My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading.
In popular culture, cheerleaders are usually a target for ridicule, and are painted as mindless airheads subservient to the male athletes they support. Like every other person born in or around 1989, my first introduction to cheerleading came from the 2001 film Bring It On. Set in a whitewashed Californian high school, Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Torrance, the captain of the Rancho Carne High School Toros, stuck in my mind via one-liners, cropped tops, and catchy chants (‘We’re sexy, we’re cute, we’re popular to boot!’).
All Star Cheer is a different beast from the high school cheer of Bring It On, or any American teen film since. The clichés of pompoms and chants are elements of high school cheer. In contrast, All Star is a competitive sport mixing elements of dance, acrobatics and gymnastics, as well as incredible pop music mixes, YouTube reality series, emotional coaches, bows, glitter, fake tans, and the love and adoration of cheer fans worldwide.
I developed my obsession with the sport via Instagram, which led me to discover teen ‘cheerlebrities’ with tens of thousands of followers. After a disturbingly feverish afternoon of investigation I found a video (below) of the 2013 World Champions, Cheer Extreme Senior Elite, doing what these teen girls do best: flinging themselves across the mats like gymnasts and tossing other teen girls above their heads.
Erica Englebert (69k Twitter followers) and Gabie Dinsbeer (108k Instagram followers) both cheered for this team; as did cheer legend Maddie Gardner, the first athlete to land a ball up 360 in competition. (That’s a hard trick, trust me. If you’d like a demonstration, I can send you a video of me doing it in my living room.)
I recommend you watch cheer videos in full-screen to see some of the insane stunts a team of literal children can pull off. Watch them twice. Watch them three times. Watch them obsessively for weeks at a time, as you cry over the glory of the sport and the incredible abilities of under-appreciated teens. Cry when you see two tiny girls bend their legs behind their heads and hold shape while they are tossed through the air like balloon animals. Watch in awe as 18-year-olds hoist standing women above their heads.
After binge-watching cheer videos for hours, I became frighteningly obsessed. I love teenage girls and will defend them to the death. Watching videos of a bunch of fake-tanned, glitter-made-up girls – who spend upwards of 20 hours a week training in gyms, weightlifting, stretching their bodies to capacity, and taking insane hits to the face from other falling teen girls – makes me want to run around high-fiving everyone I know. Their intensity and devotion to the sport make me question why cheer is still so widely ridiculed and patronised.
As someone who has never liked sports, I’ve often lamented the high pay grades of footballers. ‘But they train so hard and have to stay in shape,’ protest footy short-clad man-babies. If that’s true, then why aren’t female athletes afforded the same concessions? Why do the hours teenage girl spend toiling in the gym to achieve phenomenal, and arguably more entertaining results, go unacknowledged?
The poor pay standards in high level cheerleading are widely acknowledged within the industry. Despite the years of training, dedication and commitment these girls put in, the general public see them as tantalising appetisers to the main event, a sexy distraction from the serious business of men’s sport. The same is true of many women’s sports: recently, the Matildas went on strike to protest their inadequate pay rates, which are markedly lower than those of their male counterparts. The gender pay gap is evident in the disparity of coverage and funding afforded to women’s cricket and AFL. Cheer is no different; if anything, it is a shining example of how women’s sports are pigeonholed as being of interest only to women. As a female-dominated sport, cheer is rarely given prominent coverage or taken seriously. Danelle Cooney, owner and coach at Melbourne Cheer Academy, is frustrated by these attitudes. ‘If it was called athletic acrobatics, I think that may have changed [the old, outdated] perceptions of it,’ she says. ‘But the demographic that is mostly involved in [cheer] are people that are not taken very seriously – teenage girls.’
Coverage of sports like beach volleyball and the lingerie football league treats female athletes not as players, but as playthings. These competitors receive more attention than the Matildas’ because they are sexualised, not because they are admired for their athletic ability. Women, it seems, often need to be half-naked to be visible in sport – and yet that visibility doesn’t bring them any greater credibility.
Cheer gets the worst of both worlds: it’s often criticised for its allegedly raunchy uniforms and preservation of traditional femininity, and yet it’s still not viewed widely or given serious consideration. The highest achievement for a cheerleader is to perform at major league NBA or NFL games. Should they make it to this level, they’ll then be mocked, objectified, or torn down for their lack of ambition.
But I love the tacky music, sound effects, and costumes of cheer competitions. I love that at this year’s World Cheerleading Championships, the winning team wore uniforms that looked like ice-skating costumes, and their routine was performed to a megamix that sampled Hole’s ‘Celebrity Skin’. I love the mixture of toughness and softness; that these girls embody so many elements of traditional femininity, while smashing gendered expectations of strength. I love their muscly, capable bodies and their fake tan and glitter. I love their confidence, their ability to embrace and appreciate their bodies for the skills they have worked so hard to build. I love the unique pride and enthusiasm of the entire cheer community. The athletes, Cooney says, have ‘the support of the whole community. If you go to a dance competition, your school or teacher or parents will clap for you, but everyone else just sits there and observes you. Whereas at cheer, there’s this culture of really supporting all the teams. There’s a feeling that everyone’s been through the same thing, everyone knows what its like to get on the floor… They know what its like to fall on your face in front of a thousand people.’
I love the crowds, who scream so loudly they drown out the music. The roar of a crowd is a privilege most female athletes never get to experience, and it literally brings tears to my eyes to see girls commanding the attention ordinarily reserved for male athletes.
I cried during coverage of this year’s World Championships. Imagine the power and validation it gives young women to own themselves as World Champions. Members of the world-record holding team include Angel Rice, who owns her own gym, and Gabi Butler, who recently launched her own YouTube channel and gym. Is it not incredibly badass to see teen girls becoming business owners through their sport? I cannot emphasise enough how extremely confused I am that everyone in the world is not as thrilled about this female-dominated sport, and what it means to girls, as I am.
The women in my life may sometimes conform to traditional ideas of femininity, but they are still ambitious, strong, and wildly competitive. Some of them love sport, but not the gender disparity it often perpetuates. Some of them like fake tan and pop music. This doesn’t mean they’re not feminists and athletes and potential business owners. The strongest women I know embody the lessons that cheerleading teaches: to support – both physically and emotionally – other women; and to understand that you can value traditional femininity and still be a strong, athletic powerhouse.
That’s the power of cheer. It may sound corny and melodramatic – but so is cheerleading.