In Defense of Cheerleading -The Toast

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Let’s get the obvious objections out of the way. Cheerleading involves the following egregiously offensive activities:

– Girls cheering for (mostly) boys
– Girls wearing short skirts that submit them to the male gaze
– Girls in said short skirts in front of large audiences
– Girls wearing outfits that are gender normative

I mean that’s really it, right? I realize those are big categories, encompassing all sorts of entrenched gender dynamics that, upon analysis, reveal a loads about what it means to be a teen in America over the last seventy-five years.

But like Twilight and other “bad objects,” I approach cheerleading as what academics call a “negotiated pleasure,” which basically just means taking the stuff that you like and not naturalizing it. Instead of saying “I like Twilight because I DO, get off me!” you take another fifteen minutes and realize “oh hey I like Twilight because it’s selling all these particular fantasies,” and “oh hey, maybe I like these fantasies because I’ve never known anything other than an existence under patriarchy,” etc. etc.

So I was a cheerleader for seven years. And I loved it. And I’m going to negotiate the shit out of why.

In my hometown in Northern Idaho, we had junior highs instead of middle schools.I can’t decide which structure is more terrifying: with Middle School, you get there and just feel like a small child; with Junior High; you get there and realize you’ve been playing at childhood for a year too long.

When I started 7th grade, I didn’t wholly realize that I should’ve mastered one of two sports before arriving: volleyball or basketball. I’m not (under) exaggerating: those were the only two sports available. And both of them terrified me, in part because, as the only left hander in the entire elementary school, I had endured six years of P.E. without a left-handed glove, which is another way of saying that I got hit in the face a lot.

I did piano lessons; I did Girl Scouts. My mom made me do soccer; I locked myself in the bathroom. I played (defense), my coach thought I had “a whole lotta potential,” I hated it. Like hung out in the backfield and concentrated on making people off-sides hated it. At the time, I hated physical activity — too embarrassing, I think — although I’ve very much gotten over that. I think what I really hated was all the eyes on me, expecting me to do right by my team.

The first week of junior high, I tried out for flag team (?) which just seemed super cool. I was super wrong. I also wasn’t selected, which, thank God, turned out well, as all of those newly selected ended up with meth convictions.

I tried to find my new place. I was on the Math Team, which was so egregiously uncool. I had to pose for a yearbook picture in my math-punning sweatshirt and hated myself. I couldn’t decide who to be friends with: my childhood friends, who still kinda dressed like children? Or these new kids from the Catholic school who were kinda bad and wore flannel? There is no inner turmoil the like the turmoil of seventh grader deciding who she’s going to target for friendship, and then the anguishing effort that follows. The phone conversations, the horrible, contentless phone conversations.

I was desperate to figure out who I was, and suddenly cheerleading tryouts were there to do just that. I had done (bad) jazz and tap dance for a billion years; in fact, the cheerleading coach had also been my 2nd grade dance teacher, back when we climbed the stairs to a super sketchy dance studio in the burnt out remnants of downtown, when we danced to “Hippy Hippy Shake” from the Cocktail soundtrack and dressed in costumes that were essentially replications, size 6x, of a prostitute’s Western burlesque. Black and white stripes with pink puffy sleeves and lots of fishnet attaching it all. That happened.

I had modest flexibility; I knew dance counting; I learned quickly. The tryout consisted of a group cheer and an individual cheer — the group cheer was straightforward (you just had to learn how to rotate your wrists so that the fist was never showing, creating a fluid line from shoulder to knuckle). But you had to make up your own cheer and that was mortifying. Other girls asked their moms for old words; my mom, a track star in high school with spikes signed by Jesse Owens, had nothing for me. Her friend did, but it was weird and very ‘70s and invoked “all you gals,” but it was all I had.

We also had to perform three jumps, which were demonstrated for us by the veteran girls. Left hurk, right hurk, front herk, tabletop, the all-important toe-touch: we were expected to learn, and perfect, them all. We had to do jumps, of course, because in cheerleading, you jumped when something good happened. A basket, a goal, a turnover. As I grew older, it was a way of funneling glee: tension, turnover, JUMP! Or maybe we had to do jumps because that was the way that the people in the audience could see our skirts go up and our new and perky breasts go up and down.

I never thought about that then — truly. Instead, I thought about how to make my touch toe better. Other girls were working on their lay-ups and spikes; I worked on rotating my hips. It wasn’t a competition, per se, but it was. Randi had the best touch-touches. Randi was the best.

‘70s cheer, bad jumps, and mild nepotism was enough for this coach to vote me, along with seven other hopefuls of various skill, almost entirely more superlative than mine, onto the squad. My mom tried her best to mask her dismay, and I don’t even think I saw it — she was mostly just glad that I was doing something, anything, athletic, after years of responding to her plea to “go do something outside” by taking my book and Reading. Outside. Forever.

So I was a cheerleader! In junior high, we’re all desperate to peg our identity to something, anything. I had hidden my love for Star Trek, for doing complex, gratifying math problems as fast I could. I had nothing I could make public, and then I had cheerleading.

I shouldn’t have been ashamed of those other aspects of my life. In another school, in another city, in another state with a different set of opportunities and rubrics of cool, I wouldn’t have been. Or I would’ve found other things — gardening, cooking, writing, maybe even running — that I could love without wearing skirts that showed off my thighs.

But if you’ve never lived in a small, rural town, I need to underline it for you and bold it and then make it italic: I had so few other options that made me feel like I belonged. If I would’ve been a cooler kid, if I would’ve had some magnificent and vibrant sense of self, if I could’ve given two fucks about what others thought about me, if I had had solid proof that no matter how few friends you have in 7th grade you can still grow up to be a person of worth, then maybe I would’ve said no to the weird quasi-sport that involves choreographed hand movements in non-breathable polyester outfits. But I didn’t, so I didn’t.

After you win the cheerleader contest, then you get to pick outfits. Your parents have to come to the meeting, and in 7th grade, I was so mortified of my mom that I had to give her very specific instructions. Keep in mind: at that point, my mom was about 35, had a tanned, sporty body, taught math at the college, and was generally vivacious and funny. But it meant nothing because MY MOM DIDN’T DO HER HAIR. She wore sports bras sometimes! Thus the very detailed letter:

Dear Mom,

Tomorrow we have a cheerleading meeting after school. Room 214 (Mrs. Dufour’s Room) It is to discuss and pick out cheerleading uniforms. Please look appropriate, wear a dress and do your hair, basically look like you just got off work. Leave here about 3:00 so you get there about 3:05 – 3:10. Don’t get there on time, that would not be good. Please don’t snort, make stupid jokes, or ask a lot questions. Could you please just do these things?


Anne Helen Petersen

YOU GUYS. The full AHP only came out then in times of dire, oh-my-god-my-mom-is-going to mortify-me ness. It also came out when I asked my Dad, in writing, to please stop picking me up in the 1972 Ford Ranchero (with the Eight Track) just because he wanted to embarrass me. Cheerleading uniforms were super serious business and I was going to let my mom do something like not wear mascara to pick them out.

I was worried about appearances, about manifestations of class, but I had no idea. We were upper middle class, but mom didn’t look like it — meaning she dressed like a grad student, meaning she didn’t spend an hour blow-drying her hair, meaning she was awesome — and when all your societal standards have been set by looking at moms who do look like that, it’s easy to mistake “class” for “time spent with Vidal Sassoon hairspray.”

My mom showed up exactly at the prescribed time. She didn’t snort. She agreed to fork over a hundred something dollars for a top emblazoned with “JJH.” She realized, somehow, that this was what I needed from her. She also saved that letter and has employed it strategically and hilariously in the years since because it, and I, was the fucking worst.

In junior high, cheerleading proved a strictly dilettante affair. We spent a lot of time just learning new cheers, coming up with dances (our best = a medley of 69Boyz’s “Tootsie Roll” and Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” I AM NOT KIDDING) and unironically wearing jackets with our mascot, the Jenifer Jack-Ass, on the back. We got in fights; we got better. We thought we were awesome and, most crucially, better than our arch rival, the squad from the Sacajawea Braves.

At the end of freshman year, we had to do all sorts of mortifying things — go with a boy to Freshman Dance, for one, and vote for “Freshman Superlatives,” which meant picking which friend won “Best Looking.” I won “Most Likely to Succeed,” which, you know, whatever — just another way of saying “Most Popular Nerd.”

But we also had tryouts for the high school cheerleading squad. The girls teaching us were old and hot and had great hair, like incredible ponytails, and had been culled from the best of the best of the junior highs. They were such a motley mix: tiny, tiny girls, Mormon girls with perfect perms, muscular girls who drove Geo Metros with tricked out stereo systems. They looked this way because some of them were flyers (meaning: they flew into the air) and some were bases (meaning: they threw those other girls into the air). But one thing was clear: these girls were IT. As soon as I saw them, teaching me the Fight Song, I knew I wanted to take their high school identity and make it my own.

But here’s the thing about high school cheerleading, at least in my hometown: you have to try out in front of the entire school. And then the entire school votes on you. From what I understand, this practice has been abolished, but at the time, half of your score was based on actual judges, and half was based on the student body, who got out of an entire period of class to come to the assembly on vote on our “cheerleading aptitude.”

Things that got you elected = ability to do a back handspring, older popular siblings, hotness visible from 500 feet.

Things that did not = reliability, not doing Meth, 4.0 GPA, somewhat mediocre toe-touches, wholly average looks, a father who had looked at the penises of half the student body during yearly physicals.

I made Junior Varsity, and that was enough. Let it also be said that I was so inside the Lewiston High School ideology that I never once thought this process absurd. It was just the way it was. When I teach ideology to my students, I teach the American Dream, I teach patriarchy. If I were to teach it to the kids I went to high school with, I would talk about how normalized it was that the entire school was let out of class to watch girls perform and then vote, unironically, on the ones they liked.

Yet it wasn’t a popularity contest, at least not strictly — everyone had friend groups, after all. The squad was a vivisection of the high school population, straight-edges and hicks, near-burn-outs and closet nerds like me.

High School cheerleading was next level shit. Our coach was a perfectly-coiffed middle aged lady with an awe-inspiring array of mascara colors. She was also the head secretary of the school, and she got things done. We had two-a-day practices for the month leading up to the school; we lifted, we ran, we were expected to learn the thirty dances and one hundred cheers within weeks. In junior high, cheerleading had been a mix of a social club and dance rehearsal; now, it was work. But still, I loved it, the way that I loved really hard math problem or trying to figure out whether Lieutenant Riker and Deanna Troi were really Imzadi. It was a challenge; I craved it.

And the uniforms! The Varsity had three different ones, all new and totally paid for by the school. Purples, Golds, and Whites, and you (meaning: the captains) got to decide which ones to wear depending on how hot you wanted to look (whites made you look wide). JV got the hand-me-downs — but not just the ones from the year before, but from the last twenty years. I had eleven cheerleading uniforms in my closet, including a one-piece that, after searching yearbooks in the library, I identified from 1985.

cheer2Does that sound gross to you? It was so not gross. Just because this super thick yellow polyester thing was over ten years old and had seen a million washing machines does not make it gross. The long row of perfectly matching uniforms was like a childhood dream come true. On game days, I had nothing to worry about. There was the uniform, but there was also the jacket (with my name embroidered), the socks (megaphones) the shoes (Kaepas) and the bloomers (always purple; gold bloomers showed your underwear).

Bloomers used to be a word to describe something much better and frillier than what we had for cheerleading. Now, they’re essentially colored polyester second underwear, a way for people to see your nether-regions with only half the titillation of seeing your nether-regions. It was naturalized — just another part of the costume you put on.

Cheerleading for JV was fine. I mean, the games were on Thursday, the crowds were relatively small, but once I graduated to Varsity, that’s when things got perfect. You showed up an hour early, met up with the band, and the police shut down the quarter mile stretch between the school and the field so you could parade your way over. Your ponytails were high and you had perfect little Bengal Tiger paws painted on your cheeks. Glitter was ubiquitous. And in that uniform, with its sleek lines and fitted flare to show off your high school thighs, you looked good.

In a town of a certain size and a certain distance from a real city, there’s so little to do that Friday night home games became a huge deal. Thousands of people, Friday Night Lights style, in various shades of body paint and drunkenness. Parents and friends and kids and everyone with their eyes on you, yet you were somehow totally unresponsible for the actual game. It was so gloriously liberating. The only thing I actually worried about = when our team was annihilating the other team, and we’d have to do the entire fight song — which included two two touches — ten times a game. Shit was exhausting.

I liked the dances we’d do to pep band renditions of the “Hey” Song, Louie Louie, Summertime Blues, and a billion other inoffensive old people standards. But I liked the cheers, with their straight, strong movements, most of all. The sheer symmetry of it all. Part of cheerleading is about providing entertainment when the ball isn’t in play, but a whole nother part — the part I really loved — was about strength. It was there when I caught girls who’d been thrown thirty feet in the air, and it was there in every high V I hit, the quaking of the muscles in my arm, the breathlessness as I hit jump after jump.

This wasn’t Bring It On. We didn’t have male cheerleaders — mostly, I’m sure, because they would be scared of the associations that would, at least at that time, accompany it. We also had legitimately good sports teams, which made the cheering seem weirdly more legitimate. It’s obviously great to cheer to for a winning team; it’s even more great to cheer for a massive crowd that is fiercely loyal and thus wholly willing to yell along with whatever inane cheer-poem you’ve devised.

Away games were a different sort of calculus. Every team was at least a two hour drive away, so we’d get out of school early (who needs 5th and 6th period, I mean honestly) and ride the surprisingly nice bus, pom poms and homework packed away in our matching purple and gold duffels. During basketball season, I’d sit and do homework through the sophomore and JV games — Henry James read so weirdly with the backdrop of constant buzzers — and we’d eye the rival cheerleaders, trying to gauge how hard we’d have to work to show them up on their own turf. It was never hard. We never actually talked with those girls, we just stared at them, our bizarro mirrored selves, a court’s length away.

I get that it wasn’t a game, and there were no winners. I get that part of what I really liked was wearing my uniform in public and the allowances it gave me (at least two speeding tickets, avoided). I get that my participation perpetuated a system through which girls watch while boys do.

But cheerleading tethered me to high school; it pulled me through. My brother never found that, and he graduated a year early just to get away from the suffocating alienation. There are things I regret about high school — not dating the guy who was clearly my match; actually (sorta) dating the guy who chewed tobacco. Being so moralistic, not eating avocados, not being nice to my mom. But cheerleading has never, and will never, be one of them.

Today, my mom tells me how hard she had to fight her natural feminist inclination to stop me from trying out, year after year. I hope if I ever have a daughter (and holy shit, what a weirdo she would be! Just wait ‘til she reads this!) I’ll have the same expansive willingness to allow her to make meaning and pleasure out of the options before her. Or, you know, be braver than I was, start a zine, be Tavi, abolish cheerleading elections entirely. With our own girls and with others, we can’t forget: there are so many ways to be awesome.

Anne Helen Petersen writes about Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style and teaches media studies at Whitman College. Her book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin in 2014.

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