Looking into the Mirror: The Cheerleader

When we think of a cheerleader in today’s society, we often resort to a representation that has been depicted throughout time. The idea of a cheerleader being the highly feminized, ditzy, or pseudo-athletic picture is what I believe comes to many minds in America today. Throughout many decades, cheerleading and cheerleaders have always been thought to have been the “supporters” in athletic events and the sport didn’t require any true athletes or athletic ability. The stereotypes of cheerleading and females who participate in the sport leave the lingering question as to where these ideals originated from. At cheerleading’s inception, it was known to most that the world of cheerleading revolved around the obligation to “support the boys”. According to Moritz (2011), this is an idea that in reality is dramatically changing. The ideas and depictions in popular culture media are harmful to the progression and legitimacy of a sport that in contrast to popular belief brings more than just a pastime to many young women and today even men.

Moritz (2011) describes in her article the new-found world of competitive cheerleading. This is the world where cheerleading has left the sideline and is now the main event. These competitions are composed of teams competing in athletic and physically challenging competitions with rivalry teams across an entire nation. In other sports such as basketball and soccer, when someone hears the term “all-star”, it is often to refer to a person who is above and beyond the average athlete. In cheerleading this terms holds the same connotations. However, An exception to this is that this is how the whole sport of competitive cheerleading is classified. In this YouTube mini documentary from Courtney Latterner, I am hoping to give many of you a view through the looking glass at the world of competitive cheerleading:

In popular culture media today including, movies, television shows, and online platforms, many audiences are retrieving these ideas and depictions of what cheerleading is as well as whom cheerleaders are as a community. If I were to ask you as an audience to compile a list of attributes you feel a cheerleader or the sport in its entirety possess, I could predict which attributes you would choose. For example, I believe many would say these adjectives: ditzy; stuck up; overly feminine, and perhaps even not athletic. This opens the question as to why do many correlate these adjectives with cheerleading and the individuals who participate in the activity? When looking at popular culture media, many are not a stranger to understand what a cheerleader is. With so many artifacts using cheerleaders in their stories we begin to see an underlying connection between many artifacts we begin to question the accuracy and legitimacy of these assumptions and attributes.

When examining many artifacts I start with a classic interpretation of cheerleaders in movies. In the movie “Fired up!” (2009) many cheerleaders are being highly emphasized by their sexual manner and how they are being perceived by those around them. Following, I have a clip from the movie when the two male protagonists arrive at cheerleading camp for the first time:

(Source: on YouTube: Xpolakx).

When looking at this clip, I begin to look at what the cheerleaders are doing in the scene through a personal lens (I, a former cheerleader), to also looking at how it is meant to be perceived by an outside audience. To an outside audience, the scene is meant to have a very sexual connotation, and reinforce the stereotype where cheerleaders are highly sexualized individuals who hold a reputation for showing of their bodies. This is supported by the music that was shown in the scene, “Bananza (Belly Dancer)” by Akon. This song is one that is highly sexual including lyrics such as “shake your body like a belly dancer”. This is contributing to the scene being sexual due to my viewing of the scene without the music. Although the movements of the bodies remain the same, the physical act of stretching before a physical activity is not a sexual act regardless of the motions used to perform the stretches.

Another example of the media portraying cheerleaders as being highly sexualized is from the CW television show, “One Tree Hill”. In this scene, we see a “catty” argument between two captains of rival teams:

(Source on YouTube: TheLk49).

In this scene the two captains resort to using sexual jokes to insult each other. In my opinion, this is contributing to the negative stereotyping and reputations of cheerleaders based on this repeated representation in popular culture.

Another popular stereotype I want to draw attention to is a clip from “One Tree Hill”, where the cheerleaders in the scene are in full make-up. This is interesting to analyze based on the way that cheerleading is perceived by the general public as being a feminine sport. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation of the sport; however, it lingers a certain connotation in the perception of the athletic ability of an individual. I first want to make a distinction between the portrayals of practice vs. sport. In my opinion these portrayals of cheerleaders in full make up and glam to practice is a very negative stereotype. When most think of sports I believe most do not expect to have make up on due to the high cardio regimen and the likelihood of high perspiration. Why would we bother with make up? In my opinion, depicting these cheerleaders in full make up during a practice is holding the underlying assumption that cheerleaders are not true athletes; therefore, can wear make-up when practicing their “sport” because they wouldn’t sweat.

In contrast to this is the fact that in reality, cheerleaders do wear full make-up when preforming their sport. Notice the distinction between practicing and preforming. Cheerleading is a unique sport because the sport judges it’s athlete on the way they present themselves. It is a feminine sport. But since when did feminine equate to non-athleticism? Mortiz points out an interesting fact about how regardless of femininity, the look is not evident of the athleticism the sport involves. “The femininity aspect- the short skirts, make up, hair and other adornments- were viewed as part of the showmanship of the competition” (Moritz, 2011, pg.668). I want to draw special attention to the key word in this, Showmanship. Competitive cheerleading is a performance based sport where cheerleaders are preforming a 2:30 second routine comprised of stunting, tumbling, jumping, and dance. Participating in this level of athletic ability with a smile on your face and a bow high in your hair is how I would define athleticism and showmanship.

I lastly want to draw attention to one last strong stereotype I often witness in the popular culture media. This in my opinion is one of the most damaging stereotypes to cheerleaders, this is the stereotype of cheerleaders being stuck up and rude. I feel this is severely damaging because it discourages outsiders from joining the sport, it causes outsiders to judge the sport and it’s athletes harshly, and results people to distance themselves from the individuals who are associated with the sport. There are many representations of this in popular culture; however I want to draw particular attention to a particular franchise of movies: “Bring it on”. This is a set of movies I am sure many associate their perceptions and stereotypes of cheerleaders they hold. In these movies one of the most loved by viewers is the portrayal of drama. Here are a few scenes from different “Bring it on” movies that have represented the common attitudes associated with cheerleaders:

(watch until :35) (Source on YouTube: MOVIECLIPS).

(watch from 7:50) (source on YouTube: Kaitlin Cameron).

These are both representations of cheerleaders being explicitly cruel to one another in ways that are un-imaginable. This is just in one movie franchise alone. If we begin to examine other movies and television shows; more often than not, this is a pattern we see through many different depictions of cheerleaders based on the conclusion that audiences love drama. In reality, cheerleaders can be catty, as much as any other group of girls being put together. It is often a stereotype that goes alongside with being a female; however this stereotype being solely attributed to cheerleaders is highly inaccurate. From the study conducted by Moritz, she spoke to many real cheerleaders who explain, “In cheerleading, we do have the highest injury rate. We’re way higher than football and you do trust your teammates with your life.” (Moritz, 664). With injury rates and the level of trust that is needed between teammates, having high amounts of cattiness and disrespect among cheerleaders is extremely detrimental and almost impossible to have in reality.

Overall, the negative stereotypes that are being portrayed in popular culture media in today’s society are negatively affecting the way cheerleaders and the sport is being portrayed by outsiders in reality. With a sport and athletic community that over the years has been making strides towards breaking these assumptions, it is crucial to move into the era of change. The media and society need to move past the stereotypes and present the sport in ways that are accurately representing the athletes and individuals associated with the sport. They need to show cheerleading and performing as a positive experience young women and even now men can experience, and understand the benefits of participating in this sport without negative judgment and assumptions.

Bibliography

Clark, D. (Director). (2004). Spirit in the Night (One Tree Hill) [Motion Picture]. Gluck, W. (Director). (2009). Fired Up! [Motion Picture]. Latterner, C. (2013, May 16). All Star Cheerleading: The Addiction. Mortiz, A. (2011). Cheerleading: not just for the sidelines. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce,, 660-669. Rash, S. (Director). (2006). Bring it on: All or Nothing [Motion Picture]. Reed, P. (Director). (2000). Bring it on [Motion Picture].

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2 thoughts on “Looking into the Mirror: The Cheerleader

  1. To be honest, these are all the stereotypes I think about when it comes to cheerleaders. I actually tried out back in high school and didn’t make it on the team. It may have been my high school, but the girls did always take care to wear makeup and dress nice most days.

  2. I LOVE how you said how people are shown to be stuck up which stops people from wanting to tryout for cheer. This is so true. Like it seems that it could even make the cheerleaders be mean to others because its expected of them. I was a cheerleader for a long time so these stereo types hit at home with me. I loved the essay and loved the opinions you had on it! Super relatable!

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