In the coming days, two NFL cheerleading squads will feature the league’s first-ever male dancers. Napoleon Jinnies and Quinton Peron have joined the Los Angeles Rams’ cheerleaders, and Jesse Hernandez will perform as a member of the New Orleans Saints’ Saintsations. While NFL teams, including the Saints, have included men as supporting cheerleaders for physical stunts, they’ve never been part of the main dance routines.
The addition of men to pro football cheerleading squads will make for a small shift in gender composition that could have an outsize impact. Earlier this year, a pair of cheerleaders filed sex discrimination complaints against the NFL, while several other NFL cheerleaders have spoken openly about their paltry pay, the extreme restrictions placed on their appearances and personal lives, and the sexual harassment they’re expected to endure from fans. Given that, the timing of the shattering of this particular glass ceiling is suspect. It’s likely no coincidence that the Saints hired their first male cheerleader in the months after the team came under public scrutiny for their sexist workplace conditions. However deserving of their spots the men on these squads may be, it’s worth pondering whether teams will use male cheerleaders as window dressing to enable the continued physical and financial exploitation of female employees.
That doesn’t mean nothing good can come of a little gender diversity. Bringing on men may illuminate the sexist nature of cheerleading squads’ restrictive rules, or even force team leadership to improve their treatment of cheerleaders. And Jinnies and Peron have already demonstrated another possible positive effect: Boys and young men who watch football may get new ideas of what’s possible for their own futures. Hernandez said he decided to audition for the Saintsations after his mother sent him a link to a story about Jinnies and Peron joining the Rams’ cheerleading team. “She told me that it was my time to shine,” Hernandez said. The presence of male cheerleaders may also force viewers to expand their personal conceptions of maleness, and masculinity, as they watch Hernandez and co. execute the same sexy dance moves as the women by their sides. Men make up a large majority of NFL fans—a captive, ready audience for a stealth masculinity re-education campaign.
Getting men in the mix could also yield better pay and prestige for the women already there. This dynamic has played out in numerous gender-segregated fields, including computer programming. In the 1940s and ’50s, coding jobs were often filled by women, who were paid skimpy wages to do what was considered low-skill labor. As more men entered the profession, the pay got much better, as did the social cachet that went along with the job title, even as the work itself didn’t change very much.
In an excellent 2016 piece for the Atlantic, Rhaina Cohen wrote that the opposite happened when teaching, a traditionally male profession, began attracting more women in the mid-1800s. The average salary dropped, yes, but the nation’s broader understanding of teaching as a vocation shifted, too, from one of knowledge transmission and discipline to one of glorified mothering. “As in the case of programming, the mere presence of women in teaching did not necessitate revising perceptions of women, but perceptions of the job,” Cohen wrote. Watching men on an NFL dance team might change perceptions in the reverse direction, convincing viewers that cheerleaders of all genders are hardworking, talented athletes deserving of respect and fair pay. That would be something of a 180 for the sport: Cheerleading started out in the 1800s as an all-male endeavor, and women didn’t start joining up in large numbers until droves of male squad members left to fight in World War II. By the 1950s, cheerleading teams were majority female. The activity’s evolution from coordinated yells of “sis boom bah” to a sport that involves gyrating in between gymnastic stunts closely follows cheerleading’s shift in majority gender.
So far, the new male presence on the Rams cheerleading squad has mostly served to highlight the team’s different expectations of its women and men. On the squad’s roster page, the women show off bikini bottoms and bejeweled bras, each striking one of three or four poses designed to emphasize their curves and trim waists. Peron and Jinnies, meanwhile, are posed more like athletes than swimsuit models: with arms crossed and weight evenly distributed between both planted feet. The women, with their pointed toes and popped hips, would stumble if you bumped into them; the men, in their baggy tank tops and gym shorts, would stand firm. Peron is also the one person on the page without a smile on his face. His swaggering gaze would look more at home among portraits of the football players than with his fellow cheerleaders.
In a clip of part of the squad performing a demo routine, Jinnies is killing it front and center, performing the exact same routine as the women—but he’s the only one without pom-poms.
“Since this is the first year we’ve had male cheerleaders as part of our team, nothing is off the table, however, we don’t anticipate them using poms, and in conversations with Quinton and Napoleon, we found they both preferred not to use poms,” a Rams spokeswoman said. Considering that almost nothing NFL cheerleaders do is based on his or her personal preference, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a gendered move. The decision to rob a cheerleader of the one prop that sets him apart from any run-of-the-mill dancer is a puzzling one, and tying that decision to gender is even more bizarre. It feels like the choreographers didn’t trust audience members to differentiate between the male and female cheerleaders—a distinction crucial to the art of football dance—and deemed pom-poms too frilly and flamboyant for a man’s hands.
Once they’ve invented pom-poms “for him,” NFL teams will have to make some changes to the much-derided rulebooks that govern cheerleaders’ off-field behavior and personal grooming. As it stands, many of the most egregious demands enforce traditional modes of femininity. The Buffalo Bills’ cheerleader handbook famously instructed employees to change their tampons every four hours and “never use a deodorant or chemically enhanced product” on their genitals. Bailey Davis, a former Saints cheerleader and one of the two who filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the NFL this year, was fired for posting a photo of herself wearing a lace leotard on Instagram, raising the question of how the Saintsations’ regulation against appearing “seminude” will be enforced against its new male squad member. The other rule Davis allegedly broke, which requires cheerleaders to leave any public establishment if a Saints football player walks in, presumes heterosexuality. If the rule applies to Hernandez, too, the justification held up by team leadership—that it protects cheerleaders from sexually predatory male players—will lose its credibility, since the Saints, like every NFL team, has no out gay players. And the sorts of sexual indignities some cheerleaders have been forced to endure, like getting ranked by fans based on their hotness or posing topless for a fake calendar shoot while male team sponsors watched, will seem even weirder if the one or two men on the squad are included, and even more transparently discriminatory if they’re not.
Those sex discrimination allegations may be the reason why Jinnies, Peron, and Hernandez will be cheering on the sidelines and the field this season. Davis’ complaint rests on the argument that Saints players and cheerleaders are subject to two different sets of rules: Male athletes get to hang out with whomever they want, pose in their uniforms on social media, and wear whatever they feel like at their public appearances. Female cheerleaders don’t. If there’s a male Saintsation, female cheerleaders will have a much harder time trying to prove that disparate employment conditions constitute discrimination based on gender, and NFL bigwigs will have a much easier time pretending their cheerleading squads are gender-neutral zones that just happen to require employees to stand around in undergarments while fans ogle them. What looks like evidence of some progressive discussions on gender and dance might just be the upshot of a lawyer’s good advice.