Why more men should become cheerleaders: It could strengthen gender relations, new study shows

After football season ended, had free afternoons and a crush on a cheerleader. So, the Indiana high school senior joined her squad. Lifting a teenage girl, he figured, must be easier than benching his one-rep max of 250 pounds.

That winter, as students swarmed the gym for the season’s first basketball game, Papp slipped into his snug purple uniform, worrying: Would people think he was girly ?

“I took a deep breath and told myself, “Okay, you’ll be fine,” recalls Papp, 28. “I was really nervous.”

But he cared more about nailing aerial stunts than wrecking his image as a tough middle linebacker. Balancing the fliers on his palms proved harder than he’d imagined. He’d worked daily to master the tricks.

His crush became a great friend. His real love, it turned out, was the sport. He is now a cheerleader for the .

“I feel closer to [the cheerleaders] than my teammates from football, baseball and rugby,” Papp said. “We go through fire together. We look out for each other.”

A curious thing happens when young men become cheerleaders: They appear to prioritize the good of the team over the way they grew up thinking guys should behave, according to a new study in the journal Sport in Society.

Troy Fleece, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.Troy Fleece, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.Male cheerleaders join Roughriders revamped sideline crew,

Co-author Amy Pressland, an education professor at the in Norwich, England, said more male cheerleaders — or men who compete alongside women, in general — could strengthen gender relations beyond the sidelines.

She doesn’t advocate total athletic integration — a 200-pound man, for example, shouldn’t be able to bulldoze an 120-pound woman in a rugby match.

Schools, however, should encourage more gender-blended sports, she argues. Girls and boys learn together in the classroom, and women and men share workplaces, but more rarely do members of the opposite sex bond together in athletic environments.

Pressland’s theory: If kids have the opportunity to compete together, regardless of gender, they get another chance to understand each other. It’s no coincidence, she said, that high school and university sports teams, often comprised of teenagers from different racial and economic backgrounds, tend to morph into tight cliques.

They made us do a bit of poms, which was embarrassing but fun … we were a couple of guys in the middle, throwing around poms!

Dividing the sexes in America’s favorite pastimes, on the other hand, conveys that differences between boys and girls are “essential” or “natural” rather than socially constructed, the paper asserts. “The reproduction of a largely misogynistic and unjust sporting and thus social culture is also facilitated through such segregative practices,” the authors wrote.

Pressland observed four British cheer squads and interviewed 10 male cheerleaders to understand how they interacted with teammates in a traditionally feminine activity. Those who identified as heterosexual didn’t see their teammates as romantic interests. They discussed learning how to better communicate with female peers to achieve physically demanding goals. They seemed to develop deep, mutual respect.

The findings, Pressland said, are worth exploring on a larger scale.

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

“Many of the young men we interviewed weren’t totally comfortable wearing sparkles or doing dance moves,” she said. “But they placed the team over gender and their worries.”

Take Richard, last name omitted, who became a cheerleader “on a dare” and told researchers he stayed for the camaraderie:

“They made us do a bit of poms, which was embarrassing but fun … we were a couple of guys in the middle, throwing around poms! Of course we made it look better, but … you know, some things which a guy naturally wouldn’t do. You look like a fool doing it, but it’s fun anyway. And I’d rather be embarrassed than let my team down.”

Melanie, another British college student, revealed male teammates stepped out of their comfort zones after some coaxing:

“A lot of boys struggle with the dance and ‘sass’ elements while girls seem to naturally like to dance and to be pretty and neat and sassy. Boys are also quite shy, I think, about doing the sassy elements. For example, we get extra points if we wink or blow kisses to the judges. So to get the boys to up their game, we’ve challenged them to a sort of competition amongst themselves, to project the most sassiness. That kind of eggs them on, there’s a good atmosphere with everyone fooling around but also trying to do better than each other.”

Of course, co-ed squads aren’t totally gender-neutral spaces. Young men in Pressland’s study justified their involvement by bragging to pals about proximity to attractive ladies, the researchers learned through interviews. Young women tried to make their male teammates more comfortable by acknowledging their strength and pumping up their egos.

The researchers remain optimistic, though. “Mixed-sex sporting activity, it is hoped, may be able to stage a counter to such socially regressive gender pedagogy,” they wrote, “by providing transformative experiences that challenge traditional ideas of male superiority.”

About Danielle Paquette, Washington Post