Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Midriffs and minimum wage

by Jordan Bubin

I cannot understand professional cheerleading. I don’t usually watch football games, since Princeton’s local television affiliates tend to play Eagles, Jets, and Patriots games, but Pittsburgh’s route to the Superbowl has given me a chance both to get my fill of large men thrusting and grunting, and to again wonder why women sign up to be cheerleaders.

I still remember when Cosmopolitan—not exactly known for its articles supporting the idea of powerful women—did an exposé on the life of an NFL cheerleader. The pay is horrible—$6 an hour at the time—and the conditions are ridiculous. The women have to follow directions on how to dye and change their hair, meet strict weight requirements, work odd hours, and can be fired for things like gaining a few pounds, getting their hair cut without permission, or not getting their nails done frequently enough.

Now, one of the criticisms of prostitution is that it is something women are forced into doing; that they are forced into selling their bodies by virtue of their opportunities for gainful employment. I don’t think you can apply this to cheerleading. It’s not a job you can get into with a pair of heels and a street corner. You have to apply, and meet constant, idiotic requirements to keep your job.

Which is exactly why I can’t figure out the appeal of the job. There is no job security, and you make no more money than one would bagging groceries or pumping gas. You add nothing to the game, since most of the people who are at the game cannot see you, and anyone watching a broadcast will at most see you flash on screen for a grand total of five seconds. In high school, cheerleading can be a popularity contest—but by the time you’re in college, it seems like its just a competition for who can put herself through the most pain in order to conform to the skinny blonde model of female attractiveness.

I started thinking about all of this, in fact, because it pissed me off that the cheerleaders adhere to that model of attractiveness. I pictured alternative cheerleading possibilities—because if we’re going to be insipid, let’s go all the way—and thought about separate cheerleading squads, each geared around appeal to a different population segment. Why not keep the bulimic blondes, and add in a group of inked and pierced brunettes, and a roster of Chippendales for the ladies (and for the guys)?

Clearly, the ideal to which they are forced to appeal is not the point. What got to me more, like I said, is why they exist at all. Even football fanatics aren’t interested in watching the cheerleaders—which is not to say they don’t appreciate thighs flashing by on the screen; simply that, while the “frattiest” of my friends thinks cheerleaders are attractive, he doesn’t care if they’re there or not. There doesn’t seem to me, therefore, a major demand for professional cheerleaders like there is for prostitution.

Perhaps the institution of cheerleading exists out of some idiotic inertia, then. Mostly, though, it seems to me like a rather extreme example of women seeking to appeal to men, to be sought after, to slavishly meet some desire. When I say extreme, I’m fully aware that there are more physically and emotionally painful things that women are put through for just that purpose, but I’m trying to point out that cheerleaders rank pretty high on both the physical and emotional pain scale, and without any explicit request for doing so—which is what makes me wonder:

Is the fact that cheerleading exists another piece of proof of the need for feminism? Or is it evidence that feminism is screwed, since women voluntarily choose to do such things for adoration and minimum wage? I prefer to think it’s the former, and that my inability to see the connection between male power and women’s incentives to become a professional cheerleader is a result of my own inadequacies at seeing things from a female perspective; that I need to work harder on my own feminism. I wonder more than a little, when I see midriffs in single-digit weather, but I hope I’ve just missed something.


At January 22, 2009 at 8:41 PM , Blogger Franki said...

You're forgetting something here. Professional cheerleaders are also professional dancers.

While I won't defend the costumes or the standard of attractiveness, I do get why women do it. Opportunity to perform + fame. Professional cheerleading isn't exactly an easy gig. Go on youtube and watch videos of professional dance team competitions. Professional cheerleaders do all that and more.

While I won't even begin to defend the ridiculous standards of attractiveness to which cheerleaders are held, nor will I attempt to posit that all professional cheerleaders do it for the sheer joy of it, I do think that love of performance is a big part of it. There was a show on CMT last year - it may still be airing, I don't know - called Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team. While adherence to certain physical standards were key - exact weight wasn't an issue but flat abs were - first and second round auditions focused much more on talent and athleticism. Do this choreography first, be hot second.

Professional cheerleaders do hold up the disturbing standard of the perfect woman: they have to be gorgeous, athletic, have impeccable manners, be well-spoken for the press and be discreet about any romances they may have. It's like a sexier version of the 1950s socialite. But it's sloppy to argue that it's something an enlightened woman wouldn't do. The opportunity for non-ballet, non-modern professional dance gigs known of outside the dance community is pretty much limited to cheerleading, cruise line/resort entertainment, music videos and Vegas if you're not a professional freelance choreographer. Cheerleading is a chance to perform in a public space and be recognized by the world at large, not just your peers. It's a shitty gig, and it targets women in an unfair way, but there are ways in which it is symptomatic of the problems of the larger entertainment world, and that cannot be ignored.


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