The Middlebrow


What to do about them.


Mike Powell/DigitalVision

The Texas state legislature set aside small matters like the implementation of the death penalty last month to consider a far more arcane ritual: cheerleading. The state’s cheerleaders, it seems, have become indistinguishable from exotic dancers—or so says a bill submitted by Al Edwards, a representative from Houston. Edwards’ legislation would divert money from high schools that allow cheerleaders to perform overly suggestive lunges and inside-hitch pyramids. “It’s just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they’re shaking their behinds and going on, breaking it down,” Edwards explained.

Fear of cheerleaders has a long and tortured history, stretching back at least to my sophomore year of high school, but rarely does it reach the high offices of state government or incite a reaction as hysterical as Edwards’. The cheerleader doesn’t deserve the persecution. While critics like Edwards sneer, she has wrestled with a centurylong identity crisis. Is she too sexy or too athletic? Too snobby and remote or too calculatingly ambitious? This is America’s cheerleading dilemma.

The cheerleader has grappled with her identity since at least the early 1900s, asNatalie Guice Adams and Pamela J. Bettis explain in their delightful book Cheerleader!: An American Icon. Originally, male cheerleaders (or “rooter kings”) patrolled the sidelines at college football games, trying to organize the yells of spectators. The male cheerleader was something of a campus eminence, regarded as an up-and-coming entrepreneur and future captain of industry. In 1911, The Nation declared that “the reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of being a quarterback.” (Not everyone saw cheerleading as a benevolent exercise in vocational training. A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard, called it the “worst means of expressing emotion ever invented.”)

World War II drained the universities’ supply of able-bodied males, and cheerleading became almost exclusively the province of females. A new type of cheerleader emerged: a future housewife—the ‘50s ideal of womanhood packed into a varsity sweater. The cheerleader dressed as a pillar of moral rectitude: colorful hair bows, an ankle-length skirt, and saddle oxfords. She was, by unanimous acclaim, one of the most popular girls in school and also one of the most beautiful—and her elevation to the squad was usually determined by a schoolwide vote. She wasn’t a jock. She demonstrated little athletic ability, rarely performing a move more daring than a modest jump or a split—certainly nothing like the pyramidal artistry that would come later.

The modern cheerleader was forged in 1972 when she was waylaid by two distinct cultural forces. First was the passage of Title IX, which invigorated women’s sports programs at colleges and high schools. With more girls drifting toward soccer and volleyball, cheerleading seemed antiquated. Along came Jeff Webb, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader, who turned his passion into a legitimate athletic pursuit by making it more like gymnastics. Through camps and workshops, Webb taught complicated flips and ditched the sweaters and long skirts for more aerodynamic uniforms. Cheerleading morphed from a purely social enterprise into part of a young woman’s athletic regimen: A 2002 survey cited by authors Adams and Bettis showed that more than half of cheerleaders participated in other sports.

The same year Title IX passed, the Dallas Cowboys replaced their high-school cheer squad with seven voluptuous, high-kicking professionals. “A touch of class,” the team’s general manager declared, before outfitting them in low-cut tops, hot pants, and knee-high white boots. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—who did not have any vocal cheers—quickly became the favorite “honey shot” of network TV cameras. Their emergence signaled not the sexualization of the cheerleader—she was already plenty sexualized—but her evolution into a sex object that had nothing to do with the sports team. Calling themselves “America’s sweethearts,” the Cowboys cheerleaders dispensed bosomy good will at children’s hospitals and posed for lush swimsuit pictorials. “Most football teams have cheerleaders,” a Cowboys player moaned to a Dallas sportswriter. “Our cheerleaders just happen to have a football team.”

The following decades marked a crisis of identity for the cheerleader. She found herself at an impasse—stranded between the ideals of vigorous womanhood and carnal objectification; between Billie Jean King and Ashley Montana. In 1993, school officials in Hempstead, Texas, discovered that four of the high school’s15 cheerleaders had become pregnant. Two years earlier, again in Texas, a woman named Wanda Holloway hired a hit man to murder her neighbor, whose daughter had aced Holloway’s child out of a spot on the cheerleading team. The cheerleader-as-slut myth, which had been around for decades, was given new prominence by movies ranging from American Beauty to Debbie Does Dallas.

In his remarks to reporters, Al Edwards, the representative from Texas, points out the futility of promoting abstinence curricula when cheerleaders offer a spirited rebuttal to it on Friday nights. He’s right that music videos and hip-hop have further sexualized high-school cheerleading routines. But those same music videos have made the cheerleader seem relatively harmless by comparison. And even as cheerleading routines have become more lascivious, if only to vie for the attention of the crowd, they have also become far more dangerous: From 1982 to 2000, more than half of “direct catastrophic” injuries suffered by collegiate and high-school female athletes came from cheerleading.

The real news about cheerleading is that the cheerleader may be tilting back toward the captain-of-industry model pioneered by her antecedents. Only it’s women instead of men—an intra-gender passing of the torch from George W. Bush (cheerleader at Yale) to Kay Bailey Hutchison (cheerleader at the University of Texas). Life as a student athlete suits the cheerleader better than the quarterback. While he studies his playbook, she mingles with well-monied alumni on the team airplane. Her grades are higher and she thinks more about life after college. She uses her high kicks and devastatingly sexy outfit to hide Wall Street-style chutzpah. The University of Alabama’s cheerleading sponsor tells her charges, “You’ll have the interview skills and comfort level others won’t. You’ll get the job over the one with all A’s.” What better payback for a century of leering and sexual degradation than career advancement? A message to the representative from Texas: The cheerleader doesn’t want to torment you. She wants your job.