Gym, or P.E., is a standard part of school, and Gym Class Hell is a standard part of school stories. Awkward adolescents forced in front of a large group of their peers to attempt physical feats against their inclination, all while wearing hideous clothes that seem specifically designed to tell their classmates everything they don't want anyone to know about their bodies. We've all been there, and it wasn't pretty.
Since the protagonist of such a story tends to be an Ordinary High-School Student
, he or she is usually not exceptionally strong or graceful, and thus will struggle in gym — at best. Alternately, they may be pretty good at it but have a best friend who is completely hopeless
, or one activity they hate/are horrible at but have to master in order to pass. Popular, bullying students tend to do better, but this is often divided along gender lines — the Jerk Jock
obviously has nothing to worry about, but the Alpha Bitch
will frequently whine about messing up her hair. Since gym teachers are almost uniformly portrayed as Sadist Teachers
in the Drill Sergeant Nasty
mold, they will favor kids who play sports or cheerlead, leaving the weak and nerdy to be trampled into the highly waxed floorboards.
For the sake of this trope, many schools in fiction seem to have the time and budget to cover activities more complicated and expensive than you would normally see at a high school, such as rock climbing or fencing. Of course, dodgeball serves the same purpose for the price of one piece of equipment and some broken dreams.
See School Of Hard Knocks
, Picked Last
, Gym Class Rope Climb
, Humiliation Conga
, Dodgeball Is Hell
- Le Petit Spirou has a lot of gags about this. The main cast is a bunch of 6-year-old kids, and gym classes are held by a miserable, alcoholistic, smoking wreck of a man who sports a blossoming drinker's mound, hates children, and likes to think of himself as an irresistible ladies' man. A variety of sound effects follows him where ever he goes and whatever he does to illustrate how his physique is practically breaking apart. A typical gym class by him is something completely age-inappropriate (chin-pulls, marathons, assault course), or are tricks to allow him beer and checking out women (any "theory" class about equestrianism, beach volleyball, tennis...).
- A few Calvin and Hobbes comic strips had Calvin endure the torture of gym class at school, ranging from playing Dodgeball or doing exercises.
- The Harry Potter crossover fic "Physical Education". Harry and Hermione are less than thrilled about PE following them to Hogwarts, but that quickly takes a backseat to who their teacher is....
- The Discworld fic Whistle, and I'll come to thee, boy deals with exactly how the hated PE teacher, Evans the Striped, was insorcised into his own whistle in the first place. A younger Dr Hix, later the licenced Evil Wizard In Residence, was closely involved. (See Literature: unseen Academicals below).
- In the Discworld fic No More Time For These Trousers, we get a glimpse into the nature of PE teaching at the Assassins' Guild School. Cross country runs are a terrible weapon in the PE teacher's armoury. Mr Bradlifudd, the PE master, goes one better: he sends his cross-country runners through an area of cold, wet, muddy, countryside outside the City, which the Guild's Exothermic Alchemy Department cheerfully uses to test explosives of all kinds, including landmines. He contentedly reflects that this teaches student Assassins to be observant even in the most desperate of conditions.
- That football scene in Kes. Where the unfeeling and brash PE master Mr Sugden, one of the banes of the hero's life, lets his fantasy of being a great soccer player fly away with him. On an eight-year old boy, such a fantasy is unremarkable; in a man in his forties, it suggests emotional retardisation.
- The school chapter of Monty Pythons The Meaning Of Life has a Kids Versus Adults rugby match where the teachers - like Mr Sugden in the throes of his fantasy - don't hold back at all even though they're playing against small children.
- The Breakfast Club: Andrew is on the other side of this trope, as what got him Saturday detention was jumping a weaker kid in the locker room.
- In Mr Woodcock, several flashbacks show the title character as a Jerkass gym teacher antagonizing and humiliating his students. However the protagonist would later realise that he was such a success as an author because he had pushed himself to prove Woodcock wrong about him
- Subverted in The History Boys where the boys are (for the most part) comfortable with their bodies and are unimpressed by all their gym teacher's attempts to intimidate them. They even correct him when he starts talking about how Jesus didn't ask to be excused the Crucifixion.
- Mallory from The Baby-Sitters Club had a whole book about how much she sucked at gym, cementing her status as Butt Monkey. (In the end the class moved on from volleyball to archery, which it turned out she was quite good at.)
- In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater, the gym class starts out like this. The protagonist eventually winds up in the gym class for all the school misfits (with a teacher who's something of a misfit himself), where they do yoga.
- In Unseen Academicals, where at some unspecified point in the previous fifty years, the soul of University PE master Evans the Striped was insorcised into his own whistle, which is remembered in time to train a soccer team up for the big match. Every time someone blows the whistle, they briefly animate the soul of Evans, who has not mellowed with the years and can still inspire terror in grown wizards.
(BLEEEEP!) Any boy who has forgotten his kit will play in his underwear!
- The moral is that a PE teacher at a school for wizards who makes life a misery for the fat boy had better realise that at Unseen University, fat boys grow up to be very powerful wizards. Who bear grudges.
- In Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the protaganist is a teenage rebel sent to an "approved school" - the old British euphemism for a junior penitentiary, or youth prison. The governor (Warden) is a sports fanatic and fitness freak who sponsors and coaches a cross-country running team. He is fanatic about his team being the best, and when the hero is discovered to be a good runner, he gets privileges for being a member of the team and is briefly the apple of the Governor's eye. He considers using running as cover for an escape attempt, but reluctantly drops the idea when he realises he has nowhere to run to. But he becomes rebellious, is tired of his life being manipulated for the glory of others, and deliberately and unmistakeably demonstrates he is his own man by throwing a prestige race he could have won - slowing to a defiant walk, and allowing runners from the rival team to pass him, in full view of the apoplectic Governor. After this his prison life becomes harsh and punitive, but he is content - like Cool Hand Luke he has rebelled, exercised such freedon as he possesses, and made his point. This was referenced in a Shout-Out in an episode of American teen comedy Daria. (see below).
- In the novelisations of Red Dwarf, the crew reflect that two thousand car park attendents collectively have the IQ of one PE Master, which isn't saying very much for either car park attendants or PE teachers.
- On Seinfeld, decades after Jerry and George graduated, their gym teacher (now homeless) was still terrorizing them.
- Lizzie McGuire was a gym-class sufferer.
- Even Stevens had this too. In the Musical Episode, the class rebelled and made the teacher run his own torturous obstacle course.
- Jerri on Strangers with Candy struggled in gym, but it was also a vehicle for her to display her perviness, making it even worse for poor Tammi Littlenut.
- Implied by Rory's reaction to the psychopathic villain in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Wife": "I had a PE teacher just like you."
- One of the rooms in "The God Complex" contains a gym teacher, who yells at The Doctor for forgetting his P.E. kit (gym clothes).
- Subverted at least once in Malcolm in the Middle - the gym coach offers to get Malcolm out of gym in exchange for tutoring someone. When Malcolm replies that he doesn't even mind gym, the coach laughs disbelievingly.
- The Basil Brush Show - "You haven't tried to reason with a PE teacher lately, have you? They don't know the meaning of the word 'No'. In fact, they can't even spell it."
- In the Ripping Yarns episode Tomkinson's Schooldays, where the school hopping team is trained to within an inch of its life and sent on a thirty-mile-hop across some of England's bleakest mountains, against a team of young Nazis. Note the ritual "Palfrey" - a blow on the head - bestowed by a teacher with a wooden club beforehand. Tomkinson(Michael Palin) only survives with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs.
- In 1970's nostalgia-fest The Grimleys, the PE master is the loathsome Douglas Diggleby, the Jerkass who all other Jerkasses would acclaim as King Jerk Ass. Anyone who went to a British school of any sort in the 1970's will acclaim the accuracy of the portrayal and shudder at the memory.
- Dean of Supernatural, on posing as a gym teacher during a case: "The whistle makes me their God."
- An episode of Dexter's Laboratory had Dexter fall prey to Dodgeball in gym class, until he used one of his robots to get back at the kids who pummeled him in the game.
- Daria, as seen in the opening credits as she lets the volleyball fly right by her.
- See also the episode Run, Jane, Run, where Daria and Jane question the usefulness or relevance of "compulsory cheerleader practice" and are then beasted by their bitch-queen PE teacher. They get an easier run when Jane proves to be a gifted long-distance runner and therefore a stealth jock. There is a scene where Daria is expected to "spot" for a classmate on the trampoline and advise her if she gets too near the edge. Daria is too intent on an argument with Jane to notice, and the poing...poing...poing... noise of the classmate on the rubber becomes an ominous silence, then a crash and a scream as she hits the floor. Jane eventually rebels and refuses to run for the school - a Shout-Out to Alan Sillitoe's novel of teen rebellion, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner - valuing her frindship with Daria more. Then both are returned to the brain-dead zombie Hell of compulsory cheerleader practice...
- The first Mad Mod episode of Teen Titans parodied this: Mad Mod's choice of horrific class to send Raven to was gym class. What exactly happened there happened offscreen, but came complete with ill-fitting shorts and basketball jersey.
- The film Chicken Little parodies this with a dodge ball game where the students must "split into two teams: Popular versus Unpopular."
- the Dodgeball episode of South Park, in which the kids at South Park Elementary become so good at the hated Hell of dodgeball that (despite themselves) they become American champions, and finally end up playing an international match against a Chinese team composed of lethal automatons. Their secret weapon is despised British kid Pip, a kid with a lot of anger-management issues who uses the game for release with lethal effect (Kenny and others).
- Comedians and other celebrities often refer back to this. Stephen Fry's autobiography has a particularly lengthy section about it (see the Precision F-Strike page).