest.

Stereotypical images and construction of imagination

If the works are not all labeled as “educational” and do not constantly transmit formalized knowledge, this does not mean that they do not participate in the development of representations, imaginations, just like, moreover, the works aimed at adults.

The question of gender representations offers an interesting insight into the way in which sports performances establish certain models among their audiences. Researchers have thus studied the physical activities carried out by the heroine Martine since the 1950s and the paradoxes of a series of albums still marked by traditional feminine stereotypes. Others, like the MediSJeu collective , have looked at gender stereotypes and the sporting socialization of young people through the media coverage of sport in the newspaper Le petit daily .

Sometimes, the specifics of the models offered are not easily identifiable. To understand the subtleties of a work distributed internationally, it is necessary, for example, to carry out comparison work between its different versions. This is the case of the French adaptation of the famous Japanese anime Attacker You! , Jeanne et Serge , broadcast from 1987 on La Cinq.

The analysis of symbols, characters, plans, emotions, music, etc. shows that the two generics present many differences, reflecting different cultures in their relationship to gender. To the powerful athletes of the Japanese version, the French credits emphasize more on the love story of the two main protagonists, conveying a more stereotypical, sexist image of the sportswoman, and thus aiming at a real sentimental education rather than an injunction to sporting performance.

Formulating a written, visual or even musical discourse, productions for young people convey a certain vision of what an athlete is. In doing so, they are likely to promote norms and stereotypes. To give just one specific example relating to a particular sport, basketball, studies have shown that certain video games or manga construct caricatured, even racist, representations of African-American athletes. So many discourses which undeniably take part in the construction of an imagination carrying these same stereotypes.

So, what should we do with these cultural productions? Question them in the speeches they produce and the obvious facts they state about sport, as the exhibition “I didn’t say “Go!” does. » organized in 2022 at the André François Center in Margny-lès-Compiègne, between explanations of the sporting project and highlighting certain socio-political issues. Support young people in their consumption, also, keeping in mind not to consider them as passive beings, devoid of critical thinking.

Author Bios: Lucas Profillet is a Lecturer – C3S Laboratory – Culture, Sport, Health, Society (UR 4660) – National Higher Institute of Teaching and Education (INSPÉ), Nicolas Voisin is a Doctoral student at the C3S Laboratory – Culture, Sport, Health, Society (UR 4660) and Yann Descamps is a Lecturer in Sports History all at the University of Franche-Comté – UBFC