Cheerleading – More Than Pom-Poms and a Big Smile?

By Justine Fiebig and Saskia Heike

If images of blonde girls shak­ing their pom-poms and yelling at foot­ball games pop into your mind when you hear the word “cheer­lead­ing,” then you might just want to sit down: The first cheer­lead­ers were men.

When cheer­lead­ing came into exis­tence in the Unit­ed States in 1898, it was an activ­i­ty reserved exclu­sive­ly for white, well-edu­cat­ed male stu­dents. Only the most enthu­si­as­tic and charis­mat­ic boys were elect­ed by their class­mates to be on the team. It was an hon­or­able posi­tion and opened up doors for sev­er­al young men such as future pres­i­dents Dwight D. Eisen­how­er, Ronald Rea­gan, and George W. Bush.

Dur­ing the 1930s, women were final­ly allowed to join the cheer­lead­ing team. When men had to leave school to fight in World War II, girls took over their posi­tions, adding new ele­ments such as danc­ing to the per­for­mance. As a result, cheer­lead­ing became a female-dom­i­nat­ed activ­i­ty, and cheer­lead­ers began to appear in ads in the 1950s. Whether it was Lucky Strikes, Milky Way, Dr. Pep­per or Tex­a­co Anti-Freeze, cheer­lead­ers were used to adver­tise all sorts of prod­ucts. Many ads depict­ed girls in skirts and sweaters, hold­ing mega­phones or pom-poms and flash­ing big bright smiles. The icon of the cheer­leader appealed to men, women, and teenagers alike. Even the Ger­man Coke Zero TV spot from 2013 used the cheer­leader icon:

In com­par­i­son to many oth­er extra-cur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties and pro­fes­sions, cheer­lead­ing hap­pens to be one fraught with a mul­ti­tude of neg­a­tive stereo­types. Where­as women cheer­lead­ers are usu­al­ly por­trayed as dumb sex objects, the men are often con­sid­ered homo­sex­u­al. In fact, male cheer­lead­ers strug­gle with their gen­der roles and are under con­stant pres­sure to prove their mas­culin­i­ty as well as their het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty to oth­ers. Addi­tion­al­ly, cheer­lead­ing is still not accept­ed as an offi­cial sport. How­ev­er, cheer­lead­ing – espe­cial­ly All-Star cheer­lead­ing – requires as much ath­let­ic strength, dis­ci­pline, acro­bat­ic skills, and ded­i­ca­tion as com­pet­i­tive sports do. The Nation­al High School Cheer­lead­ing Cham­pi­onship (NHSCC) is the most pres­ti­gious of the com­pe­ti­tions and is aired on ESPN. To make mat­ters worse, many con­tem­po­rary movies such as Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Cheer­leader Camp, and even hor­ror movies like All Cheer­lead­ers Die per­pet­u­ate these one-sided images.

CheeringSo what can you do to make a dif­fer­ence? It’s sim­ple. The next time you hear the term “cheer­lead­ing,” think beyond the stereo­types of the blonde, sex­u­al­ly promis­cu­ous girl and homo­sex­u­al boy, and see them for who they real­ly are: hard-work­ing athletes.

 

Sask­ia is a B.A. stu­dent of Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Media at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty Berlin. In 2009–2010, she spent an exchange year in She­boy­gan, Wis­con­sin. She her­self does not prac­tice cheer­lead­ing. She hopes to pur­sue a Master’s degree in Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty as well.

Jus­tine, a stu­dent of Amer­i­can and Cul­tur­al Stud­ies, is cur­rent­ly writ­ing her B.A. the­sis. She is a cheer­leader and attend­ed the Euro­pean Cheer­lead­ing Cham­pi­onship in Man­ches­ter. She has spent a high school year in Okla­homa and will leave Ger­many in the sum­mer to work as a fit­ness instruc­tor some­where in Europe. She is con­sid­er­ing pur­su­ing a Master’s degree in Journalism.

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