The Cheerleader Culture Riff

CJ Westerberg, September 1, 2010 8:53 PM


 November 5th, 2010 - Update:  Texas Cheerleader Suing for Attacker
November 1, 2010 - Update:  The Hottest Cheerleaders in the NBA

Orig. published 1/10

Is Cheerleading the Worst Kind of Role Modeling?

 Window Dressing On The Sidelines?
  Harmless Tradition Of Spirit?
By C.J. Westerberg

I may make some enemies with this post, so mea culpa in advance.  Or, I may be secretly applauded since there are plenty of parents who really dislike the whole idea of cheerleading - some vehemently (even from parents of cheerleaders - I can tell you stories . . ).   Yet one can never really tell if these remarks are truth or politically correct statements at their core, since it often also depends on where you live geographically or what kind of cultural priorities the school "promotes" overall.

Okay, maybe the above photo isn't completely a fair portrayal of middle or high school cheerleading . . .  or is it?  With what we've been seeing lately, the costumes are getting skimpier and the girls who aspire to be cheerleaders are getting younger.  And, with big budget cuts, somehow the girls' pricey uniforms, including jackets and warm-ups, seem to avoid getting cut, while other program accoutrements, such as those in the arts and science, do.

With The Economist reporting women now as the majority in the global workplace with a cover tribute, with women in growing numbers becoming the major breadwinner of the family (38% according to the recent Maria Shriver Report), with the recession now being labeled as the "He-cession" or "Man-cession" with men as the predominantly unemployed and with the divorce rate still hovering at the 50%, one would think our culture would look at the disconnect between reality and the early year role-modeling opportunities for girls.

I know, I know -- books and stories about the dearth of boys on college campuses and concerns about their future have been much higher on the trend chart over the last year.  One such story here.  (I have different thoughts about this development which will be an upcoming post).  This is NOT a riff about girls vs. boys; such as who has it harder;  who is worse off and so on.  There are issues that need to be addressed for girls and boys.  Yet the lack of role modeling is an important conversation for both.

However, women are still sadly and grossly under-represented in leadership positions in business, academia, and government.  There are so many pictures of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to go around - we get it already.  Just look at the photographs of a business section and nary a woman's photo you will see.  Finance?   Another void.  Tech?  Oh please.    No wonder why women wear bright red during important Congressional sessions.  In the sea of dark suits, it's a shout-out.

Probably the worst offender is the increasingly horrid depiction of young girls and women in the media.  Babe-watch and endless reality shows with women acting so horribly "clawing" their way to some prize is enough to view vampires with relief.   

Okay - back to cheerleading.  Is this topic too "insignificant" to warrant this much attention?

I don't think so.  It actually elicits a visceral response from many  . . . it's really just yet another example of reinforcing images that may not, well, be to a girl's advantage.

When and how schools "honor" cheerleaders actually sends a message to girls about the role they should play to receive recognition and it also sends a message to boys about which girls are receiving that higher recognition.  And think of the younger girls who look "up" to these girls, instead of ones who are presenting science projects, rocking in a poetry jam or tech contest, performing a piano recital or dramatic role, or being a member of a basketball team where teamwork, strategy and tactics are key (and where messy hair and no make-up work just fine).

At the very least, if all these are "pre-sold" and "celebrated" with equal enthusiasm at your school - then there's a chance that girls will choose writing, debating, science, technology, engineering and math with the same exuberance.  That's the critical role-model connection.

Harsh words toward the leaders of cheer?  How could we debase this tradition?  What would a football or basketball game be without them?  Then why do all-girl schools seem to manage team spirit without scantily dressed cheerleaders?  Or, why do cheerleaders often "disappear" when the "players" are girls . . does the need really go away with the absence of boys?  Are they leaders or window dressing on the sidelines?

In the scheme of things, by the time one gets to college or a university, if one's calling is to be a cheerleader, it seems less of an issue, since by this time girls have a much stronger sense of self, and where peer pressure is not as intense and numbing.   Plus, somehow the cheerleaders in college are never larger than life as they are to a young girl in middle or high school.  They are part of a much larger eco-system, not the predominant presence in school halls and photo albums.

Now I think back to the time when I was on the field hockey and tennis teams - it was the time when the worm was turning for girls - when it was becoming really cool for girls to "do sports."  In this regard, girls have come a long way.  (I also made a cheerleading team and quit due to time and other interests, so I'm not harboring some deep psychological past wound).  And, yes, there are now cheerleading sport "teams"  with intense gymnastic moves where teams have to work together and actually compete against other teams, which is not what this post is addressing.

Meryl Streep was a cheerleader.   She also was of the generation before sports for girls went into full swing.  Her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes was characteristically and amazingly full of grace, humbly stating how people confuse her with the great women she plays in her roles. 
I really wonder if Meryl would be a cheerleader today.

For a bit of humor on this subject, below are a couple quick videos from the Fox TV hit, Glee, which takes place in a high school pitting cheerleaders against the nerdy, arty glee clubbers:

#1  - cheerleading try-outs - 45 seconds
#2 -  a cult classic - 2 minutes


  • anonymous

    Honestly, I'd have to disagree with the notion that cheerleading is not a good thing for girls to be doing, or for America to be promoting. I believe that it teaches confidence and self respect, when a girl wearing a short skirt and a halter top can walk through the hallways of her school, unembarrassed of her body. While cheerleaders can often fall into bad habits such as drinking or sex, so do many other girls! And I think that when you are a cheerleader who does not do such things, said girl is much more respected, and she is stronger than she may have been, had she never had the chance to be asked to drink of have sex or do drugs.

    And about the leaders not performing for girls, schools (my school, at least) DO perform. My middle school performs at girls basketball games as well as boys, and my high school performs at the Tuesday volley ball games (On Fridays, it is football night.) Now, I realize you may not think that my opinion is very valid, seeing as I am only 14, but I hope any of you who read this can decide that cheerleading is not all bad! I hope you allow your daughter, or yourself, to try it. It can be a wonderful experience if you like the actual "sport", and it can lead you to meeting new friends, boys and girls, and having the ultimate high school/middle school experience.

  • WillyM

    I'm so right on with this. I think cheerleading is a desperate waste of athletic ability and time, has no point and is dangerous to boot. Perhaps this was why it was the chosen activity of our last president! But the bigger question is why sport, which is the root cause of cheerleading, has become so dominant in American schools and colleges, instead of academia. And where is the logic in a college coach commanding a salary of several million dollars compared to a Nobel prize winning professor's stipend. Nowhere in the rest of the world is school sport so venerated as in the US. No hyped sport, no cheerleaders! End of story!

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