NFL Cheerleading: All-American Fun or Sexism?

pompomsA long-running debate hits the headlines again: a CNN article explores whether NFL cheerleading represent all-American fun or gratuitous sexism.

One of the key components of the girlsCAN! program is having female athletes as Mentors, so we’re careful to keep an open mind when considering whether or not a program that employs female athletes deserves to the sexist label.

And deciding whether or not cheerleading is sexist is a tough call. There are so many aspect to it that are beneficial to its practitioners. Community involvement, teamwork, athleticism, dedication and persistence, and pursuit of one’s dream are what we’re all about, and so we fully support those aspects.

Probably the most common complaints, particularly for pro sports like the NFL, involve skimpy uniforms. We don’t have a problem with tight fitting, stretchy clothing (hey, we’re cyclists!), but the requirement to show maximum skin seems dubious. In the case of pro sports cheerleading, it’s pretty clear the uniforms are meant to facilitate objectification, and with that we certainly take issue. After all, male cheerleaders have no problems demonstrating their athleticism wearing long pants or baggy shorts and full tops.

However, the aspect of cheerleading that we find most problematic is that it places females on the sidelines (no pun intended)(okay, it was intentional, but how could we resist!). The nature of cheerleading, as it was originally intended and as it’s used now by pro sports franchises, is one of female-as-male-supporters. “We’re here to support you, men. While you do real work—that we can’t do lest we break a nail—we’ll content ourselves with standing on the sidelines and doting on your amazingness.”

Now, that characterization doesn’t at all reflect who the cheerleaders really are. The cheerleaders that we know are fit, athletic, bright, and talented beyond athletics. And we think that most girls and women get that, so that’s not really the problem. No, the real problem is that the majority of men see the cheerleader role as being lesser. In all the ways that males are socialized to believe are important. And if it’s a lesser role, then by extension the people who fill that role are lesser in the minds of socialized males, at least to some degree.

It’s another example of an environment in which females are not welcome to participate, except of course to cheer on the ‘real’ athletes, aka males. But only if they’re wearing an outfit that looks like they just walked off the set of a Victoria’s Secret catalog shoot. Because of this, it’s hard to make an argument that cheerleading, at least the NFL’s interpretation of it, doesn’t degrade the stature of females in our society.

So, it seems the fundamental question is whether an activity that offers a lot of benefits to its female participants, but is based in sexism and misogyny,  is, overall, good or bad for nurturing gender equality. If you’ve ever heard males talk about females when they’re dressed like NFL cheerleaders, you’ll know that the answer is a resounding ‘No!’ This perception of females also explains why a Google search for ‘most athletic NFL cheerleaders’ returns hits like ’10 Most Stylish Cheerleader’ or ‘NFL cheerleaders with the hottest bodies’. Their athleticism doesn’t seem to be what males are noticing.

As is often the case, the problem isn’t the activity, it’s what females are required to do to make the activity interesting to males. We’ve still got a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

Up with genderEQUALITY!

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