Eras in Education – Grandma Paul Waving the Pompoms: Cheerleading’s History in Terms of Gender

Eras in Education – Grandma Paul Waving the Pompoms: Cheerleading’s History in Terms of Gender

Occasionally during my high school years a bulletin would go out to teachers proclaiming a ?pep rally? that all students were to attend. Usually this occurred on a Friday afternoon right before a big basketball game. A mild cheer would erupt amongst us students, in many cases because it meant we could skip out and start our weekend a few hours early. For some, the excitement was palpable and authentic; they actually wanted to embody school spirit. This interest in ?pep? was by no means confined to the female gender. Whether excited or ambivalent, none of us could have imagined that the originators of that most stereotyped of activities, cheerleading, were exclusively male.

It all started at an Ivy League school, Princeton, where a student named Thomas Peebles became so enamoured with leading rousing choruses of his school’s fight songs that, upon graduation, he decided to export them with his arrival at the relatively frontier-like University of Minnesota. In 1898, a medical student there named Johnny Campbell grabbed a megaphone to rally the school’s football team. His cheer went ?Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!? (On a side note, their mascot, Goldy Gopher, recently made continent-wide news for allegedly ridiculing a pious member of the opposing football team who chose to perform a pre-game prayer directly in front of the Minnesota cheer squad.)

Organized ?rah-rah? took off like wildfire in Minnesota, yet until 1923 was a male-only domain. At this time a few women broke through the gendered curtain but it wasn’t until the 1940s, when ?so many college-aged men went off to fight in World War II? that most cheerleaders were female. Many crucial props of traditional cheering, such as ?the spirit stick and the pom pon,? were actually invented by men. Unlike today’s cheerleader stereotype, consisting of a ditzy demeanour and an hourglass body type, males saw themselves as fulfilling a man’s role by passionately rooting for their school’s team.

In autumn of 1936, in the heart of cowboy country, students at Texas Tech University named Arch Lamb, Paul ?Grandma? Bowers, and Bud Thompson started a school spirit club that they named the Saddle Tramps. The name was chosen because in traditional rancher lingo a saddle tramp was a cowboy hired for a temporary period ?on the basis of his ability and willingness to tackle any task assigned to him?. He was, in short, an exemplar of the timeless masculine role of handyman.

The fact that cheering other men’s sporting exertions seemed somewhat less manly than actually participating must have dawned on the early Saddle Tramps, however. (A nickname like ?Grandma? suggests something along these lines.) Nonetheless, these young Texans could never have guessed that 60 years later a feminist grunge band called Dickless would sing a song entitled ?Saddle Tramp? with lyrics like ?I’m the champ! Better than a man! Yeah, I’m a saddle tramp!?

The use of cross-gender symbols and imagery may in fact be key to understanding cheerleading. No other school institution combines masculine norms of competitiveness with feminine norms of bodily expressiveness to such an extent.

The social theorist Judith Butler has written of how people usually conceive of gender as a ?category of essence.? Instead of reduction to limiting categories, ?we need to think about ?woman? as multiple and discontinous, not as a category with ?ontological integrity.?? In short, to be a woman is to be whatever one feels like being. To some feminists, ??woman? is on the margins . . . and is thus more free to play than man.?

In college athletics today (unlike at the dawn of the cheerleading era) it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to play on sports teams, or be on the cheer squad, or even both. Men, on the other hand, are likely to feel pressure to avoid any association with cheering and its attendant ?gay cheerleader syndrome.?

A possible explanation of our society’s rigid gender expectations comes in the form of R.W. Connell’s theory of ?hegemonic masculinity.? Hegemonic masculinity is an ideology that ?subordinates? all forms of femininity and masculinity that do not fulfill its norms of ?whiteness, heterosexuality, marriage, authority and physical toughness.? Varsity sports have traditionally been masculine pursuits; cheerleading has been marginalized and therefore is in a position to challenge masculinity’s privileged place within the educational system.

In a study of contemporary cheerleaders, Laura Grindstaff and Emily West looked at the impact that gender expectations had on participants. They found that just as in the 1930s, when a guy with a nickname like ?Grandma? was cheering the toughest men his school had to offer, ?cheerleading simultaneously challenges and reinforces the notion of sport as a male preserve.? Cheerleading combines traditionally feminine traits of ?supportiveness and performativity? with traditionally male traits of ?competition and athleticism.?

Cheer squads compete with one another and involve extraordinarily athletic stunts. However, male cheerleaders feel they must go to great lengths to emphasize their masculinity by lifting weights alongside members of the football team and using slogans like ?Other sports use one ball, we use two.?

There is always the threat that one’s manhood will be discredited (a term used by the sociologist Erving Goffman in regard to identities that can at any time be challenged. Gender is discreditable because it is performed). Males spoke of how ?trying to get the crowd pumped up for some other guys? felt ?a little weird.? One stated that ?they want me to run with the flag, and be happy, and That’s just horrible, horrible stuff.?

In general the more performative the behaviour, such as finger wiggling (?spirit fingers?), the less men want or are allowed to involve themselves. This fits into the ideology of hegemonic masculinity because what constitutes male power should never be too expressive or subservient. A man’s hands should be rigid and his smile should not be too inviting. When a ?real man? wants something he takes it; he does not smile and ask in a singsong! In comparison, female students find new gender vistas being opened. On girls-only squads women can ?base? or ?fly?; in other words, perform either the traditional female gymnastics and acrobatics or the traditional male throwing and catching manoeuvres. And, as the song lyrics suggest, they just might do it ?better than a man.?

As much as some of us in high school looked forward to pep rallies only because it meant an early start to our weekend, the study of gender roles suggests that more attention should be paid to how school spirit is constructed and performed. The fact that a rigid boundary exists between competitiveness and supportiveness is exemplified in the way cheering generally seems like something ?girls do? while guys are out on the basketball court playing or else exiting school property as quickly as humanly possible.

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