views updated


Few archetypes so exemplify every stereotype of women in modern culture as that of the cheerleader. An uneasy juxtaposition of clean-cut athlete, ultra-feminine bubble-headed socialite, skilled dancer, and buxom slut, the cheerleader is at the same time admired and ridiculed, lusted after and legitimized by everyone from junior high school girls to male sports fans. Though cheerleading began as an all-male domain, and there are still male cheerleaders, it is for girls that the role of cheerleader is a rite of passage, whether to be coveted or scorned. Public figures as widely diverse as Gloria Steinem, John Connally, and Paula Abdul spent part of their early years urging the crowd to cheer for their athletic team.

Cheerleading as we know it began in November 1898 at a University of Minnesota football game, when an enthusiastic student named Johnny Campbell jumped up to yell:

Rah, Rah, Rah
Hoorah, hoorah
Varsity, varsity

The idea caught on, and in the early 1900s at Texas A&M, freshmen, who were not allowed to bring dates to athletic events, styled themselves as yell leaders, with special sweaters and mega-phones. They became so popular, especially with women, that soon the juniors and seniors took the role away from the freshmen.

Only men took on the highly visible role of cheerleading until after World War II, when women began to form cheerleading squads, wearing demure uniforms with skirts that fell well below the knee. In the late 1940s, the president of Kilgore College in Texas had the idea of creating an attractive female dancing and cheering squad as a tactic to keep students from going to the parking lot to drink during half time. He hired a choreographer, commissioned flashy costumes, and the idea of cheerleading as a sort of sexy show-biz entertainment took off. By the 1990s, there were over three million cheerleaders nationwide, almost all of them female.

Cheerleading means different things on the different levels it is practiced. In junior high, high school, and college, cheerleading is very much a social construct. Cheerleading tryouts appeal to girls for many reasons. Some seek the prestige and social status afforded those who make the cut. These chosen few are admired by the boys and envied by the girls as they represent their school at games and hobnob with the boys' elite—the athletic teams. Those who are rejected after tryouts often experience deep humiliation. Of course there are many who reject the school status hierarchies and who view the cheerleaders as shallow snobs rather than social successes. Another way to view cheerleaders is as strong athletes who seek recognition in one of the only areas acceptable for females. In fact, in many schools, prior to the Title IX laws of the 1970s, there were no athletic teams for girls, and cheerleading was the only outlet where girls could demonstrate athletic skill.

Many supporters of cheerleading stress the athletic side of cheerleading and the strength required to perform the jumps and gymnastic feats that accompany cheers. There are local and national cheerleading competitions, where squads compete and are judged on creativity, execution, degree of difficulty, and overall performance. Over the years, cheerleading has developed from simple gestures and jumps to difficult gymnastic stunts and complex dance routines. As the athletic skill required to become a cheerleader has increased, so has the number of cheerleading-related injuries. In 1986, the reputation of cheerleading suffered when two cheerleaders in different schools were involved in major accidents within a week. A young woman was killed and a young man paralyzed while practicing their cheerleading stunts. A Consumer Product Safety Commission study in 1990 found 12,405 emergency room injuries that year were related to cheerleading, prompting parental demands for greater safety precautions.

Another sort of cheerleading is found in professional sports. While fitting a standard mold of attractiveness is one of the primary requisites of any sort of cheerleading, the professional squads have taken it to extremes. Tryouts for squads like the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, the New Orleans Saints' Saintsations, and the Buffalo Bills' Buffalo Jills, seem almost like auditions for a Broadway play, with hundreds of flamboyantly made-up dancers and performers competing for a few openings. The cheerleaders perform for exposure and love of their team rather than money. In an industry where the athletes might earn millions, most cheerleaders are paid only ten to twenty-five dollars a game. Some are able to acquire contracts for local advertising to supplement their income, and some hope to go on to show business careers, but for many, just as in high school, it is the admiration of the crowd and the identification with the team that is the payoff.

It is in the professional arena that the risqué side of cheerleading has received the most publicity. Because cheerleaders are almost always chosen for standard good looks and shapely bodies in addition to whatever skills may be required, even in high schools, rumors of immorality circulate. In the professional squads, where outfits are often skimpy and the routines flirtatious, the rumors are even more graphic. Though most squads advertise a high moral standard, the stereotype of the sexpot cheerleader has been hard to defeat. Movies such as the XXX rated Debbie Does Dallas contribute to this, as did the 1979 Playboy Magazine spread featuring nude photos of a fictional cheerleading squad called the Texas Cowgirls.

Cheerleading has also grown into a big business. In the 1950s, a former Texas high school cheerleader named James Herkimer (he developed a cheerleading jump called the "herkie") founded the National Cheerleader Association. The NCA is a for-profit enterprise based in Dallas that runs hundreds of cheerleading camps nationwide, teaching young aspiring cheerleaders jumping and cheering skills at a reasonable rate. The cost of the camps is kept low, but the cheerleading squads who attend the camps usually purchase their uniforms and other accoutrements from the NCA-affiliated National Spirit group. Since it costs about $200 to outfit the average cheerleader, 3 million cheerleaders represent a sizable market, and by the 1990s, the NCA was grossing over 60 million dollars a year.

The huge profits have attracted competition. In the 1970s, Jeff Webb, a former protégé of James Herkimer, began his own company in Memphis, the Universal Cheerleading Association, and its parent company, the Varsity Spirit Corporation. While Herkimer has clung to the classic cheerleading style, with athletic jumps and rhythmic arm motions, Webb opted for a more modern approach; his camps teach elaborate gymnastic stunts and dance routines, and his supply company markets flashier uniforms and specialty items. Varsity Spirit Corp. has even expanded abroad, signing a deal in Japan, where cheerleading is very popular. Though NCA and UCA are the largest, the expanding "school spirit industry" has prompted the creation of many other cheerleading camp/supplier companies.

Because cheerleaders play such an important role in many schools, cheerleading has become a battleground for social issues. In 1969 over half of the public school students in Crystal City, Texas, staged a walkout for twenty-eight days in protest of their school's racist policies concerning cheerleader selection. In a district where 85 percent of the students were Chicano, it was not unusual for only one Chicana cheerleader to be selected. The students' action was successful and it was the root of the Chicano movement organization, Raza Unida. In 1993, four cheerleaders on a high school squad in Hempstead, Texas, found they were pregnant. Only one was allowed to return to cheering; she had an abortion, and she was white. The other students, who were African American, fought the decision with the support of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were finally reinstated. In 1991, another student charged the University of Connecticut with discrimination when they dropped her from the cheering squad for being, at 130 pounds, over the weight limit. Her suit resulted not only in her reinstatement but in the abolition of the weight requirement.

The fierce competition surrounding cheerleading has been documented in a cable-TV movie starring Holly Hunter in the title role of The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. The movie takes playful liberties with the true story of Wanda Holloway, who plotted to have the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival killed. Journalists in Texas, where cheerleading is taken seriously, were surprised only by the fact that Holloway presumed that the murder would prevent the rival from trying out for the squad. The media is full of other such stories: the New Jersey cheerleaders who in 1998 fed the opposing squad cupcakes filled with laxatives, and the South Carolina cheerleaders who spiced up a 1995 Florida competition by holding their own private contest—in shoplifting.

Cheerleaders are easy targets for satire, their raison d'être construed as boosterism, and they are often stereotyped as being stupid and superficial. In 1990, the University of Illinois was prompted to take the soft-core sexual image of cheerleaders seriously. Noting the high rate of sexual assault on campus, a university task force recommended banning the cheerleaders, the Illinettes, because the all-female squad maintained a high-profile image as sexual objects. In this light, it is easy to see that male cheerleading is a distinctly different phenomenon; men in letter sweaters with megaphones yelling and doing acrobatics clearly fill a different role than scantily-clad women doing the same yells and acrobatics.

Debate continues over whether cheerleaders are athletes or bimbos; whether cheerleading is, in itself, a sport, or an adjunct to the real (mostly male) sports. Some women devote their lives to cheerleading, for themselves or their daughters; some women condemn it because it turns women into boosters at best and sex objects at worst. Some men delight in watching the dances of the flamboyant squads at half-time; some men see them as a distraction to the game and belive they should be abolished. And in junior high and high schools across the country, girls, even many who profess not to care, still train to perform difficult routines for tryouts and anxiously watch bulletin boards to see if they made the squad.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Hanson, Mary Ellen. Go! Fight! Win!: Cheerleading in American Culture. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995.

Ralston, Jeannie. "Rah! Power." Texas Monthly. Vol. 22, No. 10,October, 1994, 150.

Scholz, Suzette, Stephanie Scholz, and Sheri Scholz. Deep in the Heart of Texas: Reflections of Former Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.