The American cheerleader has evolved from a male-dominated college organization in the early 1900s, to a female dominated sport spanning various age groups. The cheerleader has achieved an iconic status that has minimal association with cheerleading performance or competition. The cheerleader’s symbolism is contradictory in that it is derogatory and somewhat desirable at the same time.
The first cheerleaders were at Yale University. They were an all male group and their role was to involve the crowd at football games. Females came to dominate when males went to war during WWII. Gymnastics and acrobatics were introduced in the 1960s. Professional cheerleaders, particularly the iconic Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, contributed to the sexualization of the cheerleader as they were the first to introduce form-fitting, revealing uniforms. Uniforms across all age groups reflect this trend, however, uniforms for college, high school, and junior high level teams tend to be less revealing than professional teams.
High school and college organizations tend to be high-skill and competitive, while professional organizations largely depend on physical appearance and moderate dancing skills, with some exceptions. Present-day cheerleaders, especially those in high school organizations and school-aged competitive organizations, have achieved a high level of athletic skill which is largely overshadowed by the symbolism of cheerleading. The cheerleader is a staple of nearly any film set in a high school. The stereotypical cheerleader is a popular female, not particularly intelligent, often conceited and not usually friendly. She wears her uniform to school everyday and dates her male equivalent—the hunky football star. There is very little association between the cheerleader and the act of cheerleading.
This icon presents derogatory symbolism, but not an entirely undesirable status. The stereotypical cheerleader, in all her ditsy, snobby, promiscuous glory, is not someone most would aspire to become, yet her status remains somewhat coveted. Taylor Swift’s 2008 lyrics “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” are an example of this contradiction in symbolism. Swift’s song suggests that she craves the status of the cheerleader for her ability to attract the attention of others, yet the cheerleader is clearly not someone who Swift desires to emulate.
The American cheerleader is an icon that is recognized internationally. While cheerleading has gained popularity worldwide, it remains predominantly American. In working with my French partner, Andreea, I confirmed that the symbolism associated with the cheerleader resonates outside of the U.S. Andreea expressed that she associates the cheerleader with the derogatory symbolism identified in this blog. Also, she noted that her ideas about the cheerleader have been mostly shaped by depictions in film.
The iconic cheerleader survives as an abstract representation of popularity and snobbery, yet the reality is that cheerleading, especially high school and college level cheerleading, has evolved to an athletically competitive activity—dare I say ‘sport’. Most representations of the cheerleader in film continue to base the cheerleader’s identity on the iconic symbolism, rather than on reality. Perhaps, films like ‘Bring It On’ which are entirely devoted to cheerleading, showcase the competitive aspect of cheerleading, but this is an exception and most likely the creation of someone with an insider perspective—not an American relying solely on the iconic characteristics for his or her information. Furthermore, a film that is centered on cheerleading can be expected to be more accurate than a film in which the cheerleader is a mere element in a stereotypical high school setting.