The images I’ve included in this newsletter are by the incredible National Geographic photographer Robert Clark. Almost 30 years ago he documented the lives of high school football players for the book Friday Night Lights. More shots here.
Alright, let’s get to it.
The reason I have known how to correctly spell psych or psyched without fail for over 30 years (it is not syke or sike, you monsters) is because I was a cheerleader in high school. Whenever I need to spell these words, I still sing-song in my head, “P-S-Y-C-H-E-D get psyched! *clap-clap clap-clap* get psyched! *clap-clap clap-clap*” I don’t really remember how the whole cheer went (maybe that was the whole cheer?) but there are worse things to have stuck in your head for three decades than correct spelling.
When I tell people I was a cheerleader there is much shock and zero awe. It helps put the universe back in balance when I explain that cheerleaders weren’t the popular ones in our school (those would be the girl jocks), we were pretty sarcastic and cynical (aka not totes cheerful), and we once brought beer in our duffel bags to a Friday night away game. Do these sound like real cheerleaders to you? I remember cramming into a bathroom stall with my friends, trying to open one of the bottles with my teeth (so many questions about that last part—where did we get the beer? Why teeth? Why a bottle for that matter? Weren’t there cans available? God, the 80s were problematic.)
Anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about cheerleading and sports and high school over this past year. My kids are both in middle school so they are easing into the world that inexplicably seemed like it still belonged to me and my idiot friends. My daughter joined cheer last winter and my son—at 14—decided to play tackle football for the first time this fall. Neither of these decisions made sense to me. We are not a sports family. We will watch the sports but, in a tip of the hat to Seinfeld, we don’t so much do the sports. But kids are human and therefore strange, meaning they apparently make up their own minds about the myriad ways they want to fling their bodies through space.
Let’s put football to the side for now (“How refreshing!” —Culture) and focus on cheerleading. Cheerleading wasn’t considered a sport back when I was doing it and in most schools it still isn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, but cheerleading was something girls did. And whatever girls did, well, it was not to be taken seriously. Or even if it was taken seriously—like say our high school girls soccer team—it was taken less seriously relative to the the boys soccer team. What the boys did was where the bar was set, boys’ sports were real sports, and everything else was graded on a scale downward from there.
So you’d think that when I found out my daughter’s cheerleading team didn’t actually cheer for any sports but instead existed exclusively for competitions I’d be happy, right? Welllllll. I was just confused. Wasn’t the whole point of cheerleading … to lead actual cheers … for an actual sport?
I couldn’t separate what I loved about my own experience—which primarily boiled down to learning routines and practicing them, watching boys in shorts, hoping they were watching me in my short skirt, and feeling like I was a part of something bigger—from what she wanted her experience to be. Weren’t we the same?
She didn’t want to cheer for a team, full stop. She wanted to be in competitions. And when I tried to explain to her why she should want to cheer at games, I was an embarrassing out-of-step failure. I think one of my arguments was essentially “… but boys.”
“But boys” should be the title of 2018.
My existential WHAT EVEN IS CHEERLEADING inner battle felt like a little microcosm of my own contradictory opinions, experiences, and perspectives since #metoo exploded. Were boys (and men) always where the bar would be set my whole life? How have I actually supported that assumption (apologizing before stating my point of view in a meeting, standing down in work disagreements, policing my tone of voice, being in awe of ‘rock star’ male co-workers who—when I look back now—I realize were overgrown privileged babies fully encouraged to throw their overgrown baby tantrums in a way no person of color or a woman ever could. Sound familiar?)? What have I suppressed in order to go along and get along? How did I form my ideas around sex and sexuality? Didn’t I basically get all my info from … ugh … boys? (Again with the boys!) Wasn’t my entire role in sex simply to be the gatekeeper? To be sexually active enough to not be a humorless prude but also not be a totally irredeemable slut?
And this all led in one big swooping circle to: Was cheerleading fundamentally anti-feminist? If cheerleaders cheer for a sport, doesn’t it obviously and automatically elevate boys above girls, putting girls in an ever-present support role? I should also emphasize here that there were boys on my daughter’s cheer team (something that would’ve been unheard of in my rural Massachusetts town, at least not if those boys wanted to live. So didn’t this also put those boys in a support role to these other boys?)
[ ^ it me, literally]
The truth is, cheerleading is the reason my love of sports blossomed. As a kid I played catch with my dad on our front lawn, I played softball in fifth grade (terrified of the ball the entire time, let’s not get crazy with the revisionist history), and got on a tennis court whenever I could, dreaming of being the next Tracy Austin. But being on the court at basketball games or on the field at soccer matches made me feel like I had found a slot I could fit into. Sport—however you define it—is a powerful way to find your place. I suddenly belonged at my school and not just on my team.
I felt like my daughter didn’t know what she was missing, that if she just sat and watched a game she’d be sucked into the action. So when she told me that her squad had been invited to perform their routine at half-time at a varsity basketball game I was entirely too eager to go watch. This is when it’ll all fall into place for her, I thought.
I sat on hard bleachers, watching a varsity game for the first time in at least twenty-five years. It all came rushing back—the energy, the showboating, the rivalries. The chants up in the stands, the joy. The squeaking of the sneakers on the hardwood. I caught myself getting entirely too emotional about all of it. For all the hard corners and sharp edges that have been sanded off of childhood and adolescence, part of me was perversely thrilled to hear the high school fans chanting “AAAAAAIR BAAAAAALLLLL” at the opposing team when a kid missed a shot … by a lot. Teenagers are still total dicks as it turns out!
During all of the sneaker squeaking and booming voices and jump balls, the cheerleaders sat two rows behind me in the stands, killing time. They chatted and giggled, played with each other’s hair and ran through the routine verbally. None of them watched the game, not really. I tensed from head to toe overhearing comments like, “I don’t even understand what’s happening” or “I hate basketball.”
That’s when I realized it wasn’t about me needing them to cheer for a sport. It was that I needed them to not sound dumb. I needed them to take their place in the hierarchy. Because that’s what I had been taught. Didn’t they know? RULES FOR GIRLS: Know what you’re talking about. Be interested in what boys do. Don’t talk about stupid girl shit, no one wants to hear it.
They nailed their routine. They went on to win several competitions. She decided to quit cheer this summer. She tried it, she liked it, she moved on. And here I am, still wondering what might’ve been if I had been given different, better rules.
I’ll close with what this all leads to, the elevating and discounting, the believing and not believing, the doing everything in service to the boys we grew up with: “An American Tragedy.” An excerpt: “Looking back, how will we narrate these two weeks to our children, our students, our friend’s children, ourselves? How we will describe what it felt like to see Christine Blasey Ford first appear onstage, or the way she uttered the words ‘indelible to the hippocampus is laughter’? What words will we use to describe Kavanaugh’s face, his voice, his anger? Will we remember what Jeff Flake did and did not do, what Susan Collins did and did not do? Or will we remember it, as I remember the Anita Hill hearings, as a haze, a feeling, an outfit, a demeanor; that something was wrong and not enough people believed the same.”
Nothing new from me this week aside from this newsletter which in and of itself feels like a massive writing victory. Here’s one from August from McSweeney’s that still brings me a lot of pleasure because I hate Goodreads and everyone on it* (*not technically true but satisfying to say.) I am freshly bitter after reading one-star reviews of The Bright Hour, which I just finished reading two nights ago. What the fuck is wrong with people. I mean. Anyway: “If Goodreads Users Reviewed Your Life the Way They Reviewed Your Book.”
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE:
• SUPERSTITION: As a native Masshole I will always have a soft spot for Boston-flavored stories told by Bostonians in that accented and very-specific-storytelling way, especially when it comes to sports and superstition. I mean, come on. This is so good. “The Magic Nail” on The Moth.
• SCHOOL SPIRIT: A wonderful episode of the podcast Rumble Strip (based right here in Vermont) about cheerleading. A quote from one of the girls: “I always felt severely judged in middle school and it hurt and it made middle school really hard. But cheerleading was a way for me to show everybody else that I do belong somewhere.” Side note: If you’ve never been to a cheerleading competition you really should go.
• HUMOR *and* DEPRESSION: If you’ve never listened to Only A Game and you consider yourself a fan of great storytelling with even the most minor interest in sports, what are you even doing? This is so heartfelt and funny: “Comedian Gary Gulman On Depression And The Missed Block Sent By God.”
• HUMOR: This pitch perfect one from McSweeney’s “If Bostonians Loved Other Local Institutions the Way They Love Their Local Sports Franchises.”
• PRODUCT DESIGN: I was lucky enough to work on the development of the PureMove sports bra from Reebok. Not the actual design, but the strategy, positioning, naming, and initial copy. Although my naming didn’t make it through :( being a part of this project was plenty. Ask anyone who works in the athletic apparel or footwear industry—true innovations are few and far between. Most of the time you’re just moving colors and words around to convince consumers that the slightest advances are akin to discovering a new planet. Digging into the initial testing, research, prototypes and insights was a true professional highlight. (And no, this is not a #SponsoredPost). From Fast Company: “Reebok debuts a shape-shifting, NASA-inspired sports bra.”
• FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Honestly, when else am I going to have an excuse to include this? The Friday Night Lights Emmy Awards Trailer, 5 minutes of ALL THE EMOTIONS.
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