The Dallas Cowboys, who play Thursday *, may not be doing so well this season, but their cheerleaders are certainly riding high. Their reality show, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, is in its fifth season of documenting the team's brutal audition process. Even better? The cheerleaders, all 34, are now making three times as much for each game-day performance. The going rate for wearing puffy sleeves, big hair, and a permanent smile while dancing to Top 40 music for a professional football team was $50 per game, but now it's $150 per game. By contrast, Tony Romo is midway through a six-year, $67.5 million contract, which means he's making about $10 million a year. At one of those equal-pay bake sales that women's groups are so fond of, Romo would have to pay more than 10,000 times what a cheerleader would for a cupcake.
Not, of course, that they're supposed to be eating cupcakes.
Cheerleading is having a moment: USA Gymnastics is now sanctioning some collegiate cheerleading events, bringing it closer to sports designation. And the CW's cheesy drama Hellcats, about a fiercely competitive university cheer squad, has become a popular guilty pleasure. Yet somehow Making the Team has stayed under the feminist radar. It's got all the elements necessary for a good gender-studies smackdown: cruel body talk, contradictory expectations for women to be both sexy and innocent, emphasis on women being chirpy and submissive at all times. Maybe it's escaped our notice because of its TV home, CMT, which isn't must-see viewing for lefties who sniff at country music. Or maybe we write cheerleaders off as lost causes, too far gone in the pit of objectification and traditional gender roles to warrant our disdain. But the "young ladies," as the DCC prefer that we call them, should get a critical look. While the gender roles of Jersey Shore have been analyzed ad nauseam, we've been missing the far more nauseating reality show.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are a Machiavellian sorority, where DCC Director Kelli Finglass and her dismissive smirk reign. The show depicts the team's tryout process from initial auditions attended by more than 1,000 hopefuls to the summer training camp where a few dozen "veterans" and "rookies" are put through their paces, forced to endure "team building" exercises like skydiving, and shown in bikinis at every possible opportunity. (There seems to be at least one "pool party" every season.)
Watching the process is nerve-wracking, all the more because the stakes seem so low to those not indoctrinated into the DCC cult. The pay is lousy, the odds of parlaying the gig into something in the entertainment field slim; they're banned from dating players, so it's not a matchmaking service (though rumors persist about extracurricular dating). Yet each of them seems desperate to make that team, even as they're subjected to cruel behavior—hazing, you might call it—they must greet with a bright smile and "thank you, ma'am, may I have another?" attitude. During tryouts this season, the young ladies dance on the field while being broadcast on the world's biggest HD screen, their Nancy Archer-size visages critiqued by the cackling Kelli and Charlotte Jones Anderson, a Cowboys VP and the daughter of owner Jerry Jones. At one point, the pair has the camera operator zoom in on a girl's waist so they can determine whether her shorts are unflattering or her figure not up to par. And just as American Idol auditions always contain a few tone-deaf singers for our amusement, so does Making the Team throw in some jiggling bellies for us to scoff at.
The big-screen test seems to replace what was one of the most loathsome features of the series for its first four seasons: the body-fat evaluation. Through the course of the show, the training-camp candidates have experienced a smorgsboard of body-fat tests, from old-fashioned calipers to the high-tech "bod pod." Last season, we watched the young ladies undergo dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, which is more commonly used to measure bone-mass density. The results were read by a (fully clothed) doctor while the girls shivered in, of course, bikinis, some oozing confidence, others all saucer-eyed self-consciousness. Those with body-fat levels deemed unacceptable were urged to "be healthy" and work with their trainer, Jay Johnson, to get the number down and "tone." "They are elite athletes," insists Johnson, and indeed, dancing on the hot field, in the Texas summer and early fall, for hours, is a physical challenge. But the emphasis is clearly on appearance, not performance: "You don't want to put that body into that little tiny uniform," explained one body-fat monitor in Making the Team's third season.
It's not just their bodies that undergo such scrutiny: Their dancing is ridiculed in rehearsal; their hair, makeup, and nail choices are mocked. In the second season of the show, one girl was cut soon after she committed the sin of showing up to her uniform fitting—in this world, a near sacrosanct occurrence—late and, worse, without wearing enough makeup. "I work at a preschool," she tried to explain to a stern Kelli, for whom a makeup-less face is unforgivable. In a subsequent season, another girl who wouldn't make the cut invoked Kelli's wrath by showing up with a run in her dance tights, a show of blatant disrespect for the hallowed uniform. (A veteran cheerleader I talked to, Ally Traylor, bristled a bit at the idea that Kelli's too harsh, pointing out that no one cares if a football coach yells at his team. But those players get much greater rewards and are actually competing, not just performing on the field—and it's their playing, not the way their butts look in hot pants, that's being critiqued.)
The attitude required from the young ladies is cribbed from the early days of Playboy, before we were wise to such contradictions: sassy yet approachable, wholesome but sexy, youthful yet mature, subservient when not performing but dominant while before a crowd. She must "stand out" while "blending in," but "blending" can also be a bad thing, if she doesn't catch the eye in the "right" way. She must have a personality but may not express dissatisfaction when critiqued. She must know her place. During the interview stage of the tryouts, when the girls are faced with panels of judges asking them about their personal philosophy, general knowledge, and everything in between, one young lady a couple of season back eliminated herself on what should have been an easy question: "Does the girl make the uniform, or does the uniform make the girl?" The correct answer was the latter, but our misguided girl brightly selected the former.
The most heartbreaking part is that the women of the show seem to be hardworking, earnest, sincere; there's none of the bitchery that populates so many reality shows about women (well, at least no overt bitchery and cattiness—these girls are all so super supportive of one another and no one ever fights!). Most seem more scared than inspirational when not performing. This is doubly true on cut nights, when some girls are asked to hang around after practice—with their "big sisters," another sororitylike touch—to hear either a warning or those cold words each dreads: "This will be your last night with us." Almost every time, the girl, shaken to her core, says, "Thank you for the opportunity," leaves, and collapses into tears in the arms of her now-former teammates. Many of them, gluttons for punishment, audition season after season, even make it to training camp repeatedly, and don't end up on the team. For what, $150 and some free hairspray?
Correction, Nov. 24, 2010: Because of an editing error, this article originally stated that the Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend instead of Thursday. (Return to the corrected sentence.)