Should We Let Our Girls Be Cheerleaders?

by Deirdre Londergan
Three cheerleaders sitting and talking
Thomas Barwick / Getty

I overheard someone say recently, “My mom said I could do any sport except for cheerleading. There was no way I was going to do a sport that just cheers for the boys.” The feminist in me got it. The former cheerleader in me…didn’t. It got me think thinking about my own daughter: would I let her (or my son) become a cheerleader? The answer came back clear as day: Yes, yes I would.

Honestly, as a feminist and a former cheerleader, I understand the debate. For years, I was mortified by the fact I was a cheerleader. I begged my Dad to not tell my then boyfriend (now husband) about it, I hid it from all my college friends, and basically erased any and all memorabilia about it. Being cheerleader didn’t fit who I thought I was; I wasn’t perky, didn’t care much about school spirit, plus I’m a feminist. The idea that I was some girl cheering on male football players felt false.

Being a cheerleader never really aligned with who I was, even in high school. That said, I knew I needed some extracurricular activity if there was any chance of me getting into college, plus my best friend was captain and, most importantly, I could probably still smoke.

So I did it and, honestly, I am better for it. Cheerleading is fun and hard and, no doubt, got me into college. But as I started to get more involved in women’s studies in college I felt a sense of shame for being a high school cheerleader. It got me questioning: Can one be a feminist and a cheerleader?

The short answer is: yes. Cheerleading is a sport. It’s physical and hard and you learn the same values you learn from other sports. Narrowly defining feminism to people who look and act a certain way is its own form of prejudice. Liking pink and getting your nails done doesn’t mean you don’t want equal rights for women. These are societal norms not values you hold.

Feminists do not all have to look the same part to want the same things. I can enjoy getting a pedicure and want to be paid the same as men. I can fight for women’s reproductive rights in a dress — hell, in a mini skirt in some clear heels, if I chose to. We get so caught up in what we think people should look like that we forget that it’s what’s actually at the core that matters. To quote Ru Paul, “We are born naked and the rest is just drag.”

We are so lucky that we get to choose and dress and do extracurricular activities as a form of expression, but none of it matters more than who you are at your core. Who you are when you’re naked and not playing dress up to whatever society thinks you should be.

What matters is how we listen and lift people up. How we cheer on the other people in our lives.

So being a cheerleader was a source of shame for me, but not anymore. I see the value in cheering others on, in being part of a team, and honestly I liked the damn skirt.

The sticking point that I still struggle with is the idea that we (mostly women) are there to “cheer” on the men. I’ve reconciled this with the notion that all sport is arbitrary and weird if you think about it. Like if aliens came down and we had to explain football… “we try to get a ball to one end of a field while a bunch of men try to butt wrestle each other. Oh, and some of the professionals get brain damage from it.” Like, that alien would have a lot of questions. At least cheerleaders have coordinated moves and some fun dancing.

That said, there is a hierarchy of sports that is not talked about. Field hockey players look down on the cheerleaders for not being a “real” sport. I have said that I would never let my son become a hockey player because he’s so sweet and shy (which is a total stereotype because I’m sure there are sweet and shy hockey players). I was at party recently and a very sweet woman/teacher expressed her disappointment that a student in her AP class — a great student and athlete — was becoming a cheerleader. She rolled her eyes like this girl was choosing to sell meth.

Then she asked very tongue-in-cheek if any of us were high school cheerleaders. It gave me pause. Normally I would be evasive or ignore the question, but I decided to sparkle my ass out of the former cheerleader closet. As soon as I said I was, I could tell she felt bad. I know that wasn’t her intention. She seems like an intellectual and, honestly, it probably seems like a safe question to ask in her circles. I always tend to be the wild card. And honestly I wasn’t offended, to quote RuPaul (again…), “Nothing offends me but intentional cruelty and extreme poverty.”

I get it. I understand the world we live in. Smart doesn’t equate cheerleader. Pink doesn’t equate feminist. Hockey players are dicks. Whatever. I know the roles we are given and I just think it’s time to challenge them. Be a feminist cheerleader. Or a feminist hockey player. Or a football player who likes to bake. It took me 37 years to not be embarrassed about something very, very silly. Something that should be a source of pride. Being a cheerleader is part of my history and I get to choose to how I view that. Other people can choose to view it how they like.

For now I’m just grateful for cheerleading, it got me to where I am today and I’m truly happy where that is.