How cheerleading has been sexualised by the media

What do you think of when a person talks about ‘cheerleading’? Pep rallies? Every American high school movie? Valid associations. However, after recently going through tryouts to become part of the Edinburgh University CHeerleading Club (EUCC) Vixens, I became curious about whether the portrayal of cheerleading in the media and online has hindered the awareness of how challenging a sport it is. 

Experiencing the try-outs and researching online into professional cheerleaders’ rights and salaries, it seems that there is a lack of comprehension and representation in modern media outlets regarding the way cheerleading actually operates as a competitive sport, and the skill set required to be a professional cheerleader. 

The tryouts were more rigorous and challenging than I anticipated. Walking into the taster session I had about the same level of naivety as a fresher who thought being a club promoter was impressive. 

I learnt that the university cheer team is split into three different subsections: cheerleading, pom and hip hop, all of which require different skill sets. The kind we see most frequently in films and online is a cross between the cheerleading and pom subsections.

When trying out we had to do three different exercises, which were jumps, a dance, and stunting (the manoeuvre you see in films where a girl is lifted or launched into the air). 

One journalist described the requirements for being a successful cheerleader as “exceptional looks, personality, communication skills and dance skill”. Ignoring how alarming and nonsensical it is that ‘dance skill’ came at the end of the requirements, in practice when first attempting to lift someone standing straight to shoulder height, the first thing that I prayed for was upper body strength, not a more attractive appearance or the ability to communicate effectively. Despite causing 67 out of 103 permanent disabilities or severe injuries from sport in female high school students from 1982-2007, appearances are thought of as the most important factor of a good cheerleader. 

As reported on ESPN, whilst many American cheerleaders held 30-40 hours of rehearsals they were being paid barely over minimum wage. The issue of the mistreatment of professional cheerleaders has been known since the 90s when the Buffalo Jills took a stand against the regulation of their ‘schedules, uniforms and weight’ by their male counterpart and formed the first cheerleading union.

Countless articles weigh in on how the athletic aspect of cheerleading was constantly undermined and brushed to the side to be replaced with the importance of ‘exceptional looks’, as well as some cheerleaders stating ‘harassment and groping were common’. This demonstrates that the issue regarding the representation of cheerleading in the media is down to the hyper-sexualisation of the sport. When removing the notion of cheerleading as ‘attractive’ or a sport performed as a warm-up act for another it aids in realising the skill and dedication one needs to become a cheerleader at a professional level.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

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