Reflections of Cheerleading in Popular Culture:
Exposing the Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Strength
Pom-Poms, mega phones, and human pyramids, are usually what come to mind when people think of cheerleading. It is even considered a hobby and not a sport at a lot of schools, which shows just how seriously it is taken. There is a broad spectrum of skills, ages, and teams within the world of cheerleading which makes it a very diverse, unique sport. This includes tumbling, dance, stunting, and cheering and only 2 minutes and 30 seconds to incorporate all aspects into your routine and wow the judges. Cheerleading is a sport for women to be sexy, fierce and athletic but persistent stereotypes in the media have made it hard for the sport to be taken seriously.
Cheerleading goes way back in history. “When most people hear the word cheerleading, they think of girls in short skirts. But in fact, the sport was started by men, for men. In 1903, the University of Minnesota created a “Yell Squad” composed of six males (history).” It was hard at that time for women to even be allowed to play sports and cheerleading was seen as an inappropriate activity for woman to participate in (Moritz). It took a while for woman to gain those rights so men ruled the sport until the 1920’s. In 1923, a lot of men left to go fight in WW2, which made it easier for women to take over and start leading the sport (history). Subsequently the powerful view of cheerleading dissipated as it shifted to a women’s sport also associated with a lack of physical endurance and resulting in the emasculation of men when they started to join back in. After women became more in charge of the direction they wanted to take with cheerleading, they started adding more endurance, flexibility, strength, athleticism and competitive aspects. These changes have been consistently evolving and cheer went from the sidelines to spring floors and caught on more and more as a competitive sport. It “is currently established in 79 countries with over 4.5 million cheerleaders worldwide (history),” which shows how popular it has become. I believe it is the skills that have attracted more and more people to join. Once tumbling (backflips) and difficult stunts started to be incorporated, it started to gain attention and members.
Even though Cheerleading has gained support from companies that host competitions, and create uniforms to support the competitive side, there is definitely a huge debate whether cheerleading is a sport or not. As competition became a central aspect for many types of cheer teams “women’s sports advocates began to rethink their objections to cheerleading (Moritz).” It was decided by the Women’s Sports Foundation, that since the main objective for so many teams was competing that some types of cheerleading is a sport (Moritz). Some Universities are now classifying their cheer teams as sports as well. “Currently, fourteen states identify cheerleading as a sport and nearly 200 colleges offer cheerleading scholarships (Hennefer).” The others that still haven’t jumped on board have reasons likely due to funding.
Over the years cheerleading has blown up as a competitive sport, “sources estimate that combining high school, All Star and recreation teams, there were 3.5 million cheerleaders in the USA in 2002 – an increase of 18% since 1990 (Moritz).” As popularity has grown so have the types of media surrounding it. It is not just sideline cheering for other teams anymore, so the fact that girls want to win provokes the media to depict cheerleaders as backstabbing, bitchy mean girls who will do anything to win in order to entice viewers. They are shown in the media as mean girls by trying to rig the competition by sleeping with the judges or trying to steal members from one team and add them to their own (#1). There is some drama in cheerleading don’t get me wrong, but nothing as crazy as the depictions in the media. Teams are usually close knit and stick together through thick and thin. Also even though there are political ties with judges sometimes or rumors of partiality, they are monitored closely and kept as unbiased as possible to ensure that competitions are fair.
The media is showing cheerleading in a whole other light, not serious and full of drama. This makes it hard to gain respect when people still don’t consider cheerleading a sport, but slowly it is getting recognized for its skill more and more, especially when “the All Star movement began to gain momentum in the 1980s and this started to change the perception of cheerleading (Moritz).” All-Star cheerleaders don’t even use pom-poms which would surprise a lot of people since it is a major symbol for cheerleading. It is mostly a team made up of girls from many different schools that come together a few times a week to build routines only for competition.
These teams have some of the highest recognition because they put a lot of money into winning. It’s about two thousand a year to participate. Many times instructors are flown in from around the world to train on difficult aspects such as tumbling and create groundbreaking choreography. All-Star teams are generally the most serious teams and take practices, uniformity, and their skills to the next level and practically live at the gym. In my experience, All-Stars was very intense. You had to try out to be on a team and fight for every spot you had in the routine. If anyone showed up even a minute late to practice, the whole team suffered and had to do 50 push-ups. We were only as strong as our weakest link. We rose and fell as a team. Every time a stunt bobbled, someone didn’t smile, or throw the tumbling pass they should have (say round off double handspring tuck and they didn’t throw the tuck), everyone would be penalized and have to do push-ups or some other type of gruel punishment. Every day we were drenched in sweat at practice, but that made us prepared for competition to look cocky, confident, flawless and beautiful. No one sees this challenging side they mostly see the finished routine or just cheerleaders on the side lines at schools.
If you want a real life glimpse into All-Star cheer, the reality TV show Cheerleaders shows a very accurate representation since their agenda is to expose the hard work people never envision when they think of cheerleading. This show takes you behind the scenes of an All-Star gym and shows you a side to cheerleading you probably never knew existed, a more accurate view of their determination to win, but through lots and lots of practice and harsh coaching, not through taking shortcuts or cheating (Cheerleaders). I feel like this depiction does us justice, it inspires and is relatable to other cheerleaders who watch it because it shows real practices, the sweat, the frustration, and dedication it takes to tumble and stunt. “All Stars take cheerleaders off the sidelines and make them the actual sport (Moritz).” This has been the fastest type of cheer gaining attention. However high school cheerleading gains attention for a lot of the wrong reasons with its stereotypes.
Associated with high school are the stereotypes that cheerleaders are popular bitches that are very conceited. Bring It On I feel depicts this stereotype perfectly. It shows the rivalry between schools and the bitchy remarks that are exchanged. It shows the popularity factor where everyone wants to be on the team but most don’t make the cut because they don’t have the skills or looks. On top of these stereotypes, another reason why the sport is not taken seriously is because it is seen as all beauty but no brains. Short skirts, revealing tops, and sex appeal in movies depict cheerleaders as very stuck-up, slutty, and trashy, but also make it look like appearances are the only thing going for them. This probably stemmed from the fact that “as squads became more female, the activity became more feminized (Moritz).”Some forms of media love playing up the sex appeal to attract viewers especially males, such as the movie #1 Cheerleading Camp, a raunchy comedy. This is filled with nudity and one girl didn’t even wear underwear under her skirt. The team also was desperate to have enough team members to compete after some left so they had strippers join the team since they were good dancers and had sexy looks, which made the team look even sluttier. Girls are also shown in the shower room comparing breast sizes by grabbing each others (#1). These portrayals make cheerleaders look very slutty and into themselves, when really uniformity is number one and skill comes first.
Looks are very important, but mainly when it comes to competitions since everyone needs to look uniform, have their hair perfectly styled, makeup on, and everything has to be flawless. In observation “at the gym, girls came to practices in sweats and T-shirts. A few gyms visited in the study had practice ‘uniforms’ which consisted of T-shirts with the gym’s logo and shorts. But notions of hair, makeup and other fashion tidbits were only discussed when explicitly asked or immediately leading up to a competition (Moritz).” Usually though, nothing more than wearing the right clothes are asked of you for practice looks wise. However, competition is much stricter, for instance, you cannot ever wear your competition shoes outside because you need them clean and super white for the big day. I can also say that sometimes makeup and tanning can go to an extreme, at least in college and All-Star cheerleading teams I have been on. The owner of my All-Star gym would actually encourage/tell us to tan. He even added a tanning bed to our gym. He also would come around and give us false eyelash checks, we had to have a specific type from MAC, and he was very strict about everything being perfect. Also in College cheer at PSU, we were sponsored by Tan Republic and a lot of us girls on the team would wear hair extensions so our hair was sexier and more voluminous. However, a lot of people don’t see these things as an attempt at uniformity; they see it as attention seeking and conceitedness.
Since looks are stereotypically always seen as one of the most important aspects of being a cheerleader, weight falls into that category in the media. A girl’s weight is always dramatized and seen as something her world revolves around. In Bring it On, the captain told one girl that she needed to go on a diet because her ass was getting too big and she ended up starving herself to stay on the team (Bring). In my experience, it is usually the girls themselves that want to stay slender so that they can be faster tumbles or lighter flyers, but it has never been a coach or captain to tell you to lose weight, only to eat right. On my All-Star team we had meetings about how we should be eating, especially the two nights before competition which included a high amount of carbs such as pasta for energy. On regular days, since we needed to have great stamina, the ideal calorie intake was much higher than an average person. Coaches were not trying to starve us, just make sure we ate healthy unprocessed food and get enough calories for the energy we would be burning. The show Cheerleaders shows that there are some heavier girls and that is fine, it is mainly the skill that matters, the stamina and health of the girls (Cheerleaders).
Blindsided by the pretty side of cheerleading, many people have no idea how many injuries or how much work goes into the sport including the number of practices, concussions, bruises, blood, sweat, tears, sprains, or broken bones. Cheerleading can even lead to fatal injuries, which is why a while ago a law got passed for the sport that pyramids can only be two and a half people high and certain stunts cannot be performed on hardwood floor or concrete. One cheerleader interviewed, named Cheri, 21 yrs. old says “I have seen brutal injuries – shin bones splitting out of a leg while the girl is being held in the air, etc. – and have seen the work that is put into one of these competitions (Moritz).” A lot of movies such as # 1 Cheerleader Camp, don’t even show hard stunts that cheerleaders do most often but show lifts or thigh stands which aren’t very dangerous or difficult (#1) you also see in Bring It On, the moments where their routine is already perfected, not the struggle in gaining the skills so it makes it look effortless and easy (Bring). Cheerleaders the show however, shows injuries and captures girls talking about how difficult practice is, which in my experience is more spot on. I have had so many sprains, jammed fingers bruises, mental blocks, and moments of exhaustion but it only made me stronger when I pushed through them. Cheerleaders illustrates the frustration of not landing a tumbling pass correctly, for they might get kicked off the team if they don’t get it right. It shows that in order to keep your position as a flyer, as we say you must “stick your stunts” or they will find a replacement since the team can’t risk a fall at competition (Cheerleaders). Cheerleaders have to be strong. You are never allowed to quit because of an injury or complain, practice is run like a military and you have to suck it up. My coaches always said you can’t quit unless you are “dying or on fire.” This meant you push through any pain, “pain is just weakness leaving the body,” is also one quote used a lot in the cheer world. When a couple cheerleaders were interviewed, Moritz explained “for their identity development, injuries signaled a way to legitimize themselves as athletes and cheerleading as a sport rather than activity (Moritz).” Injuries are definitely one of the many reasons why cheerleaders demand respect and consider their passion a sport to be taken seriously.
Currently there are many cheerleading magazines, companies, competitions, even a World’s competition to support this sport. It has been a great confidence booster in many women teaching them dedication, endurance, perseverance, strength, teamwork and that dreams can come true with hard work. In my opinion it is one of the most jaw dropping sports to watch and one of the most rewarding to be a part of. It is hard when you hear stereotypes that the sport you work so hard at is easy or stupid or just not taken seriously, but many cheerleaders know that they are not doing it to gain attention and the fact that we know we work hard is all we need, we have passion, we are driven, and we have the strength to brush off the stereotypes. Although it would be nice for people to learn more about it before judging it right off the bat.
There is a common theme running through a lot of media out there portraying cheerleaders because it is seen as humorous, but these images distort people’s views of cheerleaders in a negative way and do not include all details or aspects to what it means to be a cheerleader or how much work goes into it. A lot of people are blinded by looks and don’t realize there much more than what meets the eye to cheerleading. The effort continues and the spirit never dies in trying to educate about this diverse sport that many dedicate their lives to. Persistent stereotypes in the media really have made it hard for cheerleading to be taken seriously and gain the recognition it deserves but hopefully as the cheer world evolves so will peoples knowledge of it.
Bring It On. Dir Steve Rash. Universal Pictures, 2006. DVD.
#1 Cheerleader Camp. Dir Mark Quod. The Asylum, 2010. DVD.
Hennefer, April, and Kristina Sowder. “Dance and Cheerleading as Competitive Sports: Making a Case for OCR Sport Recognition & NCAA Emerging Sport Designation.” ERIC, Aug. 2003. Web. 09 Mar. 2014.
“History of Cheerleading | ISport.com.” History of Cheerleading | ISport.com. Cheerleading.isport.com, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
Moritz, Amy. “Cheerleading: Not Just for the Sidelines Anymore.” Taylor and Francis. Taylor and Francis Online, 15 July 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
“The Chopping Block.” Cheerleaders. Season 2, Episode 10. Awesomeness TV, 2013. YouTube.