Cheerleading: Toxic or Triumphant?

What makes cheerleading so distinct? A Student Perspective


Catie Cho, Managing Editor

When I think of symbols that represent American culture, athletics are one of the first things to come to mind. Baseball and basketball are undoubtedly American classics, but the only purely “American” sport, for me, is football. 

But when I was a kid, and my dad had the football games on, it wasn’t the game that I was watching. It was the cheerleaders. I was mesmerized by them: their colorful outfits and those sparkles–what six year old girl wouldn’t find those appealing? Their loud femininity and blatant confidence appealed to me. At that age, they appeared very different from the Disney Princesses and Super Why! characters I consumed on tv. Even a badass princess like Mulan didn’t have the same kind of undefinable allure as those sparkly cheerleaders. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

But as I have gotten older, my thinking about cheerleaders and other cheer squads has become more complicated. Cheerleaders are an undeniable touchstone of American culture—both at the collegiate and professional level—and the sport of cheerleading may have a greater impact on race, gender, and American society as a whole than the six year old version of me ever stopped to consider. 

Before cheerleading became the popularized, commercial sport that it is today, it was actually an all-male activity, started in 1898 by one student at the University of Minnesota. He led the crowd by shouting, “Rah-rah-rah! Sku-u-mar! Minneso-tah!” 

In the early 1900s, football and cheerleading both began to gain popularity, and in the 1920s, some colleges started placing attractive women in front of crowds to direct chants, even though men were still made up the majority of cheer squads. In the 1940s, though, boys went to war, and women stepped in to fill their place. From then on, cheerleading has been a female-dominated sport. 

However, female cheerleading didn’t seem to garner the same respect as male cheerleading did. An emphasis was placed not on physical ability, but on attractiveness. Laura Grindstaff, professor of sociology at UC Davis, in The Atlantic, notes, “the stereotypical image of cheerleading became of women on the sidelines, supporting their guys. They were eye candy, but not really the center of attention.” 

It is worth noting here that the sexualization of females on the field may not be limited to cheerleaders. Studies looking at the portrayal of women in sports in general show an unsettling pattern. According to a 2017 study by Cynthia Frisby, which looked at the objectification of females through sport magazine covers, women’s athletics are covered significantly less in sports media than men’s, and  when women are represented, media outlets tend to focus on the fact that they are women first, athletes second.  The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a perfect example of this. Jennie Finch, a two-time Olympic softball player was the cover of the 2005 Swimsuit Issue. An article in the magazine read that the issue was “dedicated to one particular blonde beauty who also happens to be a beast on the mound.” Instead of being an athlete who is also beautiful, Finch becomes a(n objectified) “blonde beauty” who, by chance, is also pretty good at softball. By emphasizing her physical attractiveness, the magazine implies that Finch’s value lies within her good looks, not her athleticism. Frisby also notes that beyond the Swimsuit Issue, female athletes, when they do appear on the cover of the magazine, are “shown in sexually objectifying poses, seductive eye gazes, scantily clad clothing, and sexy/inviting body poses while male athletes are often seen in their team uniforms depicted in active, game playing athletic motions associated or related to his sport.” 

Frisby’s study concludes that many female athletes may subconsciously sexualize themselves in order to attract more attention from the media; any publicity is good publicity. 

Some critics claim that, by default, cheerleading similarly relies on female sexuality to attract attention. According to the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, “Cheerleading does allow the erotic to enter into school spaces.”  The report concludes that cheerleaders may promote harmful stereotypes about women, reducing them to their sex appeal: “Cheerleaders are allowed to wear short skirts and tight fitting vests, which violate school dress codes, while performing sexually provocative dance moves on the school stage.” 

Indeed, the Washington Football team, formerly the Washington Redskins, decided to replace their cheerleaders with a new, co-ed dance team after countless sexual abuse allegations. The controversy peaked in 2018 when the cheerleaders—the Redskinettes, as they were known at the time—were forced to do a topless photoshoot by the team’s management. Former Washington Cheerleader Allison Cassidy said in 2018 that “it’s like the women there have been brainwashed to think it’s OK to be treated like garbage.” 

But the issues with cheerleading are not limited to sexualization; many cheerleading squads have also struggled with diversity. For example, during 1960s, despite moves to desegregate schools, cheerleaders of color were routinely denied acceptance into school squads. In fact, cheerleaders were at the center of a number of civil rights protests, such as a school boycott of Rankin High School where there was not a single cheerleader of color on the squad even though the school was racially diverse. 

In Hastings, we don’t have a traditional cheerleading squad, but do have a kickline, the Hudsonettes. I had a chance to talk to a few members of the team to get their perspective on the place of cheer squads and kicklines in American Culture.

Ayla Demirdelen, co-captain of the Hudsonettes, said diversity (or lack thereof) in sports like cheerleading “is an issue [the Hudsonettes] are very, very aware of.” But, she said, “it is an issue not only for our team; it’s an issue in Hastings as a whole.” And she would be right–Hastings is 87% white. 

But even on professional teams today, where they pull from a national pool, black cheerleaders are often unable to secure spots on squads. Compared to the NFL teams, where close to 70% of players are Black, diversity on NFL cheerleading teams is low. Only 17% of NFL cheerleaders are black and there are also only three black cheerleading coaches out of the 26 NFL teams that have a cheer team, but this doesn’t seem to be unique to cheer squads: there were only three Black NFL coaches at the beginning of 2020 as well. 

In an article on racism in cheerleading, Cheyenne Leitch notes that young Black cheerleaders have also faced discrimination on squads,  being told, for example, not to wear their hair naturally. In 2019, 11 year old Neimah Young was kicked off of her team after being unable to wear her hair in the ponytail that her coaches required. The team’s organization, Diamond Elite Cheerleading, denied claims that Young’s dismissal was related to her race, but Young disagreed and said she no longer felt welcome in the cheer community. In an interview with CBS, she said, “Whether they are white, black, Asian, curly hair, straight hair, no hair, all girls should feel supported.”

Regardless of its shortcomings, cheerleading still plays a massive part in scholastic and professional sports culture. Cheerleading, according to a 2004 dissertation by Nicole Farugia, has evolved into its own sort of communication form. “As the crowd follows the cheerleaders’ attitudes, movements, and formations throughout an athletic game, they establish and maintain cultural patterns,” she claims. “In the case of cheerleading, dance symbolizes support for the team and repulsion towards the opposition.” In other words, cheerleading has become a universal language understood by crowds across the country. 

For cheerleaders, most see themselves as a necessary part of sporting events. They are the bridge between the crowd and game. According to an article written by cheerleader Allie Haugen, titled, Why I Cheer, cheerleaders are powerful performers that have the ability to, in essence, control the mood of the entire game. “You have the power to show your community how welcoming your team is,” she writes. “You have the power to lift others up, even after a bad loss.”

 “We have a responsibility to the game as much as the football team,” said Stella Hatch, the other co-captain of the Hudsonettes. Ayla Demirdelen added, “the Hudsonettes are uplifting to the crowd. We have a good environment on the team, and I think that shows when we dance.”

Cheerleading, it seems, is a complicated part of our culture. To some, it perpetuates hyper-sexualized stereotypes of women and marginalizes women of color, but to others, it empowers women and makes games more exciting. And while there are definitely those that have been driven away by what they perceive to be fundamental flaws within the sport, cheerleading has remained, and will likely continue to remain an integral part of not just athletic culture, but American culture as a whole. Even when things are going terribly, those bright, shiny cheerleaders will be there to make you forget that the game even went wrong in the first place.