Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Cheerleading? I’ll cheer for the legitimization of womens’ sports

Illustration+Kellyn+Taylor
Kellyn Taylor
Illustration Kellyn Taylor

Opinion editors are not responsible for agreeing or disagreeing with their writers but rather elevate each individual’s specific voice.

Cheerleading is an optical illusion of sorts: it changes depending on the perspective you look at it from. To me, it is a commitment, a passion, a career for ambitious and talented women to pursue. In popular culture, however, it is a group of conventionally beautiful women with pompoms, wearing short skirts and dancing on the sidelines of a football game. 

Groups like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders come to mind. From the outside looking in, they are a team of women whose entire jobs revolve around men: cheering for them, entertaining them, and tailoring their bodies to men’s desires. To appeal to men, they must become the pinnacle of female sexuality in the way they dress and look. 

In this way, cheerleading is not only a performance of dance and athleticism—it is also a performance of femininity according to the male gaze. Football is the major American sport that is almost entirely inaccessible to women, making it the most stereotypical “man’s” sport in American culture. Women are relegated to the sidelines, both literally and metaphorically.

Paired with the fact that the roots of cheerleading are very closely linked with football history and 75 percent of NFL teams have dedicated cheer teams and thus consistently involve the presence of hyper-feminine cheerleaders, the role of being a man in football is inextricably linked with the action of objectifying women. Football itself is already a toxic masculine space—where money, fame, and pride are valued above safety and mental health—and this performance of gender and sexuality only serves to exacerbate the problem. 

In an environment where high-profile sexual assault cases and rampant homophobia are already prominent issues, the NFL and its sexualization of cheerleaders perpetuates this destructive space and its consequences. 

Many American men who follow football—and watch these games as if their team relies on their viewership to win—are unconsciously adopting these harmful norms and values. Every time players take the field, the team’s cheerleaders simply represent what the “ideal woman” should look and act like according to an unhealthy lens. 

How we perceive cheer depends on the gaze through which we watch it. But faulty perceptions of cheer, and women in cheer, cannot be blamed solely on the viewer. I recently attended a Boston Celtics game at TD Garden and had the chance to see the incredible Celtics Dancers who act as cheerleaders for the team and perform during breaks. 

Their performances were all impressive, but one aspect of their performance that was glaringly apparent was the decision for only female-presenting dancers to carry pompoms. Alongside the female dancers wearing skin-tight clothes with low-cut shirts, the male dancers were in breathable, loose garments that highlight the difference between dance and cheer as a profession for men and women. 

It was not as if they were doing different dance moves that required different clothes or props at all—it would have made total sense for all of them to be dressed one way or another. The men, it seemed, were allowed to have the dancing be the focus of their performance, whereas the women were forced to have their bodies and “cheery” attitude be the focus of theirs. 

Male viewers don’t see a sport, the hours spent rehearsing, perfect uniformity in movement and execution, or even just a group of athletes doing what they love and being proud of it. They only see hypersexualized women in costumes—or lack thereof—who just happen to dance. 

Those who know someone who cheers, or those who simply value this sport as something more than an endorsement of mens’ sports, know that cheer is an intensely demanding commitment. And for those who don’t understand this simple fact, take some time to watch the popular Netflix docuseries “Cheer.”

According to a blog for mothers with children in cheerleading, participants should plan for up to five team practices per week, not including the suggested private lessons cheerleaders should take. More so, there is an intense physical commitment as cheer is second to only football in youth concussion rates. 

Football is not and should not be considered the mainstay of cheer. Cheer has its own competitions, its own supporters, coaches, funding, and participants. Why, then, do many people not consider it a sport in its own right? Why is it not an NCAA sport? Why don’t collegiate cheerleaders receive NCAA funding

While cheer is a sport seen in the public eye as “feminine,” men can participate as well—Emerson’s own Cheerleading Squad is gender diverse. The stereotype of cheer being “for women” is simply due to the artistic and aesthetic aspects of it. 

Cheer seems to exist perfectly at the crossroads of what women are expected to be interested in and what they are expected to be entirely uninterested in. The makeup, costuming, dance, and music aspects fall into what is expected of women, but the athleticism and stunts draw on a supposed emulation of masculinity. This duality is what makes the sport so unique, but is also what makes it so easily misconstrued.

Cheerleaders are performers, but they are also athletes. The longer people buy into the idea that cheerleading is a sideline sport, the longer we continue to subscribe to the notion that women are only capable of being supporters, caretakers, and homemakers. Women are more than that, and cheerleaders are too. 

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About the Contributor
Ella Duggan, Assistant Opinion Editor
Ella Duggan (she/her) is a freshman communication studies major from Wellington, New Zealand. She likes writing about sports, feminism, and pop culture. Outside of the Beacon, she sings tenor for the Emerson Acapellics, is an avid reader of romance novels, and loves hockey - Go Canucks!

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