Rah! Rah! Sis boom ba! In my one-piece white cotton gym suit, surely one of the more hideous articles of clothing ever to be created, I puffed and panted and swung my arms along with sixty or so other girls who desperately wanted to be cheerleaders for our school’s sports teams. Having entered high school at the ludicrously young age of twelve, my physique, all baby fat and flailing limbs, was no match for the sassy sexy sophomores and seniors who flew into the air and executed splits without disturbing so much as a hair in their carefully constructed beehives. I was disadvantaged in other ways, too: I came from the poor town of Deer Park, which, lacking its own high school, bussed us to the decidedly wealthier bayside town of Babylon, where most of the wanna-be cheerleaders had been born and (pure)bred.
I got my chance to cheer two years later, when Deer Park organized a youth center complete with football team. My best friend Angie, who’d cheered for her previous school in Florida, was our fearless captain; hard as she tried, she could not force my now pubescent body into the correct positions with any semblance of grace. Still, in this ragtag group of teenage hoods, I was far from the worst of the bunch. We cared more about our uniforms than cheering itself, and designed our own: black high-collared blouses and gold lamé skirts with matching suspenders. I don’t recall ever actually cheering at a game; my most vivid memory, other than our hilarious vodka-filled practice sessions, is of waving regally from the back of an Impala convertible in the town’s Memorial Day Parade.
Cheerleaders are the supermodels of high school. To some people they’re an American symbol of unspoiled joyful youth; others see them as privileged snotty blondes. Ask any grown woman about cheerleaders and nine times out of ten her response will be passionate. If she never made the corps, she still resents the beautiful girls who did. Or, she was a lonely-but-superior intellectual who looked down on cheerleaders as frivolous bimbos. Or, she and her beatnik/hippie/punk/Goth friends—choose your generation—ridiculed cheerleaders for being shallow dupes of sexism. Whatever her feelings, they aren’t neutral.
Enter Title IX, the law that mandates equal gender treatment in every area, from academia to athletics, in schools that receive federal funds. While adopted a full thirty-five years ago, Title IX is apparently still making trouble, as it peels off one layer of sexism only to reveal another. Having made enormous progress in the development of girls’ sports departments, schools are now being challenged on the issue of cheerleaders. Why, parents and coaches are asking in legal complaints, don’t cheerleaders give girl athletes the same level of enthusiastic support they deliver to the boys. When I say the same level I’m being euphemistic: until recently, cheerleading corps never jumped and shouted for girls teams at all. Now, some are being forced to do so, and they don’t like it.
Equal Cheers for Boys and Girls Draw Some Boos, declared a headline in last Sunday’s New York Times that focused, unsurprisingly, on dissent against letting, or having, or forcing girl cheerleaders to root for girl jocks. Out of 30 cheerleaders at one high school, they report, all but eight dropped out rather than demean themselves by chanting female names. “It feels funny when we do it,” one of them said. Of course it “feels funny!” You don’t overcome a lifetime of indoctrination with one Go, Roxanne! In our culture girls are encouraged to stand by their men and compete with other women for the privilege. Cheer for other girls? Fuggedaboutit!
Of course, the Times story doesn’t put the issue in quite these terms—rather, the problems come down to pragmatics, like overworked cheerleaders. One captain who decorates the boys’ lockers before big games is exhausted now that she has to do the same for girls. “They’re taking the fun away and giving us more work,” she complained. Cheerleaders in some schools are pissed off because they don’t get to go to away games anymore—to offset the increased expenses and workload, administrators decided they would cheer at home games only. Hell, I’d be pissed off too if I was being punished in the name of gender equality…hmm, let’s see, hasn’t this happened before? I seem to recall…Eureka! Laws and policies enacted in the name of feminism seem to have a way of displacing other rights and privileges; we need look no further than the guilty conundrum faced by stay-at-home moms in the atmosphere that’s developed from corporate culture’s co-optation of feminism.
Could school administrators really find no other way to cut costs and workloads in order to offset the new policies? Yet even if they did, I have to admit it’s likely that cheerleaders would still be grumbling: according to the Times, “Some of the girls who dropped out just did not want to cheer for other girls.” They just did not. Want. To do it. Period. End of story. As if it’s normal. Hello? Could we go a little deeper here, guys? Did the reporter ever once stop to ask, “Why? Why don’t you like cheering for other girls?” The answer to that question would be a lot more illuminating than it’s too much work.
Certainly, “Why?” the reporter should have asked the girl who said “it feels funny.” Undoubtedly the poor child has no idea why—but were the question raised, she might think seriously about it. Maybe she’d come up against her own homophobia—or suppressed lesbianism. Maybe she’d realize she feels competitive, even malevolent, toward other girls. What this school needs isn’t more cheerleading—it needs consciousness-raising on a grand scale.
Instead, the primary focus of concern—in schools as well as in the Times—is that interest in cheerleading is dropping. Some girls are afraid all this contention will ultimately lead to the untimely demise of cheerleading. Ah, now that would be a tragedy for humankind, wouldn’t it?