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Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

The Secret Feminism of Netflix’s Dallas Cheerleading Documentary America’s Sweethearts

By meerna Jul12,2024
The Secret Feminism of Netflix’s Dallas Cheerleading Documentary America’s Sweethearts

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America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is a series about cheerleaders and their three bosses.Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Consider the Team Uniform: New Netflix Documentary Series America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (all episodes are now available) gives you plenty of time to watch. A skimpy blue polyester blouse, actually a bikini top with puffy sleeves and a collar tied between the breasts for maximum cleavage. A white fringed vest, equally short; star-print bootie shorts, belted. The cheerleaders say they feel like superheroes when they put it on, but it’s also carefully designed to look like it’s about to fall when they raise their arms or kick their legs.

The series follows the cheerleaders and their three leaders — Kelli Finglass, who was on the team from 1984 to 1988 and has served as its fearsome director since 1991; Judy Trammell, who was a cheerleader from 1981 to 1983 and became head choreographer in 1991; and Charlotte Jones Anderson, the Cowboys’ chief brand officer and daughter of franchise owner Jerry Jones — through the 2023-2024 season, from auditions to training camp to the Games.

At one key moment, Finglass pulls out a pair of shorts from her ’80s uniform and triumphantly notes that they were as tiny then as they are now. Aside from minor modifications—adding rhinestones to the stars; swapping out go-go boots for cowboy boots—the uniform hasn’t changed since 1972. And therein lies one of the series’ underlying themes: what has and hasn’t changed for women. And why.

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(From left to right) Kelli Finglass and Judy Trammell in America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Some critics say that America’s Sweethearts showrunner, Greg Whiteley – who also created the series Cheers! AND Last Chance U – is too lenient towards the DCC, as they call themselves, and I’m sure he had to make accommodations with the Cowboys organization to gain access. (According to Forbes, it’s the NFL’s most valuable franchise, worth $8 billion; according to the series’ travel guide, the Statue of Liberty could stand upright in its stadium.) But if you look closely, you’ll see that Whiteley is thwarting Cowboy Inc.’s defense as skillfully as Greta Gerwig handled Mattel in Barbie doll.

Why would he be hard on these young women as they go through their demanding daily routines (including a pediatric orthodontist and a physical therapist for special needs kids), prescribed charity events, elaborate beauty routines, fidget-inducing injuries, family pressures (most of the DCC parents have spent a fortune on dance classes to get their daughters to this point, and two of the mothers were DCC themselves), and lots of tears when they’re already so hard on themselves? Especially since if a cheerleader doesn’t give it her all for two or three seconds, Finglass and Anderson swoop in to correct her?

Whiteley subtly directs our attention to the culture—cowboy, American—that imposes impossible standards to which these women willingly, even eagerly, conform: the makeup contouring and facelifts, the fake nails and hair extensions that torture their fingers and scalps, the eating disorders and hip dislocations (caused by the signature DCC move, a jump into the air and landing in a full split that Trammell doesn’t forbid, despite the long-term injuries it causes, because the fans just love it).

There’s a spectacular moment when four middle-aged white guys on a DCC locker room tour strike poses for photos of their favorite cheerleaders. The contrast between their average lumpiness and the supernatural perfection of the women is both hilarious and sharply sobering.

Open this photo in gallery:

Cheerleaders say they feel like superheroes when they put on the suit, but it’s also so carefully designed that when they raise their arms or kick their legs, it looks like it’s about to fall off.Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Sure, men are to blame for keeping the culture alive, Whiteley shows us: Male fans who pose for photos with cheerleaders are given a football to keep their hands off women, one cheerleader is attacked by a match photographer, and another finds a stalker’s tracking device in her car, but police make no arrests.

But Whiteley also shows us that women participate just as eagerly. She lets Anderson, dripping in jewelry in her posh office, go on and on about why the Cowboys pay their cheerleaders so little. “They don’t come here for the money,” she insists. They come to be part of a “sisterhood,” “something bigger than themselves,” and “find their passion and purpose.” (Female football players, who presumably come for the same reasons, earn between $80,000 and $50 million a year.)

The most complicit culprit is Finglass, who has an unwavering idea of ​​what DCC is—basically what the AI ​​would offer if you asked it for a “pretty American girl”—flat stomach, shapely buttocks but not too va-va-voom, symmetrical face, long, bouncy hair, shiny teeth, submissive demeanor. (Cheerleaders can only answer “Yes, ma’am” to any request or criticism.)

Studying their facial features in extreme close-up (somewhat reminiscent of a magnifying mirror), Finglass tells one candidate that her eyebrows are too big, tells another to remove her mascara from her lower lashes, demands that she wear full make-up and loose hair even during training, and crops one of them out of a photo taken mid-kick because “her face is weird” – i.e., it shows exertion.

She has a million euphemisms for “not pretty enough”—“Your energy’s too low,” “Your kicks aren’t high enough”—and a clear preference for white Christians. Of the 36 girls who make the team (even the veterans have to try out every year), five are black, and the rest are white. If there are any Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, or Latinas, they don’t appear on the show.

She makes sounds of support when the cheerleader who was attacked presses charges, but her moment of calm when she first hears the news tells a different story. She sees that a cheerleader named Victoria is struggling—trying too hard, pushing everyone away—but does nothing to help her.

Whiteley shows us enough of Finglass’s gleeful, jittery ’80s cheering to let us know she wouldn’t be starting her own squad today. But she doesn’t, in a brilliant move, make her a pure villain. She also shows us her weaknesses—how she gets caught up in what she says on the phone to her daughter rather than showing emotion; how she’s clearly a prisoner of that magnifying mirror; how she’s internalized the standards of the Cowboys organization—the standards of good old American male fantasy—because she knows her career depends on it.

When I was starting out—like Finglass, in the mid-80s, when “sexy” was as simple as painter’s pants and a center part—I had bosses like her. They worked like hell and took a shitload of shit to get where they were in a male-dominated world, and they were torn about whether to pass on their hard-won accomplishments to the next generation. They didn’t want us to suffer like they did, but they wanted us to suffer.

American Hearts shows that the culture of impossible female perfection persists not just because men perpetuate it, but also because women do. Some things have improved for women since 1972, but many things haven’t. (Back then, to cite a glaring example, abortion rights for women in the U.S. were supposed to be written into law; now they aren’t.) By insisting that things—“standards,” “traditions,” even uniforms—stay put, we go backwards.

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By meerna

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