Cheerleading started out in the 1800s as an activity exclusively for men. The Gryphon explores cheerleading becoming a female activity and discusses what this means for the modern-day cheerleader.
For those of us that associate cheerleading with the nineties ‘Bring it On’ films, it can be hard to imagine a world where the female cheerleader is not the norm. Nevertheless, this was the reality that cheerleading was created in. It first appeared at an American football game between Princeton University and Rutgers University in 1869 through cheers and fight songs that created a high-energy stadium spirit. The match led to the creation of an all-male “Pep Club” at Princeton, which is now seen as the official birth of cheerleading.
The sport went from being exclusively male to ninety percent female-dominated for primarily one reason: World War II. The men went to fight in the war, the American women stayed at home and began dominating universities and their activities such as cheerleading. Since then, cheerleading has taken America and the rest of the world by storm and the American NBA cheerleaders are especially well known because of the huge popularity that American basketball has gained during the years. From an outsider perspective, it is clear that cheerleading is both an athletically advanced discipline and a positive contribution to stadium spirit. However, the lack of men in cheerleading and the lack of cheerleaders encouraging the crowds at women’s sports events raise questions. Furthermore, the short skirts and cropped tops that the female cheerleaders perform in, when compared to what male basketball players are wearing, could also suggest that cheerleading is a complicated topic in regards to female empowerment. It is of course also clear that cheerleaders and stadium spirit go hand in hand, but this still does not explain why popular women’s sports with big crowds do not have cheerleaders. Why, for instance, does the women’s NBA league in America not have cheerleaders?
The Gryphon spoke to both Leeds Celtics Cheerleaders and the Leeds Women’s basketball team about the debate. Charlotte Bean, a Celtics cheerleader, strongly agreed that this is an issue that needs addressing. She said: ‘Why shouldn’t women’s teams also have cheerleaders? I think it would be nice as it is more about raising morale and support for the team playing not just putting on a show as it is viewed by some.’
All over the world women’s professional sports are gaining more and more attention and crowd size. Perhaps it is finally time for us to view their disciplines as just as important as men’s and integrate cheerleading into their games. The Gryphon also asked Charlotte about her viewpoint on cheerleading and about any concerns in regards to it being disempowering to women. She expressed that there were some stereotypes linked to being a cheerleader that she found problematic. Often, people do not view cheerleading as a ‘proper’ sport, and instead see it as a side-line activity to more ‘real’ sporting events. Even though cheerleaders have their own competitions and leagues, they are often not recognized for being a sport in the same way as many other male dominated activities. Officially, and at Leeds University, cheerleading is classed as a sport but culturally we have a long way to go in order for the general public to perceive it on the same level as disciplines such as football, rugby, or basketball.
When asked about cheerleading and feminism, Sophie Jordan, Leeds Women’s basketball player, stated that feminist arguments are valid when it comes to cheerleading on the side-lines for matches, ‘since there is the issue of them being objectified and only there for male attention’. However, she added that, ‘at the end of the day I believe women should be free to do what they want to do without being scrutinised or attacked’.
These remarks touch on the duality of cheerleading. They raise the question as to whether a cheerleader’s actions are determined by her own interests or by the validation of men. Even though cheerleading may seem like an activity where a male audience objectifies women, it can also be seen from another point of view: as women empowering themselves by actively doing what they enjoy.
The debate about whether a woman is still a ‘true feminist’ when she dresses up, or down, and wears makeup, is one which is rooted in something much deeper than just cheerleading. Recently, the issue has been discussed in the media regarding celebrities like Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. Both women are publicly declared feminists and have both appeared on stage in underwear and on magazine covers almost fully naked. For many people this creates confusion, since they cannot see the link between fighting for the rights of women whilst still establishing yourself as a sex symbol. It is an age-old controversy, with some arguing that the use of femininity and sexuality can be seen as female empowerment, while others label it as degrading.
Are cheerleaders, by doing what they want and wearing what they please, actually furthering a feminist agenda? Is the society that objectifies them actually the real problem in this debate, rather than the individuals themselves? Or should a sport based primarily upon the practice of cheering on men be completely out-dated in year 2015? Feminism is defined as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’. In some ways, maybe cheerleaders are not cheering for the men but for their freedom to do whatever they want. Maybe we should not question the cheerleaders’ outfits and roles, but rather why they are not present at WNBA games and other female sports events.
Cheerleaders have been around since the 1800s and they are not leaving the world stage anytime soon. Therefore, it is up to all of us to change the stage they are currently performing on for the better.
[Images: Leeds Celtics Cheerleaders, Keith Allison, Future Cheer, GQ]