Could cheerleading be the most progressive sport in terms of gender roles? New research from the University of East Anglia indicates that the traditionally female-centered activity can help participants of both sexes challenge stereotypes about girls in sports.
The study, which was published in the journal Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, tracked the growing popularity of cheerleading in the U.K. and focused on the members of four cheerleading teams. In interviewing them about their experiences cheering, researchers found that mixed-sex teams encouraged both males and females to prioritize respect and teamwork above traditional roles — the boys put aside popular notions of masculinity for the good of the team, and the girls saw themselves as just as strong and important as the boys.
“The participants in our study talked about flipping gender norms in cheerleading,” Dr. Amy Pressland, a co-author of the study, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In other words, the female cheerleaders talked about the way in which cheerleading allowed them to challenge traditional gender stereotypes about what women can and should do physically.” And the male cheerleaders discussed prioritizing the good of the team — by wearing sparkles or performing traditionally feminine dance moves, for example — over appearing masculine. “If it was important for the team, they would do it,” says Pressland.
She also notes that there was no inappropriate sexualization among cheerleading team members: “According to our participants, it is a sport which is inclusive of multiple versions of femininity and masculinity that push the boundaries of what society sees as ‘acceptable’ for men and women.”
Dr. Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent patients in Washington, D.C., tells Yahoo Parenting that inclusive team experiences like co-ed cheer squads can benefit both boys and girls “tremendously” in terms of their own identities and confidence. “Mixed gender sports help girls and boys to do what they like as opposed to appearing ‘feminine enough’ or ‘masculine enough,’” she says. “Picking activities that meet their individual interests becomes more important.”
Co-ed teams are also great way to foster more progressive ideas about how males and females can work together in a broader sense. “In the military, mixed gender military units are thought to perform better because they are more cooperative and supportive of one another,” says Weber. “Sports that rely on cooperation — relay running, team tennis, crew or rowing, soccer — all could do well with mixed gender teammates. A healthy balance of aggression and cooperation is good in most all sports, and when both genders participate it offers this balance.”
(Photo: Corbis Images)