Sunday, 30 November 2008

The strange art of cheerleading

Yesterday, my family and I went to the local Santa parade. It was kind of lacklustre. Highlights included a disgruntled middle-aged guy on a small, comical bicycle and a greyhound wearing festive shoes. Enough said.

But what really gave me the willies was a large troupe of little girl cheerleaders, forty or fifty of them, aged from about seven to twelve. They were a slightly sad spectacle. The baking sun meant that very few of them were able to go about their cheerleading with any enthusiasm during the laboriously slow parade, which lasted over an hour. A couple of them looked distressed, as if they might faint in the overwhelming heat. Many will have formidable doses of sunburn. Climatic conditions aside, though, there was something more than a little unsettling about a bunch of little girls dressed as adult women, flouncing past with their knickers and midriffs showing to the crowd.

I can definitely see the appeal of cheerleading for girls, little and big. With its mix of dance and gymnastics, there's no doubt that it involves a lot of skill. It's a chance to hang out with other females and be girly. In fact, it's the sort of thing I would have begged my parents to let me try, had the opportunity been available when I was a kid. (In those days, though, cheerleading was regarded as something mildly ludicrous. Perhaps it's the evolution of professional sport which has brought it to our shores since then.)

What I don't like about cheerleading, however, is that it is such a nakedly (pun intended) sexualised activity. Very few people (or men, at least) watch cheerleaders to admire their skills. Allowing little girls to enter into this sort of activity seems like giving them an apprenticeship in being treated primarily as sexual objects. There are a bunch of activities girls can do to express their athleticism and dance ability - why choose the one that seems to come from a high school social caste system that sets out to divide the popular and pretty from the rest?

It's not the potential sexualisation of kids that worries me here. It's a mistake to attribute adult understandings of sexuality to children - the little cheerleaders may not perceive what they do as being sexual at all, and I've no reason to believe that the adults looking on saw the girls in a sexual light. Rather, I feel concerned by the message it sends girls about what adult female sexuality is. Inducting kids into this sexualised activity suggests to them that female sexuality is about being looked at, putting yourself on display to be appraised by onlookers. The skill you bring to your cheerleading doesn't much matter to bystanders at a sporting match - it's about your body.

And to be attractive, to be worthy, to enjoy sex, your body must be perfect. That, to me, was the saddest thing about watching the little cheerleaders pass. With their bellies and thighs showing, they'll be learning to scrutinise their bodies, fretting about their bums being too big, the boobs they don't yet have being too small.

Amongst the girls in the parade, there were a couple who were quite chubby; whose bellies protuded between their tank tops and the waist bands of their short skirts. I knew that some onlookers in the crowd would be sniggering. It won't be long before these little ones become old enough to understand that cheerleading - and the ideal of female sexuality it promotes - is not for girls like them. 'Imperfect' girls need not apply.


Anna said...

Apologies Muerk - I reposted this post because I mucked it up first time, and when I deleted the first version your comment went with it. Please feel free to comment again! :-)

anna c said...

I feel the same, but I can't put my finger on what bothers me about cheerleading compared to other forms of dance, which do require (sometimes with good reason, often not) for bodies to be a certain shape or size, are often very sexualised, and in which girls perform very young. I think the point you mentioned about very few people watching them for their skill is part of it, but that is not in itself a problem with cheerleading.

It does bother me that girls/young women get more recognition as a support act for men's sport than they can in most sports.

hungrymama said...

Anna - I agree that the most bothersome thing about cheerleading is the way it sets up girls to see their job as being there to support the boys in their endeavours.

Brett Dale said...

Cheerleading in US College sports are amazing, the squads are mixed, and the cheerleaders are picked by their tumbling and athletic skills.

Their routines are amazing and they perform at both male and female sporting events.

The days of pom poms, and short skirts are long gone.

muerk said...

Anna - D'oh :) These things happen. No worries.

Julie said...

Thanks to the wonders of the internet here is Muerk's original comment:

I danced as a child - tap. I've completed my exams and am qualified to teach. And I can assure you that _all_ forms of dance makes you paranoid about your body, especially once you hit puberty. Ballet is notoriously high pressure for staying tiny, where as tap is less so. Although you still need to be slim enough to wear nothing but a scrap of lycra.

Lucy said...

I agree that all forms of dancing pretty much involve an emphasis on body shape, but I think cheerleading is different in that cheerleaders, in American society at least, are held in a particular social position. Cheerleaders are meant to display themselves in what is often seen as a sexual fashion, but be totally unavailable for actual sex, which would make them a slut. They personalise the virgin/whore dichotomy, in a way that, say, ballet dancers don't. And I think it's that peculiar sexualised identity that makes people, especially Kiwis (because it's newer to our culture) feel uneasy about seeing young girls in cheerleading costumes.

Brett Dale said...


I think your about 40 years behind the times, when it comes to American Society and Cheerleading.

It has really changed from that type of image, especially at high school and college, the cheerleaders, both male and female are becoming on a par with stunt persons, some of the routines they do will blow you away.

Maybe a few decades ago it was like that, but not anymore.

Anna said...

Brett, the acrobatic sport of cheerleading in the US is quite different from the more dance-orientated stuff which occurs here before rugby matches (this is still skillful, but it's also sexualised in a way the sport isn't). It's noticable that when cheerleading is a sport, it involves men, and when it's a form of entertainment (eg before the rugby) it's women only, and an adjunct to the main event.

Lucy said...

I think your about 40 years behind the times, when it comes to American Society and Cheerleading.

If I am, so is American popular culture - just think of any TV show or movie with cheerleaders and tell me if that's the image they show. Furthermore, as Anna points out, that sort of co-ed cheerleading which is a sport in itself rather than a support act to male sport does not exist in New Zealand, nor are we made aware that it does exist in America. So I don't think it's behind the times to be concerned about the image of cheerleading and what it tells young girls, no.