American Beauty: The Cheerleader in American Literature and Popular Culture

By Miles, La'Tonya Rease | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

American Beauty: The Cheerleader in American Literature and Popular Culture


Miles, La'Tonya Rease, Women's Studies Quarterly


The idea for a course dedicated solely to cheerleaders was a result of the astute observations and critical analyses raised by students in the "Multiethnic Sports Narratives and Race in the Post-Civil Rights Era" freshman seminar here at UCLA. Although cheerleaders were not the explicit focus of the class, our conversation kept drifting toward these figures who were marginal in the various texts that we read (for example, H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights) but who clearly played a pivotal role in the narratives. So when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to devote an entire ten weeks to the icon of cheerleader.

I needed the course as much for personal reasons as for academic ones. When I was in junior high school, I made the cheerleading squad, first as an "alternate"-on standby in case someone dropped from the team-and then, a few weeks later, as the real thing. As is true in most junior high or high schools, a cheerleader held a distinctive but contradictory status among her peers. On the one hand, she embodies the ideas of conventional femininity because she uses her body (voice, hands, legs, hips) to support the team and to encourage the community or the body of fans to do the same. Yet a cheerleader is also not expected to know anything about the sport for which she cheers. Some of us, for example, didn't know what a "first down" is. We often asked each other if our team was on offense or defense now. We couldn't recognize set plays. True fans, like many of our mothers in the bleachers, were knowledgeable and often attempted to call plays from the stands.

In our school, only the coolest, hippest, "flyest" girls made the squad, but I was not a "fly" girl. I was physically stiff, had no identifiable rhythm, and I wore glasses. I found out later that Coach Marsh liked me because I was an honor student and he wanted to overturn the stereotype that cheerleaders were dumb. The fact that I am black only increased my value in his eyes, because in my school to be smart was to be "white" and very, very few white girls became cheerleaders. So there I was, a token Oreo trying to affect some version of coolness in Kenny Capers sneakers and a short skirt. Over time, I found my rhythm and got a boyfriend and some trendy eyeglass frames, but I could not shake the "brainiac" label, and I became known, for better or worse, as the "smart one" on the squad.

Fast forward to my senior year in high school: Mr. Welsh, my English teacher, convinced me to apply to his alma mater, Georgetown University, principally for academic reasons but also because the university sought its first black cheerleader in school history. I applied and was accepted, but I rejected the school's $20,000+ scholarship offer.i This rebuff symbolized my denouncement of cheerleading for "feminism" because I believed that the two were incompatible. In other words, I thought that one could not possibly be a feminist and a cheerleader. What's more, I learned that my nearly all-black squad was an anomaly. It was clear from television, movies, and other forms of popular culture that real cheerleaders were white girls.

Despite my tension with and ambivalence toward this cultural phenomenon, I still consider myself a cheerleader of sorts. And I needed an outlet to reconcile the popular images of the cheerleader figure with my own lived experiences as a young black woman in the suburbs who used the sport as an entrée into the black community. And although Coach Marsh also enacted his own version of compulsory heterosexuality when he encouraged each of us to pair up with someone on the football team, I recognize that he was also shielding us from popular notions of black girls being too "fast" because to be a George Washington Junior High School cheerleader was an honor that few girls could achieve in our city.

This special elite status obscured other social realities: in our town, cheerleaders were not regarded as athletes. For the most part, people considered cheerleading a sideshow spectacle and not a sport. …

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