By Emma Jane
The only thing more brutal than their workouts are the stories of adversity and triumph behind the athletes themselves.
Cheerleaders are nothing but bimbo garnish on the sidelines of football games, right?
Wrong. Contrary to the sexist stereotype of cheerleader-as-a-sort-of-slutty-human-parsley, Netflix’s new docuseries Cheer reveals what those of us die-hard cheerleading fans have known for eons: this extreme sport demands extraordinary guts.
Super-shapely guts that must ripple hotly in eye-scorchingly sparkly uniforms, but extraordinary guts, nonetheless.
Cheer — enthused reactions to which are currently breaking the internet — follows the members of Texas’ Navarro College team as they prepare a gobstoppingly dangerous routine for a national competition in Florida.
Cheer follows the members of Texas’ Navarro College team as they prepare a gobstoppingly dangerous routine for a national competition in Florida. (Netflix)
Never seen competitive cheerleading?
Imagine a cross between human aerobatics, reverse skydiving and juggling — only instead of balls, imagine you’re hurling a bunch of your friends up to six metres into the air while also standing on a bunch of your other friends’ shoulders.
Now imagine you’re doing all this with broken ribs, a bruised spine, and tampons shoved up one or both nostrils to stop the bleeding.
All these things happen in Cheer.
Imagine you’re doing all this with broken ribs, a bruised spine, and tampons shoved up one or both nostrils to stop the bleeding. (Netflix)
Cheerleading was like nothing I’d imagined
In one episode, a young “flyer” casually ducks down to the nearest emergency room to have her ribs “popped” back into place between practices. Cheer’s director Greg Whitely describes these young women and men as the toughest athletes he’s ever filmed.
Many of them had horrific backgrounds and say cheerleading changed their lives which, weirdly enough, is a sentiment to which I can relate.
Many of those featured in the docuseries had horrific backgrounds and say cheerleading changed their lives. (Netflix)
My first contact with real-life cheerleading was back in the 1990s when I was asked to join the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs cheer squad as a gonzo journalism assignment.
My editor was expecting I’d produce a piece of feminist snark — and to be honest, so did I.
Remember that scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when a recovering cheerleader sarcastically tells another that she’ll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with her arms?
That used to be my view of the genus jumpus skirtupicus. But neither the cheerleaders nor the cheerleading were anything like I’d imagined.
The former were a feisty delight (not least because of their hilarious bitching about having to sit through so much “boofmeister” sports ball), while the latter was unbelievably hard.
I won’t tell you how many weeks of private lessons were required for me to nail a single, modified nano-second of a routine or how nervous I was when I eventually performed in front of 20,000 bellowing footy fans at a match.
Let’s just say I still find one-size-fits-all unitards very triggering.
It’s time to bust some myths
That day, however, really did represent a turning point in my life.
In addition to rethinking my feminism, I became increasingly fascinated by the extraordinarily sexist disconnect between the reality of competitive cheerleading (it vies with football as America’s most dangerous sport) and the bizarre things haters say about it (in Australia, cheerleaders have been routinely blamed for footballer sex scandals even when no cheerleaders were present or involved in any way at all).
Emma Jane (centre) was asked to join the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs cheer squad as a gonzo journalism assignment. (Supplied: Emma Brasier)
Why did cheerleading have so many vitriolic anti-fans? And what was up with all the cheerleader-themed porn?
(Of the 50 bestselling X-rated videos and DVDs in Australia in 2003, two were cheerleading-related titles. None of the other 48 involved women’s sport).
Like any other normal nerd-lord, I decided to spend eight years at uni doing a Masters degree and a PhD in order to find out.
Here then, are just four of the myths I am now insanely overqualified to bust.
Myth #1: Cheerleading has always been girly
Believe it or not, cheerleading actually started out as a separatist sausagefest.
Its origins stretch back to US universities in the late 1800s, when big men on campus began mustering school spirit using military chants and clever rhymes such as “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!”.
Trivia note: those early male “cheer leaders” were also known as “yell leaders”, “yell kings”, “yell masters” and “rooter kings”.
Other trivia note: In 1911, an editorial in the Nation observed that: “The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarter-back.”
Given that cheerleading was also turning out to be a hot house for presidents (see Myth #3 below), can you blame upstart ladies for wanting in on the rooter kingdom?
Myth #2: Cheerleading has no secret feminist history
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a handful of girls and women tried infiltrating US collegiate cheering and all hell broke loose.
Objections included concerns that girls were incapable of performing the requisite acrobatic stunts and might develop harsh voices and unladylike, “smart alecky” conduct.
The story of women becoming cheerleaders closely paralleled the story of women becoming workers during World War II.
As this 2018 viral video of Cheer star LaDarius shows, both smart alecky conduct and killer voguing are highly regarded
In their book Cheerleader! An American Icon, Natalie Guice Adams and Pamela Jean Bettis note that: “In both cases men left their jobs to become soldiers and inadvertently opened doors that previously had been closed to women. When men returned from the war, they fought to regain their ‘rightful’ place in the worksite and on the cheerleading squads.”
These days, the gender split of collegiate cheerleaders in the US is a neat 50/50 and — as this 2018 viral video of Cheer star LaDarius shows — both smart alecky conduct and killer voguing are highly regarded.
Myth #3: No famous people or US presidents have ever been cheerleaders
Exhibits A through Z (in no particular order) are: Halle Berry; Renee Zellweger; Paula Abdul; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Dwight D. Eisenhower; Jack Lemmon; Jerry Lewis; Shirley MacLaine; Steve Martin; Susan Sarandon; Madonna; Ronald Reagan; Rick Perry; Aaron Spelling; Reese Witherspoon; Sandra Bullock; Kirsten Dunst; Meryl Streep; Jennifer Lawrence; Kirk Douglas; Michael Douglas; Samuel L Jackson; Amy Poehler; Cameron Diaz; George W Bush; and Danielle Brooks (aka Taystee in Orange is the New Black).
I could go on but I’d need more alphabet.
Myth #4: There are always pom poms
In addition to morphing from an elite, dude-only affair into a hyper-feminised and then equal-opportunity activity, cheerleading is now split into two very different forms.
Professional cheerleading — designed from the outset as a subsidiary of ultra-commercial professional sport — is mainly all about hot girls with short skirts, high hair, and steroidal perk.
Competitive cheerleading involves high-level tumbling and stunting comparable to elite gymnastics. (Facebook: Queensland Cheer Elite)
Competitive cheerleading, on the other hand, involves high-level tumbling and stunting comparable to elite gymnastics (in 2016, cheerleading achieved the provisional status required to become an Olympic sport).
This is the type you’ll see in Cheer. For the most part, it’s a pom-pom-free zone.
Say goodbye to the tired tropes
Sadly, neither variety of cheerleading is particularly popular in Australia. Most clubs have scrapped sideline cheerleaders (they’re still widely regarded as footballer kryptonite) and the competitive stream only has a fraction of the estimated 4 million participants in the billion dollar US scene.
Cheer, however, may change this.
Emma Jane (right) admits that cheerleading was nothing like what she had expected. (Supplied: Emma Jane)
Just as the 2000 movie Bring It On is credited with kickstarting steadily growing global interest in competitive cheerleading, Australia’s next generation of athletic thrill-seekers may well discover they are cheer-curious — especially given that Insta-ready “cheer-lebrities” such as Cheer’s Gabi Butler are now a thing.
At the very least, let’s hope Cheer will be the final nail in the coffin of the tired trope of cheerleading being something other a “real” sport requiring a seriously-sized set of fallopians.
Emma Jane is a freelance writer and a senior lecturer in the School of the Arts & Media at UNSW.