How We See Cheerleaders

From a sociological perspective, television shows and films communicate to society how we perceive those around us. Audiences watch and observe caricatures of people they recognize in their own lives. Whether it is the soccer mom, the jerk boss, or the band geeks, the characters that are displayed within the media is a direct reflection of how society is viewing certain types of people all around. A frequent character portrayed in the media is the figure of the high school cheerleader.

In the media, the cheerleaders have become a reference as to where your social status in high school was. Setting a high standard, audiences see in a majority of films and Television shows that high school cheerleaders are portrayed as pretty, socially popular, and unapproachable. In past media, cheerleaders are at the top of the high school social totem pole. As this character is commonly reoccurring in many high school films and TV shows, one can infer that there is an ounce of truth to the character or of the type of person a cheerleader is.

In Professor Ralph Whitehead’s writing about pop culture course, students compared their actual encounters with cheerleaders in their own lives. As students compared their experiences, a pattern occurred. A majority of the class expressed that the social status of cheerleaders within their own school had lowered. Varying from person to person, in general, the cheerleaders were no longer put on the social pedestal the media made them out to be.  To help the rest of the class understand their experience with the cheerleaders within their high school, some students referenced films or TV shows  to  help communicate and visualize what the cheerleaders were like in their high school. Theodora Makris, “The cheerleaders at Garden City High School are not the stereotypical cheerleaders you see in movies.” Same with Molly Dickman when she said, “I came to West Essex my sophomore year from a tiny private school and expected the cheerleaders to be the perfect, worshipped Barbies that I had seen in movies,” before adding, “To my surprise, they were just normal girls…” In addition to Dickman and Makris, one other student referenced media portrayal of cheerleaders in their memo.

One perspective was different from the others as student Jihyon Kim went to high school in a different decade from the rest of the class. Kim was an immigrant to the United States from Korea and her only understanding of cheerleaders came from what she saw in the media. In her memo, Kim even wrote, “really, my high school was just like the show Saved by the Bell.” To help the class understand what her experience in high school was like, she referenced a popular show that depicted high school life and that a majority of the class could understand. Kim mentioned that she attended high school in the 90’s and considering that the show Saved by the Bell was on air in the 90’s, Kim’s perspective is that film and media accurately portrayed what her experience with cheerleaders in high school really was.

Most of the class was born into the same generation, so the culture the class experienced was most likely the same. Everyone seemed to be familiar with the cheerleader stereotype that has been commonly portrayed in the media, however, these films and TV shows like Bring it On, The New Guy, and Saved by the Bell were all made before most of the class were in high school.  Therefore, an inference could be that the class had a preconceived notion of what a cheerleader was that differed from their actual experience, excluding Kim’s experience.

In addition to cheerleaders being at the top of the social totem pole in the media, athletes dominated the “top dog” spot as well. Usually paired with cheerleaders, the male athletes of the school were just as popular and the pairing of the two seemed to be the “correct” way of socializing within high school. The commonly known “it” couple is perceived to be the male star athlete dating the head cheerleader and is often seen in films and TV shows like Grease, Varsity Blues, and Awkward. In the popular 2006 movie John Tucker Must Die, head cheerleader Heather even says, “John and I belong together. He is the team captain and I am the head cheerleader.” Heather’s line is a direct example of how the writers of the film are interpreting the society around us. Reflecting on the collective experiences of the class, athletes continue to dominate the top of the social ladder unlike the cheerleader, and the relationship between the two seems to have diminished.

Many of the students in their memos describe the cheerleaders within their school as “normal” or “average”. Yet considering that everyone has a different perception of what normal or average is, when asked to choose a synonym for the word Makris replied with, “unremarkable”. The word “unremarkable” is the opposite of the stigma that the media has portrayed cheerleaders to be. That is the class’s reality of their experiences with cheerleaders within their high school.

It is interesting to see how society is interpreting the people around us through the medium of films and TV shows.  Within the media, cheerleaders are commonly depicted as unapproachable, “Barbie-like” girls who are atop of the social ladder in high school. In this specific situation, I think the classes’ understanding of whom a cheerleader was a preconception caused by media due to our previous exposure. Because of the media made prior to the time the majority of the class entered high school, the understanding of what a cheerleader is, most likely does not reflect how they actually are in reality. As much as we can understand how the rest of society perceives topics through the media, the only solid truth that each of us have are through our own experiences.

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