– By Stephanie Cork
Stephanie Cork is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Country Music Television’s (CMT) Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team is an American reality television show that takes an in-depth look at the audition process for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleading (DCC) squad. Through following the evaluation of over five-hundred girls down to the elite thirty person team showcases that the process of becoming a professional cheerleader for the National Football League (NFL) is highly physically and emotionally competitive. In true sensationalist “reality” television fashion the women are put through rigorous training including hair and wardrobe makeovers to transform them into individuals who will “properly represent the DCC brand” (CMT, 2015).
Advertising for this show consists of short “cliffhanging” moments regarding the process of “making the team” which reduce the participants to simple pawns in a larger reality television schema. However, upon consuming more of this series (specifically, and embarrassingly perhaps the entirely of Season 8) it becomes clear that the women showcase more involvement than these superficial representations imply. The women’s commitment and drive (agency) showcases their personal resistance to hegemonic conception of feminine passivity that is often equated with cheerleading. Further, though we often perceive this as a realm exclusively cultivated for male voyeurism there are few male bodies that infiltrate the DCC training camp. In fact, the only space in which males view these individuals are during games, which is merely the frontstage manifestation of all this, intensive, backstage preparation. Therefore, I want to argue that this presents a counterpoint to traditional understandings of cheerleading within the sociology of sport literature (Adams & Bettis, 2003; Grindstaff & West, 2006; Krane, 2001).
Many theoretical renditions of cheerleading often construct the sport as exploitive (Adams & Bettis, 2003). However, through situating cheerleading as an example of Brace-Govan’s (2002) “bodywork” one can come to see the women’s narratives and experiences as a site of resistance though they readily conform to hyperfeminine ideals. The women’s dedication and articulation of their experiences showcases a clear rift between the qualitative work that discusses cheerleading as exploitive and these individuals’ experiences. Though the DCC show as an isolated (and mediated) space and therefore offers a limited view, there is also something fascinating in the ways in which these women experience their bodies and including the process of kinetic entrainment that they embody to become part of this coveted group.
The contestants spend hours cultivating the proper physique, practicing their routines and perfecting their performance. This not only reflects the ideals of the DCC brand, but also may elucidate why they find empowerment through this process. Though the process of becoming a “proper” DCC cheerleader forces the women to comply with hegemonic norms of femininity these participants seem to actively choose to construct their bodies in this way. Even those that are injured or “cut” from the team articulate a satisfaction in having been given an opportunity to participate. Some traverse the globe (all the way from Australia) and others have given up lucrative work for other cheerleading squads or other formalized labor, to willingly uproot themselves in order to become a part of this gender project.
The necessary athleticism required for being a cheerleader already undermines traditional understandings of women as weak or passive, which permits this physical cultural space as a site of empowerment. In fact, though these women are clearly products of the DCC branding exercise they actively undermine traditional iterations of femininity through their strength and physicality. Furthermore, though they overemphasize their secondary sex characteristics: highlighting superficial markers such as breasts, hair and makeup to affirm their positions as “proper” cheerleaders, there is something to be said for the alternative rendering of cheerleading as a women’s competitive and active physical cultural space. To impose a feminist reading is clearly limited but provides, in my opinion, an interesting counternarrative to what one may expect in reality media of this ilk. The DCC brand, though a traditional representation of women’s bodies in an objectified light is also a site for women from a variety of backgrounds to willingly push their bodies to their corporeal limits.
Adams, N., Bettis, P. (2003). Commanding The Room In Short Skirts: Cheering as the Embodiment of Ideal Girlhood. Gender & Society, 17(1), 73-91.
Brace-Govan, J. (2002). Looking at Bodywork: Women and Three Physical Activities. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 26(4), 403-420.
Grindstaff, L. & West, E. (2006). Cheerleading and the Gendered Politics of Sport. Social Problems 53(4): 500 – 518.
Krane, V. (2001) We Can Be Athletic and Feminine, But Do We Want To? Challenging Hegemonic Femininity in Women’s Sport. Quest, 53(1), 115-133.