Sexualised, never sexual

An article about a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders taking her employer to court to fight for fair pay has been making the rounds:

The salon visits, the makeup, the eyelashes, the tights were almost exclusively paid out of her own pocket. [She was required] to attend thrice-weekly practices, dozens of public appearances, photo shoots, fittings and nine-hour shifts at Raiders home games, all in return for a lump sum of $1,250 at the conclusion of the season. (…) With fines for everything from forgetting pompoms to gaining weight, the handbook warned that it was entirely possible to “find yourself with no salary at all at the end of the season.

Beyond the unethical and probably illegal wage issues, this article also unveils just how explicitly these women are objectified. They are all dressed identically, required to conform to the same long-haired, skinny, fake tanned definition of beauty, and, when on the field,

… the 40 cheerleaders are divided into four cheer lines organized by height (…), ensuring that whenever they bound onto the field they appear to be just the same size.

Unlike the male athletes, the cheerleaders are not portrayed as individuals who play a distinct role within a team and who are identifiable by a number or a name on their shirts. Apart from variations in hair and skin colour, these women look identical, and they are lined up and made to appear completely interchangeable.


This leads to a resounding “yes” to the third criterion of Dr Caroline Heldman’s “Sex Object Test”:

3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable?
Interchangeability is a common advertising theme that reinforces the idea that women, like objects, are fungible. And like objects, “more is better,” a market sentiment that erases the worth of individual women.

But wait, it gets worse. When an individual is objectified, their ability to be a subject is erased. In this case, being a subject entails the ability to choose how and with whom to express your sexuality. These women have had this taken away from them in their professional lives – they are forbidden from showing any sign of being sexual:

Cheerleaders were instructed to stay away from other employees in the Oakland organization. If they lingered too long in the Raiders’ office, they were bound to upset some wives; get caught socializing too much with the Raiders and a cheerleader risked dismissal.

And the kicker: they were allowed to attend the Christmas party, “but only if they didn’t bring a date and didn’t pick up a drink.”

They are instructed to put their sexuality on display, and they are blamed if that leads to advances from players or staff members. They are presented as sexually available, not even being allowed to bring a date to the Christmas party, and yet they can be fired if they are caught “socializing too much” with the players. Their role is clear: to be sexy, to entice, but not to flirt, not to be touched. They are sexualised, but they may never be sexual.

Header image by Flickr user thaths


4 thoughts on “Sexualised, never sexual

  1. good analysis. To me the most plausible explanation for cheerleading is that everyone has gotten habituated to it. If you come from a different cultural context, it appears entirely bizarre, the kind of thing that would draw bemused commentary in the North American press if it happened abroad.

  2. Right. In montreal, we mercifully do not have cheerleading at hockey games. This would run counter to sacred hockey tradition. There is, however, cheerleading at the games in Florida. I find this totally incongruous. As you point out, this is partly a question of context. Seriously, I’m a sports fan, and watching women in microskirts and low cut tops feign excitement on the sidelines has always made me uncomfortable. All-female cheerleading at sports events, and things like the skimpy, sexualizing attired required of women beach volleyball players, or the “swimsuit edition” of Sports Illustrated, forcefully define the undeniable community created by sports as a male preserve. The description of nearly-robotized young women cheerleaders is no surprise. To some extent, they represent women’s place in certain sports, particularly football. It may not be entirely by chance that among the ranks of this sport’s practitioners are a disproportionate number who have been charged with domestic violence.

      1. Very good talk, and excellent illustrations. You can insulate young children from these pernicious images by regulating their access to them, but it becomes much harder to counter with adolescents, who are also, as she points out, most vulnerable to normative discourse in general (including the thranny of “peer pressure”) and particularly, to anything related to appearance.

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