In Defense of Cheerleaders
This topic has been on my mind for awhile, especially since I started reading blogs reacting negatively against my friends the Science Cheerleaders. As usual, I'll be taking a different tack with this than some others like my e-buddy Andrea Kuszewski, who's an actual scientist. I'm the marketing guy/go-fer for SciCheer, an English major. This is my view from the gopher hole.
The title of this essay is likely to raise hackles with one or two of my readers (and I still love all 20 of you who take the time). After all, cheerleaders "have it all," as Science Cheerleader Summer put it to me: the looks and the brains.
My own contact with cheerleaders in high school was sporadic. I had a few in my classes over the years. And while they were easy on the eyes, I was hard on the ears, and therefore dated none of them. I didn't take it personally. I took bullying by the football players they were cheering on a little more personally, but I got over it. I was a member in good standing with the Last Kid Picked for Kickball Club, Local 708. That doesn't mean I couldn't respect what athletic or attractive people could do on the football field. I suspect some of that old high school resentment fuels much of the anti-SciCheer feeling.
And of course there's old-school feminism, which says that "Looks shouldn't matter. By focusing on their looks, you're objectifying women and setting unrealistic expectations for girls who are not similarly endowed." Okay, fine: the Good Lord didn't distribute symmetrical features, energetic metabolisms, excellent coordination, and the rest equally. But these women didn't HAVE to become cheerleaders. Given the course loads required for a lot of the subjects they're taking (or did take), cheerleading is probably more of a hassle than a benefit. I mentioned in a previous entry how many times these ladies work out during a season. They became cheerleaders because they liked to dance and perform. And yes, part of that performance often includes a little teasing of the males of the species. That is still legal, last time I looked.
I think some folks are missing the point of this exercise. The goal is not to make science-minded girls into cheerleaders (though they're most certainly welcome to try); the goal is to make scientists and engineers out of cheerleaders: get them thinking about more than just looking pretty and being in shape. Just as smart folks have some stereotypes about cheerleaders and athletes, so too do those folks have stereotypes about geeks (I know: you're utterly shocked). As Darlene noted, there's a perception among the general public that female scientists are "pale, frumpy lab rats" or just a drag at parties (I'm thinking Daria). Maybe these pretty ladies who dig science don't want to give up their mascara.
Another thing I like about cheerleaders is that they are optimists. They have to be, either by inclination or training (try being upbeat if your team is getting their butts kicked for four quarters). I read somewhere that anyone who was an optimist must be an idiot because the world is in such a sorry state, the optimist must not get it, is clueless, etc. That, too, strikes me as a very intellectual attitude. The assumption that optimism = cluelessness overlooks the emotional effort involved in keeping a positive attitude despite it all. Darlene, the original Science Cheerleader, is optimistic by nature, but she's taking on serious problems, like the lack of scientific literacy or public engagement in scientific or technical issues. Such problems have a long-term impact on the nation's educational and economic future, and yes, it's very easy to become pessimistic in the face of that. To which Dar, the optimist, would say, "Yes, BUT..." and then point to her Science Cheerleader web site and the performing team she's created and cheer, "Goooo, science!"
So it's not just a matter of Dar and the Science Cheerleaders "sexing up" science, but perhaps that they also are doing so happily, cheerfully, optimistically--and some folks just don't like that. They were pessimistic in their youth, and the relentless cheerfulness of cheerleaders bugged them back in the day. Now they're Serious Professionals, and the cheerleaders still bug them. And what's worse, now the cheerleaders want IN to their world (see also Legally Blonde with the delightful Reese Witherspoon). How dare they!?
Pessimism has infiltrated much of our scientific and technical culture, and I'm not immune by any means. Advances continue in this country, but they are often met with environmental or cultural doomsayers ("It will disrupt the habitat of the Lesser Patagonian Trivit!" "The government can do it better." "It costs too much!" "It has a .0000001% chance of causing cancer!" "The Chinese can do it cheaper!" "We don't have a procedure for that." "That's too far away!" "We already tried that, it will never work." "It will only benefit the rich." "It's too dangerous!" Et cetera). Optimists assume they can do things, play to win, and actively seek solutions to the "no-win scenario."
I say let the optimists and the cheerleaders in. They could only brighten up the place.
Dar, being the optimist that she is, did point out to me that most of the articles and blogs we've seen re: the Science Cheerleaders have been overwhelmingly positive. And she is, of course, quite correct. Bad habit I picked up as a kid. Get four A's and a B on the report card and hear "What'd you get the B in, son?" enough, and these things happen. I'd have to dig around some more, but my guess is that the two negative posts Andrea found are among the rare few. And if you get an attaboy (or, I guess in the Science Cheerleaders' case, attagirls) from CNN, you must be doing something right. Far be it for me to rain on the parade.