Cheerleading: Sexploitation, Side Show, or Serious Sport?
By David Metcalfe
September 23, 2018
A group of people, primarily men, pay a fee, drink alcohol, and watch young, barely dressed women perform dances.
Did I just describe a strip club or a sporting event?
As I sat in the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, I was in awe of the talents on display from the players; hitting three-point shots, performing acrobatic lay-ups, and, my favorite, alley-oop slam dunks. The crowd went crazy every time they scored. But after 12 minutes, the players take a break. During this break, there is typically either a silly looking mascot running around, some random kids dunking on a mini-hoop, or possibly, cheerleaders.
Dressed in outfits comparable to bikinis, the cheerleaders ran onto the court and proceeded to dance in highly eroticized, sexually suggestive movements. These included things like twerking, hip thrusting, and chest puffing. As I looked around and saw thousands of men sipping their beers and ogling the women, I began to wonder, what’s the difference between this:
There must be a huge difference, because, after all, one is considered 100% socially acceptable, and is something a man has no problem watching along side his wife and kids, while the other is considered a morally corrupt, indecent practice to be kept discrete. A cheerleader is proud to announce her profession to her parents, while a strip club dancer claims to be “working part-time late shifts at a department store”. Cheerleaders are considered beautiful, popular, pinnacles of femininity. Strippers are considered dirty sluts.
But where does their job description differ? And why do we treat them so entirely different?
There are many different views on whether cheerleading is an acceptable practice, and where the limits of acceptable sexual expression lie. Some see it as overtly sexual, but others see it as a harmless side show form of entertainment, similar to that of a mascot, and others see it as a serious sport in its own right. I will be focusing specifically on the type of cheerleading displayed at NBA games, which obviously has a lot of overlap with other forms of cheerleading. I will consider three important perspectives on this topic:
1) The Feminist Perspective
2) The Christian Perspective
3) The Marxist Perspective
There are elements from all three that have developed my own view on the topic, and at the end I will be sharing my recommendations for how cheerleading, and the culture around it, can improve.
Feminism and Cheerleading
A feminist perspective seeks to focus on the gendered dynamics of performing femininity. Femininity, of course, is socially constructed. For example, there’s nothing innately “feminine” about the color pink, and could just as easily be any other color, but our society chose to associate that color primarily with women. Another example of socially constructed femininity would be cheerleading.
These social constructions typically have some kind of more inherent grounding, if one goes back far enough. The color pink is not commonly found in nature, although it is found in full vibrancy in many types of flowers. The connection to assigning the color as a representation of women is in our cultural assumption that women desire to be beautiful, like that of a flower. Cheerleading is the same way. Its grounding is found in the cultural assumption that women want to showcase their physical attractiveness, positive attitude, and supportive role (Grindstaff and West, 2006).
Feminism seeks the empowerment of women. This means they have the ability to make decisions, have their opinions heard, and be viewed as valuable. So, the question we need to answer is whether or not cheerleading is empowering to women.
Since basketball is a sport that inherently favors biologically masculine qualities, such as height, strength, speed, etc., it is not realistic for women to play at the same level as the male athletes. The WNBA is on the margins of sport, with very few fans, relatively speaking. Since cheerleading is an activity that favors biologically feminine qualities, such as flexibility, beauty, and finesse, the women have a significant advantage. In a game where all of the athletes would otherwise be male, cheerleading offers a glimpse of female athleticism.
But that’s if we consider cheerleading to be a legitimate sport. If it is merely a side show to accompany the “real” athletes, it is actually degrading feminine value as lesser. And there is a very good case to be made that this is occurring to at least some extent. No one at the game bought “cheerleading tickets”; they all bought “basketball tickets”. The Pepsi Center is not the home of the “Cheer Team” but of the “Denver Nuggets”. The cheerleading team is interchangeable, in many ways, with the mascot’s overtly comical performance. And, of course, the cheerleaders very existence is rooted in sideline support of the “real” athletes.
In considering cheerleading as a form of overt sexuality on display, there are two popular views among feminists. The first is the most common, that a woman showing her body and highlighting her sexualized characteristics causes men to view her as a sexual object, and it therefore degrades her value. The second is the idea that she is exercising her free will and expressing herself in the way she sees fit and is therefore empowered by her sexualized display. And while strip clubs are often considered degrading to women because of their subjugated service orientation, cheerleading may be seen not as a service, but rather as a show to marvel at, similar to that of the male athletes, but just in a different way.
In summary, the feminist perspective on cheerleading is contingent on its legitimacy as a sport, and one’s interpretation of female sexual display as empowering or degrading to women.
Christianity and Cheerleading
The Bible’s beginning generally conceptualized a heterosexual, polygamous, endogamous sexual ethic. Notable Old Testament figures such as Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, and others, appeared to exemplify this ethic as in accordance with God’s will. Self-denial was a present but insignificant aspect. However, the New Testament teaches an ethic of celibacy. Sex, if it is to happen at all, is only considered acceptable within a committed, long term, heterosexual relationship. Popular and pivotally constructing verses for the Christian sexual ethic include Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28 that,
“anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart”
And Paul’s writing to the Thessalonians that, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.”
Basically, sex is bad, don’t do it or think about it ever, unless you are in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. It is a very repressive approach to sexuality.
Since the men are having lustful thoughts, due to the cheerleader’s overtly sexualized movements and skimpy outfits, the practice would be considered immoral. The women also would be immoral, since they “caused another to stumble” (Romans 14:13) (Matthew 18:6-7) and failed to uphold their bodies as a “glorifying temple to God” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Although sects in modern Christianity have taken on many post-enlightenment values, its root is very misogynistic, and it is still seen today. Titus 2:4-5 says, “They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” 1 Timothy 2:11 says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet…she will be saved through child bearing.”
The Christian view depicts the ideal woman as quiet, submissive, and supportive to her husband. In this sense, women are like cheerleaders as side show. The man is the main show, with the woman quietly in the background, encouraging him. These types of gender roles still persist to this day due to the significant influence of Christianity on American culture. They were pivotal in Victorian morality, and also in the development of modern “hegemonic masculinity” (the idea that men ought to be dominant, tough, and important).
In summary, the Christian perspective on cheerleading is that the practice is immoral due to its potential to create lust, but does find some agreement in its conception of women being supportive to the more dominant role of masculinity.
Marxism and Cheerleading
A Marxist perspective focuses on class struggles between those seen as oppressors and those seen as oppressed. It primarily considers economic aspects of the links between labor, capital, and class. In talking about the status of women, it will undoubtedly overlap with feminist theory, although I wanted to employ Marxism specifically to examine the economic and status factors at work.
Cecelia Townes wrote a very interesting article back in May of 2017, called “Why are NFL and NBA cheerleaders barely earning minimum wage?” for ESPN. She discusses how cheerleaders are often paid significantly less than minimum wage when you factor in the amount of practice and prep time. The players, on the other hand, are paid millions of dollars per year. This not only puts cheerleading as less legitimate, but also, since there is a direct gender correlation, puts femininity as less legitimate.
Giving millions of dollars to the performers who display masculine attributes, while giving just hundreds of dollars to the performers who display feminine attributes, is putting the women in a significantly lower economic position, reflective of the larger patriarchal power narrative at work in society as a whole. In our capitalist society, money is power. It gives you what you want, when you want it. Necessary to the establishment of the patriarchy is control over money, which is why women working more outside the home in the latter part of the 20th century increased women’s rights.
In summary, the Marxist perspective says that since cheerleading is expressing an economic conception of men as primary, more deserving wage earners, and therefore holders of power, it expresses oppression of women.
I love multi-perspective analysis because I think we can find valuable things in many of them, and also recognize where a certain perspective might be limited. From all three, we can clearly see that if cheerleading is displayed as a sexual show, it is exploiting and dehumanizing to the women. If it is displayed as a side show to the “real” athletes, it perpetuates antiquated gender roles, which is good for the traditional Christian but bad for the feminist. If it is displayed as a legitimate sport, it empowers women as real athletes, capable of impressive physical feats that cater to biological advantages of feminine expression. But unfortunately, with the current pay scale, even as a legitimate sport, it is still marginalized as lesser value.
After diagnosing the problems, it is now very easy to see where solutions lie. Our goal is to have people consider cheerleading as a legitimate sport that promotes women as valuable, and properly appreciates the entertainment value of their athleticism on display. To do so, we must reduce the tendency towards sexploitation, male dominance, and degradation of femininity. Practical recommendations to accomplish this would be to have the women wear clothing that suggests a less sexually overt message, to perform dance moves and acrobatics that display athleticism instead of eroticism, and to pay them a proper wage, reflective of their talents.
Grindstaff, L., West, E. (2006). Cheerleading and the Gendered Politics of Sport. Social Problems. 53(4). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228348807/download
Townes, C. (2017). Why are NFL and NBA cheerleaders barely earning minimum wage? ESPN. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/espnw/voices/article/19454957/why-nfl-nba-cheerleaders-barely-earning-minimum-wage