Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:
Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.
Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!
A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.
All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.
In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.
So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.
I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.
When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.
This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.