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Ye Olden Tymes: When Cheerleading Was an Exclusively Men’s Sport

Our Adorable Past


Back when it first originated in the 19th century, the sport of cheerleading was a veritable sausage fest. Meaning, only men were allowed to be cheerleaders. In fact, it took a World War to finally allow women into the sport, and only because there were less men to join the squads. Wow — if we had never gone to war, men would be wearing all those skimpy little hot shorts at NFL game now instead of women! Can you even imagine?

Indeed, cheerleading — back then known as “cheer-leading” — was more about leadership and athleticism than just cheering on a sports team (which was also made up of men). And becoming a cheer-leader was seen as “equivalent in prestige to an American flagship of masculinity, football,” according to Sociological Images. It was almost on par with the quarterback himself. It was almost like being a Boy Scout, but just slightly older and louder! Not only that, it was seen as a very important extra-curricular activity in college.

Then, when all those “valiant,” talented young men had to leave the country to fight in World War I, women took their places on the squads, many finding their niche in the sport. When the soldiers returned after the war, it was actually a fight for women to stay on cheerleading squads. Some had even thought that women got too involved in it — even too masculine:

[Women cheerleaders] frequently became too masculine for their own good… we find the development of loud, raucous voices… and the consequent development of slang and profanity by their necessary association with [male] squad members…

But, as we know, there was another World War not long after the first one was over, and female cheerleaders were given a good reason to stick around. However, now that women were a fixture in the sport, it started to become less of a sport and more of a tea party. That’s right — the people in charge started to “chick” it all up.

Instead of a pursuit that “ranks hardly second” to quarterbacking, cheerleading’s association with women led to its trivialization. By the 1950s, the ideal cheerleader was no longer a strong athlete with leadership skills, it was someone with “manners, cheerfulness, and good disposition.” In response, boys pretty much bowed out of cheerleading altogether.

But not before such notable male cheerleaders like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower got their ra-ras in. Cheerleading used to be seen as a way to rally the troops — once women were doing the cheering, it turned into something more like standing on the sidelines, looking pretty and being supportive of the men while they do the dirty work.

Cheerleading is, of course, very much a sport nowadays, though still female-dominated. If it were not female-dominated, the uniforms probably wouldn’t have, ahem, changed so much. But I think it’s fair to say that now, for the most part, it’s not about being cute — it’s about being impressive. Though maybe not as much a part of the team for whom they’re cheering as the boys were.

Either way: It makes you look at Will Ferrell‘s Spartan cheerleader character just a little differently now, doesn’t it?

(via Sociological Images)

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