Cheerleading originated on Ivy League campuses with male cheerleaders who performed during football games in the late 1880s. Today, 3.8 million people participate in cheerleading in the United States, and 97 percent of them are female. The impact of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation can be seen in the way cheerleading operates in elementary and secondary schools, in higher education, and in society at large.
Throughout its first fifty years, cheerleading was an exclusively male activity and represented normative masculinity. Being a cheerleader or yell leader was understood as a noble endeavor that helped prepare young White men for their rightful place as leaders in the emerging industrial order. Women began entering collegiate cheerleading in small numbers in the 1920s, but as late as the 1930s, cheerleading was still considered a male activity and was associated with athleticism and leadership. Most high school and collegiate squads were resistant to young women entering this masculine sphere, and it was feared that female cheerleaders would become loud and unladylike. When men left college campuses to fight in World War II, females stepped into the vacant spots on the squads, and by the 1950s, cheerleading had become a feminized activity. With her physical attractiveness, peer popularity, and wholesomeness, the cheerleader typified ideal American girlhood.
Cheerleading, as the symbol of ideal girlhood, became a contested activity with the implementation of school desegregation. The selection of cheerleaders in desegregated schools resulted in riots, walkouts, and one death in Burlington, North Carolina. In addition to racial politics, the women’s rights movement, passage of Title IX, and the introduction of the professional Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in 1972 all challenged the idea that cheerleaders still represented ideal femininity. Cheerleaders became characterized as young women who conformed to oppressive notions of femininity. By the mid-1970s, the National Cheerleaders Association and the newly formed Universal Cheerleaders Association helped revitalize cheerleading by introducing a more athletic form that included gymnastics tumbling. National competitions were introduced in the early 1980s with their eventual international television broadcast.
By the 1990s, an entirely new form of cheerleading was introduced—competitive or All-Star cheerleading whose squads were affiliated with private gyms and not public schools. They exist solely to compete against other private squads. This is the fastest growing segment of cheerleading in the United States, and males have returned to the activity in order to compete.
Cheerleading remains popular with girls because it allows them to acquire many of the traits once associated with masculinity (e.g., athleticism, self-discipline, assertiveness, and risk taking) while still participating in an activity firmly entrenched in heterosexualized femininity. In recent years, cheerleading has been adapted as a political vehicle by radical cheerleaders, gay and lesbian groups, and senior citizens. Outside of the United States, cheerleading can be found around the world, although it has been modified frequently to reflect the culture that has adopted it.
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- Fine, G., & Johnson, B. (1992). The promiscuous cheerleader: an adolescent male belief legend. In G. Fine (Ed.), Manufacturing tales: Sex and money in contemporary legends. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Grundy, P. (2001). Learning to win: Sports, education, and social change in twentieth-century North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Merten, D. (1996). Burnout as cheerleader: The cultural basis for prestige and privilege in junior high school. Anthropology and Education, 27, 51–70.
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