Cheerleaders: Media Stereotypes

The symbol of the cheerleader in American culture has become something much more influential and important than a mere supporting image for and symbol of male-centered athletics. Although the influence of and consequences associated with the cheerleader symbol in American culture make an impact outside of sports, the stereotypes associated with cheerleaders in American culture serve to perpetuate a form of sexist (if not misogynistic) cultural conditioning.

The stereotype of the cheerleader in American society plays a far bigger and more substantial role in American culture than actual cheerleaders play; the role of the stereotype is to enforce gender-specific cultural roles and expectations, as well as to enforce a perceived cultural division of labor and a division of sexual and reproductive roles. The cheerleader stereotype is based on sexuality.

As everyone in America knows, the stereotype of the cheerleader begins with physical beauty: “a young female who is physically attractive (cute),” (Hanson, 1995, p. 01) and many of the stereotypes associated with cheerleaders are based in “the cheerleader’s social and sexual availability” (Hanson, 1995, p. 104). The stereotype enforces the notion of gender-based sexual roles in placing women as targets of male sexual aspiration. A cheerleader, by stereotype, is both irresistibly sexual — and unavailable to all but the “alpha” male; she is “sexually promiscuous, readily available to male achievers such as jocks, celebrities, and business tycoons” (Hanson, 1995, p. 104).

The stereotype is meant to enforce the cultural bias against women, held by men, that instructs women to pride themselves on being both trophies of male success, and emblems of sexual restraint and sexual intensity. So is the cheerleader stereotype merely yet another articulation of the saint/whore patriarchal dichotomy always present in the sexual objectification of women? Yes, the stereotype is this and much more. In addition to the sexual and reproductive conservatism of the cheerleader stereotype, a moral and ethical conservatism is also attached to the stereotype of the cheerleader in American culture.

If the cheerleader, according to the stereotype, is wildly sexually desirable (and very probably sexually promiscuous) she is also: “socially popular and influential—a wholesome, extroverted, enthusiastic Good Girl” (Hanson, 1995, p. 101) who provides — in addition to sexual access for successful males — emotional support. The image of the cheerleader on the sideline dancing to support the athletic prowess of men is a male-driven image of the social role women are expected to play.

The qualities of the cheerleader stereotype “mirror cultural definitions of appropriate female roles” (Hanson, 1995, p. 101). An analogy might be the image of medieval knights jousting while courtly Ladies looked on, trying to be attractive and sensual while also remaining morally upright and sexually provocative. Just as the medieval Lady’s courtly skills were undervalued by historians and observers, in modern America, “the female cheerleader’s expertise is easily dismissed because it serves a subordinate role” (Hanson, 1995, p. 00), so while a cheerleader, in actuality, may exhibit great athletic capacities, these are seen as merely compensatory to the more important male-driven activities.

This compensatory vision of women extends far beyond the literal playing field and into almost every aspect of American media and culture imaginable: Cheerleader images abound in editorial, advertising, promotional, didactic, and entertainment media. Every participant in American culture has a personal story, comment, or opinion about cheerleaders.

They are fixtures in our schools, magazines, newspapers, television, and movies. (Hanson, 1995, p. 99) Nowhere is the image more prevalent than in contemporary movies. In the following three examples, negative and positive stereotypes of the cheerleader play a pivotal role in the plot and theme of each of the movies cited. In the movie, The Princess Diaries, the film’s antagonist is a cheerleader named Lana who dates the cutest boy and is the most popular girl in school.

In this movie, the progression of the protagonist from a “wannabe” cheerleader/princess to an actual one is the entire basis of the film. Here the cheerleader stereotype is offered both as a negative obstacle to be overcome and also as the goal to aspire to claim, simultaneously. In the movie, John Tucker Must Die, three girls plot revenge against a womanizing basketball star. In the film, the cheerleader character, Heather, tries to get revenge by putting estrogen into the basketball star’s medicine.

Could there be any more clear indication of gender-based stereotyping than this single scene? By “womanizing’ the star the manipulating cheerleader has hit upon the worst of all punishments — taking the star’s manhood away! Finally, in the movie, Man of the House, a Texas ranger named Sharp is tasked with guarding a group (or herd! ) of witless cheerleaders who have witnessed a murder. The overtly sexist premise simply devolves to sex and mayhem — plus many scenes of the girls in skimpy clothes.

The important thing to keep in mind with the cheerleader stereotype is that mind has very little to do with the matter. Whether male or female, everyone, it seems, is expected to drop a few IQ points when associating with cheerleaders! In conclusion, while it is obvious that the cheerleader stereotype in American culture is one of great importance and social relevance, what is less clear is whether or not the damage tot he actual social fabric of America is worth the relatively banal distraction such a ubiquitous symbol presently enjoys.

The latter question: is the cheerleader stereotype damaging to young women would seem to contain at least the seeds of its own answer — in the fact of the question merely being asked. The study of just how damaging the stereotype may be to actual living, breathing women remains, for the most part, in American popular culture of much less importance than the erotic and gender-specific cultural stereotypes that the symbol of the cheerleader helps an apparent magnitude of people, both men and women, to enjoy.