Disclaimer: Today, we rant. This is a long, imageless post about an issue that’s been bothering me for awhile. For those without the patience to trudge through it, the summary is this: I’m sick of the malicious bitchy dense cheerleader trope, why I’m tired of it, and why I think it needs to disappear.
I recently read some great articles about a particular movie trope, the manic pixie dream girl. The originator of the name has renounced the creation of the term, stating that it’s been misinterpreted to represent all women in movies who are quirky, cheerful and exist solely to liven up the lives of their male love interest. But the fact remains that those characters exist, whether we like it or not. Movie and TV execs aren’t going to let the trope fade away because it’s great entertainment.
I have much to say about that topic but today’s post isn’t about that. It’s about another trope that’s existed in entertainment for as long as I can remember and, contrary to the manic pixie dream girl, this one is as mean spirited and cruel as the characters it inhibits. And that trope is the one of shallow vindictive dumb cheerleader.
I’m not a TV or movie historian, and while I love watching shows and movies, I don’t know enough to tell you when the stereotype originated but I can tell you it’s been around since I can remember. It never bothered me before but now, as an adult and the parent of a cheerleader, I’m more tuned in to how they’re portrayed.
And that portrayal is just disgusting.
To start, there’s the group dynamic. Like other groups of friends on TV or in movies, there’s always stock characters. For this one, there’s always a beautiful, bitchy head cheerleader and her almost as pretty flunkies who are absolutely incapable of thinking for themselves and do everything they’re told to do, except for the one who’s definitely brainy but only useful to help formulate diabolical plans. Anyone who dares to speak out or disobey the captain is ostracized until she has to pull some horribly evil prank on someone the head cheerleader likes even less which she does because hurting someone else is better than being isolated. And make sure you’re not friends with anyone outside the squad! That’s cause for an automatic black ball.
Next, they’re almost always mean. Downright cruel. They’re master manipulators, specifically the cheerleader in charge, always able to get the adults to believe them as the victim, when in actuality, they’re the ones pulling vicious pranks, breaking up relationships, excluding others, and bringing classmates to tears. And, in congruence with that, they’re completely superficial, rude, and demeaning. Yes, in most cases, they ultimately get theirs in the end, but the next episode, it’s back to the same old bullshit.
Not only are they mean but almost every single one of them, save for the head cheerleader, is cartoonishly dumb. As in, can’t count to 10 or tie her shoes or differentiate between right and left. She’s incapable of doing well in school or even thinking for herself, which is why she so desperately needs the head cheerleader to tell her what to do and why she’s so susceptible, like adults, to being manipulated. There’s no depth to her AT ALL, she’s completely shallow, and has absolutely no goals for herself. She’s shown as content being a flunky except for the one very special episode where she realizes what head cheerleader is doing to her and seeks solace in the really not so bad “regular” kids.
And this may be me being a bit nitpicky, but honestly, why are they always, ALWAYS in their uniforms? Do people think that cheerleaders honestly walk around all the time in those polyester shirts and skirts? That they are so in love with the fact that they’re cheerleaders that they can’t ever wear anything else? That they have nothing else going for them so they have to perpetually show off being a cheerleader?
(This is where I’d like to write about body image and the perception that cheerleading is not a sport but those two topics are each a post of their own so I’m going to say this–do not use what you see at NFL games or on TV as a barometer. The “cheering” that the NFL or TV cheerleaders do is not at all indicative of actual competitive cheerleading nor is their appearance. I have been to my fair share of cheer competitions the last few years and I can tell you, the body types run the gamut. Which is awesome.)
You might be wondering why I let this bother me so much. It’s just entertainment, after all. And it’s a valid point. But as the mother of a young cheerleader, I find this portrayal damaging not only to my child’s self-esteem but also her peer’s perception of her and her perception of herself.
I don’t want her thinking she’s better than anyone who doesn’t cheer. Because she’s not. Cheerleading is an activity, it’s not a personality or social status or intelligence barometer or achievement or anything other than a sport. It doesn’t make her above (or below, because, let’s face it, there are plenty of negative things said about cheerleaders) anyone. Being a cheerleader doesn’t give her a free pass to bully, manipulate, and ridicule. Watching these shows, she might start to feel like wearing a bow and skirt means she’s entitled to say or do things other kids aren’t. And if she sees it enough, she might start to believe there’s a truth to it.
The same with intelligence. When I was in Disney, cheerleading Worlds were taking place. We struck up a conversation with one of the girls and her mother and, while I forget what the girl said, it prompted her mother to question it and the girl to reply “I’m not supposed to be smart. I’m a cheerleader.” Joke or not, I can’t imagine where she got that from. Based on my experience, cheerleaders are no more or less intelligent than anyone else but you’d never know it if you used these shows (and movies and books. Let’s not forget about them) as your frame of reference. Why must they be shown as vapid idiots who can’t form a coherent sentence? Okay, I get that it’s for comedic relief, but it’s so prevalent that there comes a point it stops being funny.
We’ve reached that point.
Now, I will admit there’s a certain arrogance that some cheerleaders carry around. But it’s no different than the arrogance displayed by other athletes or members of other clubs. Kids are allowed, and we should encourage them, to be proud of whatever they choose to do whether it’s drama or band or soccer or FFA or cheerleading. That pride helps build self-confidence. My child should never tell me that she feels like when she watches the shows she likes that they’re are making fun of her.
Because she did tell me that. And it broke my heart.
If we’re trying to teach a culture of tolerance and acceptance, wouldn’t it be a good idea to stop portraying cheerleaders as shallow moronic vindictive assholes and instead start creating characters who have depth, are intelligent and compassionate? Wouldn’t it make sense to stop picking on or creating characters who are stereotypes simply because it’s easy?
This trope is just as cruel and awful as the way cheerleaders are shown treating others. It’s damaging, it’s ugly, and it needs to change. Because the more these shows, which have more influence than most parents (myself included) would like to admit, perpetuate that stereotype, the harder it will be to make them go away.
P.S. I could have written this post about a number of stereotypes that get under my skin but I chose cheerleading because it’s personal. Let me be clear that I understand that many of the characters are hyperbole since it makes good TV. But it seriously wouldn’t hurt to dial it down a bit.