Pop-Culture Cheerleading: A Brief History

Hellcats, a new series set in the world of competitive collegiate cheerleading, begins tonight on the CW. It stars Ally Michalka as an athletic cheer-disdainer, forced to try out for the team to keep her scholarship. It’s basically Bring It On goes to college, with Michalka reprising the Eliza Dushku role, which is now the lead part. Michalka’s character has an attitude, but not a promiscuity, problem — which cannot be said of pop-culture cheerleaders throughout history! (Debbie Does Dallas is about a cheerleader, after all.) On the occasion of Hellcats, we take a look at cheerleading in movies and television, from the tame to the tawdry to the Cheerios.

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders
In the early seventies, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders got new costumes, new routines, and started to be selected based on their looks, thus inaugurating a new, high-profile era in cheering. By1979, the cheerleaders had inspired a movie, The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, starring Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, to you) as a writer gone undercover. A sequel followed in 1980, along with cameos on The Love Boat, which you can see below.

The Cheerleaders
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders inspired a spate of soft-core “jiggle” movies, the first of which was 1973’s seminal The Cheerleaders, a comedy about “a group of cheerleaders from the local high school who decide to show their school spirit for their football team by sleeping with the opponents the night before the game so that they can be so worn out the opposition won’t be able to play.” It stars the unbearably seventies-named Stephanie Fondue, and inspired similar films like The Swinging Cheerleaders and The Pom Pom Girls.

Debbie Does Dallas
The Cheerleaders goes hard-core in 1978.

Can’t Buy Me Love
1987’s teen comedy, starring a very young, nerdy Patrick Dempsey, is not a cheerleading movie per se. It’s about a dork who hires the most popular girl in school to pretend to be his girlfriend. But since the most popular girl in school is a cheerleader, the movie nicely represents the two stereotypes about cheerleaders that dominated pop culture throughout the eighties and nineties: that cheerleaders are the most desirable girls, and also the bitchiest. (For more on bitchiest, see Heathers; for more on desirability, see American Beauty.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
At the beginning of the1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and written by Joss Whedon, Buffy is not yet a slayer, just a vapid cheerleader. This has made her pretty handy with a roundhouse kick, but also an intolerable mean girl. (Check out her moves here.) By the time the show began in 1997, Buffy was far too busy, enlightened, and unpopular (if unwilling to admit any of this) to be a cheerleader, leaving that to unpleasant popular person Cordelia.

Bring It On
The best movie Kirsten Dunst ever made (that’s not damning with faint praise) was a real watershed for the genre. With 2000’s Bring It On, cheerleading became a sport (competitions had been airing on ESPN for some time), and cheerleaders likable heroines and athletes (not just F-buddies). Additionally, the movie inspired four straight-to-video sequels, and somehow popularized the phrase “there must be some Toros in the atmosphere.”

If you can bring yourself to recall Heroes’ first season without getting depressed about wasted potential, you’ll remember that its awesomely mysterious catchphrase was, “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” Cheerleaders, they’re all of us now.

The Cheerios, as coached by Sue Sylvester, are simultaneously hard-core, cutthroat, and — if prone to getting knocked up — seriously dedicated (especially to their outfits). As with all things Glee, they are a satisfyingly perverse send-up of existing stereotypes — mean girls, sure, but accomplished ones who, occasionally, deserve our empathy and tell good jokes about gay dolphins.

What key cheering did we leave out?

Pop-Culture Cheerleading: A Brief History