Is Cheerleading a Prison or Is It Freedom?

Author and podcast creator Sarah Hepola talks candidly about the complicated legacy of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

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Is Cheerleading a Prison or Is It Freedom?
The Original Seven in 1972: Carrie O’Brien, Rosy Hall, Anna Carpenter, Vonciel Baker. Photo:Courtesy of Carrie O’Brien

In the lead up to the Super Bowl each year, the internet is inexplicably deluged with stories covering every nook and cranny of the amped-up, cleavaged-up, and sometimes fucked-up world of NFL cheerleading. Reporters tend to cover cheerleaders in two disparate lanes: eagerly fawning over the spectacle of the dancers and “trailblazers” without a critical eye in sight, or ripping to shreds the teams predominantly comprised of women over their participation in a job that many find to be sexist and downright offensive.

Sarah Hepola, who finds herself nestled right in the middle of these two opposing poles, is not one of those reporters. The author of the memoir Blackout and writer at large at Texas Monthly (and Jezebel regular) knows that the truth at the heart of NFL cheerleading is a duality as beautiful and glamorous as it is complicated and, at times, dangerous. Now, nearly four decades after she first fell in love with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders on posters plastered in 7-Elevens and dance studios, Hepola has chronicled their waning legacy—both fraught and understated in its glory—in a new podcast called America’s Girls.

While Hepola’s adoration of Texas’s bombshells was difficult if not controversial to sustain throughout continued NFL scandals, her dogged pursuit of amplifying the women’s voices and giving them the same agency that was stripped away by the Cowboys has proven to be a tear-jerking journalistic venture. Atop unsteady ground that may swallow the very idea of NFL cheerleaders whole, Hepola enshrines the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders with grit and honesty. As she puts it, “To let yourself be heard, instead of just seen, when being seen is what you were always trained for, is really an amazing thing.”

Hepola and I caught up over the phone last week to talk about the massive culture impact of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (the DCC) and their complicated legacy today. Our conversation has been edited for clarity:

Dana Presley Killmer in the early Eighties, shot by a Dallas photographer, but the photo never ran. Photo:Courtesy of Dana Presley Killmer

Jezebel: I loved hearing about the origins of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. They were trained dancers at heart. But, as you smartly point out, dance is inherently sexual, and you mention that many cultures use dance as a celebration of their heritage. Do you think that America just doesn’t appreciate dance in a major cultural way?

Hepola: I thought that was such an important point, because you’ll see these critiques of the DCC claiming it’s all just “bump and grind.” Sure, there’s an erotic force that’s moving through the body, and you could say more coarsely that it simulates sex. But you have to remember that dancing is considered dangerous in highly religious places like Dallas, Texas for that very reason. When I was growing up, Baylor University, which is a Baptist university, did not allow dancing on that campus until 1996. There’s this big Baptist stronghold in Dallas, and a lot of the Baptists still don’t dance. That highly religious streak in American culture, which runs counterpoint to a really hedonistic and libidinal streak, shows up here in the middle of the story about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

The public tends to have really strong opinions about cheerleaders, but when it comes down to it, they can’t name a single one. Did you find this to be the case with the DCC?

Even I couldn’t have told you their names. They are so often used as decoration, but are discouraged from speaking to the media. The result is that you don’t get any kind of personality—just a vague, anonymous beauty because of that uniform. Everyone looks the same, which makes them unidentifiable.

It’s not unlike the Playboy Bunnies in that way. Aside from racial diversity, they all just blend together.

It’s also not that different from the military. There’s a lot of, “You are one of us now. We speak as a collective unit. You are seen and not heard.” A lot of the cheerleaders I interviewed for the podcast made military analogies, because the boot camps or training camps were so intense, and because they did a lot of military tours visiting troops.

This is the “silly” shot taken after the official squad photo in 1977. The tradition held through the Eighties, but it went away at some point. Photo:Courtesy of Janice Garner

So, why do people believe that the DCC just smile and wave?

It’s a question of proximity. From the stadium, they just look like little specks on a football field. That’s the point that we’re making in the first episode when we refer to the “honey shot,” which is just a cutaway of beautiful cheerleaders during televised football games. So, you have a stadium that can’t really see them, and then you’ve got hundreds of millions of people watching at home that only see beautiful faces. Of course, they don’t know that they’re dancers. They don’t see it.

I had such a visceral, emotional reaction to that episode. The way that you position television’s role in sexualizing the cheerleaders made me feel both relieved and so livid. You showed that being labeled “sex objects” and then punished for that same label was never the cheerleaders’ fault.

Right. The DCC were being instructed to wink at the camera by the networks and the cameramen, but those shots were positioned as chance encounters—that the cheerleaders were just naturally flirting with the camera. A lot of the cheerleaders never even saw the footage, which blew my mind. They didn’t have VCRs back then. Meanwhile, the conversations broadcasters are having about the cheerleaders live on the air is locker room talk that’s been televised. They’re told repeatedly by their coach that they’re good girls and that they’re wholesome, yet America is seeing them in an entirely different way.

But they’re also the same people who shoulder all of the responsibility of trying to convince everybody that they’re not sex objects.

Right. So Shannon Baker Werthmann, who’s really one of the most important cheerleaders in Dallas’s history because she was the golden girl during their peak era, recalled that experience vividly. In her memory, the question she was asked again and again and again was, “Do you feel exploited? Do you feel like a sex object?” Shannon was a trained ballet dancer, who would have had a very good career if she didn’t turn out to be five-foot-two with boobs. She was an honor student at SMU. She didn’t feel like a sex object. She was out there working her ass off. But the Cowboys had exploited the cheerleaders’ sex appeal to get media attention, and then tried to put the genie back in the bottle after things had obviously gone haywire with Playboy photoshoots and the release of an unauthorized pornographic film called “Debbie Does Dallas.”

The famous 1977 Bob Shaw poster that sold around a million copies. That’s Suzy Holub in the center. According to court documents, the women were paid $150 each. (The woman on the far left, Kris Murillo, never cheered a game. A DCC mystery.) Photo:Courtesy of Sarah Hepola

Perfect that you mention pornography! There’s this complicated link between sex work and cheerleading, which you documented extensively. But the women involved have also shown such a tremendous avoidance of the idea that their role is predicated on sex work. Why?

People are hungry for things that feed that sexual part of themselves, but they also don’t want to feel guilty about it. So for instance, if you’re married and you go to a strip club, later, you might think, “God, I really shouldn’t have done that.” But if you watch an NFL game, it was sort of packaged as guilt-free voyeurism. Maybe it’s not quite as explicit, but there’s a lot of the same suggestions. The burlesque scene in Dallas, for example, was really big in the ‘60s, and one of the dancers named Bubbles Cash creates this sensation during the 1967 Cotton Bowl as she’s walking down the stairs in a mini skirt. The mythology is that this moment inspires the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Then of course, once the cheerleaders become a big deal, they are so nervous about accidentally letting a stripper onto their squad that they send an assistant, Debbie Bond, undercover to strip clubs to see if a particular candidate is a stripper. That’s how important it was for them to be wholesome.

We have definitive proof that NFL cheerleaders have been ogled and captured in compromising positions by owners and executives throughout the league. Have the DCC had their own #MeToo moment? If not, do you think that’s something that might be inevitable?

The first part of this question is hanging me up a tad. NFL cheerleaders were basically introduced to be ogled (among other things they brought to the game), so proof is hardly necessary. It’s a design, not a bug. The DCC has mostly flown above the scandal, even as their owner Jerry Jones stumbled into a few of his own. In 2018, they were hit by a fair pay lawsuit, but I’ve never heard any public claims of harassment, sexual exploitation. I don’t know that a #MeToo moment is inevitable, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising. One lesson of the past five years is that no one is too big to fall.

If you raise the issue of feminism to any cheerleader today, though, surely they’ll tell you that they are empowered because they chose to be there on that field. So, where is this hatred from radical feminists coming from?

One of the things you have to look at is the way that professional cheerleading expanded at the same time as the feminist movement. Title IX was passed in 1972, which is the year that the DCC debuted, and Roe v. Wade is going to come down the following year. All throughout the ‘70s, as the feminist movement is gaining ground and changing the bones of our daily experience, the cheerleaders are also riding a huge high. You have to remember that women of that age were working so hard to get into men’s spaces. They wanted to be doctors and CEOs. But one of the things we know about that group of women is that they only represented the top 5 to 10 percent of women in the country. A lot of women didn’t want those kinds of elite jobs, nor were they qualified for them, and I think the feminist movement took it as a particular affront when women chose to stay home with their kids. Women had been considered to be on the sidelines of men’s lives, cheering them on. We were nursemaids and helpmates. You and I can say it’s oppressive, but a lot of people just thought it was family.

A writer friend of mine recently wrote to me: “I have very complicated feelings about these cheerleaders. I think I mostly despise the entire enterprise—because they are a souped up version of everything I hate about myself and womanhood, the desperate need for approval. … I keep wanting to applaud them for mastering the game, but then they’re still stuck in the game.” I think that’s a very common sentiment among women, maybe even (a few of) the cheerleaders themselves. So many of us have spent the past few years wrestling with a sense that we are overly compliant, people pleasers, too needful of outside validation. Maybe the cheerleaders represent the ultra-example of this kind of female socialization, once considered admirable and now often portrayed as pitiable. I suspect many women find it deeply distressing—threatening to the point of not being able to speak about it, just delete, block, ignore, etc.—that other women might not find this a prison. In fact, they might experience it as freedom.

Did producing this podcast shape the way you now see the world and how you see those women?

The major takeaway I had was what a massive cultural impact the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders had—so much so that it’s almost invisible. They’re seen as kind of this kitschy legacy brand. But they really influenced sports and commerce and the way we see women on television. Think about how armored football players are: Those men are in helmets and shoulder pads, and you can’t see their faces. Then, you’ve got these women out there with their cleavage, bellies, and the half-moons of their rear underneath their shorts. That sort of skin making its entry into family-friendly entertainment gives birth to a million things, including Hooters, but I don’t even think the cheerleaders themselves know their own history. I do hope that changes. I would like them to know their own place in history.

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