For many years, cheerleading merely consisted of girls cheering on male athletes at sports games, but today it has evolved into a competitive sport that involves intense and even dangerous physical activity. Even though competitive cheerleading is generally recognized as a sport and bears similarities to gymnastics (which was introduced in the Olympics in 1896 (Gym Can, 2015)), it was only in late 2016 that provisional recognition was given to the International Cheer Union as the governing body of the sport by the International Olympic Committee, allowing the possibility of cheerleading being in future Olympics (Dosh, 2016).
The History of Cheerleading
When people think of cheerleading, they probably think of pretty girls in short skirts yelling words of encouragement for male sports teams while jumping up and down and shaking pom poms. In contrast, the history of cheerleading actually began with an all-male pep club of Princeton University in the 1880s, and the first organized cheer was created in 1898 by University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell, who became the first official cheerleader (iSport, 2018). It wasn’t until the 1920s that women were able to participate, adding elements of gymnastics, dance, and stunting into the routines, and in the 1930s, they started using poms poms, an iconic symbol in cheerleading (Epic Sports, 2018). By the 1940s, women were leading the cheers, which is still true today, as more than 90% of cheerleaders in the United States are female (Time, 2016). Today, cheerleading involves stunting, tumbling, jumping, dancing, and yes, cheering, as a team, whether it’s a school squad or a professional club. However, Ball points out that these teams don’t need a sports team to motivate them, as they compete for themselves in competitions ranging from the regional to international level (2012).
Is Cheerleading a Sport?
Having been on my high school cheer team, whenever people asked me if I played any sports, I would always say I did cheerleading, which often resulted in them reiterating the idea that cheerleading isn’t a “real sport.” To clarify: when I mention “cheerleading,” I’m referring to competitive cheerleading in which teams compete against each other at events at or above the regional level, not teams that only cheer at sports games. Another way to differentiate between the two is that the competitive version is often just called “cheer,” while the school spirit version is “cheerleading.” In this article by Varsity, it concludes that cheerleading is “more than a sport” because even though it meets all the requirements to be a sport set by the Women’s Sports Foundation, the primary purpose is to support school teams, instead of competing (2018, para. 6).
When asked to explain why they don’t consider cheerleading to be a sport, people usually say that it’s because the teams don’t compete, and they’re surprised to learn that most teams do enter in competitions, and some cheer teams, like all-star organizations (which aren’t affiliated with schools), exist solely to compete. Many of the girls on my high school cheer team were also part of an all-star team that competed at a higher level than schools, and the school teams were seen as more for fun. However, they still worked very hard on the school team and put in a lot of effort to balance the two.
In my own personal experience, however, while my cheer team was representing our high school in competitions, we never cheered at a single sports game. This may have been due to the lack of games to cheer at, since our school didn’t even have a football team until my senior year (and it certainly didn’t have the impact that’s portrayed in pop culture television — Friday Night Lights, anyone?). But the main reason was that nobody on our team wanted to. We considered it to be silly, embarrassing, even degrading — this wasn’t the 1950s, so why should we restrict ourselves to being on the sidelines when we can be the main event?
Cheerleading and Feminism aren’t Mutually Exclusive
Competitive cheerleading can be seen as an advocate for feminism and a challenge to traditional gender roles in regards to female athleticism as cheerleaders are powerful, strong athletes who also confidently embrace the feminine aspect of the sport. This relates to Heywood’s article on sport and third wave feminism as it mentions that female athletes are often still viewed and marketed based on their physical appearance rather than their performance in the sport (2003). However, cheerleading places a great emphasis on how the cheerleaders look in terms of costuming, hair, and makeup, as their physical presentation is just as important in competition as the physical stunts that they perform. This prompts the question: how does cheerleading approach the concept of femininity in athleticism and the relation to third wave feminism as a sport that seems, to those who are not involved in it, to perpetuate traditional gender roles of female athletes? I think it is important to look into this topic further because the sport is often misunderstood and refuted as not truly a sport and that it opposes the concept of feminism.
This ties in to Ashworth’s article as she explains that the reasoning behind this argument is based on the idea that it aims to serve the male gaze (2014). It’s often thought that cheerleading objectifies women and girls by forcing them to place emphasis on their looks and utilize their sexuality, but Adams and Bettis argue that while cheerleading can be seen as an activity that supports the notion of heterosexualized femininity, it actually allows women and young girls to create their own version of femininity in which they are able to engage in traditionally masculine elements of athleticism — discipline, risk taking, power — while still enjoying the feminine characteristics of it that helps them constitute their gender identity (2003). As a self-proclaimed “girly girl,” I loved the feminine aspects of cheerleading such as hair bows, extravagant makeup, and glittery uniforms and that cheer allowed me a way to combine them, but I also reveled in the fact that these elements did not take away from the athleticism and hard training required of the sport.
The cheerleader has been reconstructed to represent new ideals of normative femininity, which include confidence, rationality, risk taking, athleticism, independence, and fearlessness (Adams and Bettis, 2003, p. 80).
Heywood talks about how female athletes have to prove themselves as athletes by reinforcing their masculine qualities of athletic ability while also reiterating their femininity so that their sexuality, gender, and identity of being a woman is not questioned (2003). This relates to the horrific case of Caster Semenya, the teenage track star who had to undergo a “gender test” in order to compete as a woman because her “masculine qualities” led people to believe that she was actually a man (Sloop, 2012). However, cheerleaders are often not taken seriously as athletes because of the idea that their embracing of femininity supports the traditional gender roles that work against third wave feminism. A college professor and former cheerleader even turned down a $20,000+ scholarship to be on a university cheer team because at the time, she believed that one couldn’t be both a feminist and a cheerleader, and her rejection symbolized the denouncement of cheerleading as feminism (Miles, 2005). Years after that, she ended up teaching an entire college course on cheerleading in American literature and popular culture in order to challenge the assumptions made about cheerleaders in terms of gender and femininity (Miles, 2005).
Are You an Athlete or a Woman? Why Not Both?
Moritz explains that second wave feminism has explored the apologetic female, who is seen as deviant for her interest in sports and “attempts to conform to hegemonic notions of traditional femininity to gain acceptance while doing the traditional masculine activity of sport” (p. 661), and she does this by emphasizing her traditional roles of being a wife and mother and featuring the accepted appearance of the ideal woman as a social construct, while cheerleaders of the third wave generation reject these boundaries and create more fluid gender identities by blending athleticism and femininity (2011). Despite the negative marginalization and dismissal from the media and other female athletes of cheerleading as setting back the women’s movement of hard fought acceptance in the male dominated world of sports, cheerleading does not force female athletes to choose between being an athlete and being a woman.
While the traditional apologetic female tries to inject appropriate femininity into athletics and defend their status as women, cheerleaders try to inject masculinity (athleticism) into the traditional feminine and defend their status as athletes (Moritz, 2011, p. 662).
Third wave feminist scholars see the concept of the apologetic female as perpetuating the outdated binary that looks at the world as a clear divide between masculine and feminine, as second wave feminists encouraged women and girls that in order to be an athlete, they had to accept the masculine traits of sports while simultaneously rejecting femininity (Moritz, 2011). Moritz discusses how female athletes have used the babe factor to create a hyped sense of femininity and sexual femininity to gain social acceptance in a masculine sports world, while cheerleaders use their athletic abilities to legitimize themselves in what is seen as an inherently feminine activity (2011).
I would argue that cheerleading also encourages the feminist values of supporting and empowering women, as the main driver of the sport is teamwork. The team has to work together to perfect the routine, and if one person does not put in the same level of effort as everyone else, it reflects poorly on the entire team, as well as the coaches and organization. There is also a high degree of trust, which goes in hand in hand with teamwork. No other sport requires its participants to place their life – literally – in their teammates hands, as the flyers allow their stunt group to throw them in the air and trust that they’ll catch them. Gullion, a self-proclaimed feminist who has turned into a “cheer mom,” points out that cheerleading makes up the majority of serious injuries for girls in the United States (2016).
It is important to note that cheerleading is not without limitations and free from criticism. Moritz mentions the harmful stereotype of the cheerleader as the dumb blonde, the popular ditz, the mean girl with attitude, the trashy slut… which are usually baseless assumptions perpetuated by cheerleading in pop culture (2011). However, there is still one stereotype that remains true: cheerleaders are mainly white, female, and heterosexual (Miles, 2005). Miles states that “a cheerleader often represents idealized white femininity” as those of ethnic minorities may not be given the same opportunities as white cheerleaders, which is a main topic that is explored in the iconic cheer film, Bring it On (2005, p. 226).
She also mentions the heteronormativity of cheerleading and relates it to another well-known cheer film, But I’m a Cheerleader, in which the protagonist tries to deny that she’s a lesbian because she’s a cheerleader, hence the title (Miles, 2005).
Lastly, cheerleading is still a very gendered sport as 97% of the 3.3 million cheerleaders in the U.S. are female, which is ironic since it started out as an exclusively male activity. In this article by the New York Times, Brenner writes that although it’s becoming more and more acceptable for boys and men to join the sport, the negative perception of male cheerleaders not being masculine enough or the thought that “all male cheerleaders must be gay” remains (1999). While there was only one guy on my school’s cheer team, he was neither particularly feminine nor gay, so we can hope that those stereotypes are evolving with the inclusion of more male cheerleaders.
Despite all of this research about the role of feminism and the rejection of gender roles in cheerleading, the debate concerning its intentions and impact on young girls, female athletes, and society remains, but it is slowly becoming more accepted as an activity that promotes female empowerment and is reflective of third wave feminism, as well as being a sport.
Sis boom rah, indeed.
Adams, N. and Bettis, P. (2003). Commanding The Room In Short Skirts: Cheering as the Embodiment of Ideal Girlhood. Gender & Society, 17(1), 73-91.
Ashworth, J. (2014). Sport, Sexism, and Cheerleading. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jane-ashworth/sexism-in-sport_b_4855086.html
Ball, M. (2012). Sidelined No More: The Athletic and Aesthetic Qualities of Cheer. Physical & Health Education Journal, 77(4), 30-32.
Brenner, E. (1999). Cheerleading Changes as Boys Join Sidelines; Stereotypes Slip Away, Attitudes Shift And a Sport Calls for More Acrobatics. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/02/nyregion/cheerleading-changes-boys-join-sidelines-stereotypes-slip-away-attitudes-shift.html
Dosh, K. (2016). Is Cheerleading A Sport? The IOC Ends The Debate. Forbes, 1-3. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristidosh/2016/12/21/is-cheerleading-a-sport-the-ioc-ends-the-debate/#5494ca5d4526
Epics Sports. (2018). Cheerleading History. Retrieved from http://cheer.epicsports.com/cheerleading-history.html
Gullion, J. (2016). The Cheerleader: a feminist mom, her pre-teen daughter, and the spaces for girls in American football. Continuum, 30(5), 542-546
Gym Can. (2015). History. Gymnastics Canada. Retrieved from http://www.gymcan.org/gymnastics-canada/history
Heywood, L. & Dworkin, S.L. (2003). Sport and the Stealth Feminism of the Third Wave. Built to Win: The Female athlete as cultural icon (pp.56-85). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
iSport. (2018). History of Cheerleading. Retrieved from http://cheerleading.isport.com/cheerleading-guides/history-of-cheerleading
Miles, L. (2005). American Beauty: The Cheerleader in American Literature and Popular Culture. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 33(1/2), 224-232. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/40005521
Moritz, A. (2011). Cheerleading: Not Just for the Sidelines Anymore. Sport in Society, 14(5), 660-669.
Sloop, J.M. (2012). “This is Not Natural”: Caster Semenya’s Gender Threats. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 29(2), 81-96.
Time. (2016). A Brief History of Cheerleading. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1950821_2018385,00.html
Varsity. (2018). Being a Cheerleader – Is Cheerleading a Sport? Retrieved from https://www.varsity.com/event/1262/being-a-cheerleader-sport