Personally, mainly as a result of my character and cultural background, I have little time or interest in watching the annual Superbowl event in the States. However, with the more than 100 million people watching the final showdown of the American Football season yesterday, I was interested to read that there were no female cheerleaders to keep male fans entertained this year.
The game was between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. Both teams used to have cheerleading squads, but their owners rejected the distraction that goes along with the squads. They are not the only teams to have done so either. In addition to the Packers and Steelers, the NY Giants, the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions also do not use cheerleading squads.
The New York Giants are resolutely anti-pom pom.
Philosophically we have always had issues with sending scantily clad women out on the field to entertain our fans,
Giants co-owner John Mara told the New York Times back in 2010.
Sports fans across America apparently reacted with dismay to the absence of sideline entertainment and there were fears it would affect television ratings. Ironically, Madonna, a 53-year-old mother of three, who has made a career out of exploiting her sexuality, was chosen to plug the gap.
However, given the tensions that have arisen over the years between the N.F.L.'s macho culture and women, and the infamous incident of Ines Sainz, a reporter for TV Azteca in Mexico, who was allegedly sexually harassed in the NY Jets locker room, it is refreshing to see that some team owners are rejecting the sexist, eye-candy culture of cheerleaders.
The origin of the rah-rah-rah
Interestingly, men, not the women, used to be cheerleaders. According to Varsity, all-male pep clubs led the first cheer in 1898, when medical student Johnny Campbell grabbed a megaphone, gathered some men, and whooped, ""Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!"
Women didn't get to cheer until three years after they got the right to vote. The women took up the sideline spots when the men left to fight World War II and stayed put. The activity, Noone says, offered one of the few reliable physical outlets for females until Title IX passed in 1972. In that same decade, cheerleading integrated even more athleticism to the routines with more tumbling and acrobatics.
Cheerleader as female objectified sexuality
While cheerleading at the high school and collegiate levels has become more competitive and athletic, today's N.F.L. cheerleaders are often little more than props that reinforce objectified sex roles. The professional cheerleader has become feminized and eroticized.
In her book "Go! Fight! Win!" Mary Ellen Hanson points out that despite the fact that cheerleading used to be an exclusively male domain, the cheerleader is now almost always characterized as a woman.
The cheerleader, she wrote, is an
"instantly recognized symbol of youthful prestige, wholesome attractiveness, peer leadership and popularity."
"Equally recognized is the cheerleader as symbol of mindless enthusiasm, shallow boosterism, objectified sexuality, and promiscuous availability,"
In response to this objectification, a movement of Radical Cheerleading was born that spread from the States worldwide. The idea was to ironically re-appropriate the aesthetics of cheerleading, for example by changing the chants to promote feminism and left-wing causes. Many radical cheerleaders (some of whom are male, transgender or non-gender identified) are in appearance far from the stereotypical image of a cheerleader. Feminist magazine director, Lisa Jervis, places radical cheerleading within a tradition of playful feminist comment on popular culture.
A welcome absence
As a British woman, cheerleading (which is thankfully absent in British sports and schools) has always seemed a peculiarly American phenomenon. In US high school movies, cheerleaders were always portrayed as popular, attractive and the girl to aspire to. Although, occasionally the shallow and ugly nature of the girls and the institution itself was portrayed too. Yet, there is no denying that the institution reinforces the sexist idea that men and boys are the main action and doers, whereas women are there primarily to look good and cheer the men on. I mean, seriously, can you imagine having an all-male scantily dressed cheerleading squad cheering on women's sports teams? No, there never has been one and hopefully, there never will be either. Although some homosexual American football fans might not object, for sure.
In the 21st Century, in an environment in which women play professional sports, compete in increasing numbers in high school and college, and work as sports executives, are scantily-clad female cheerleaders really necessary?
At least two teams at this year's Superbowl had the good sense to say, no thanks.