Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google. Read the transcript below.

I know that there’s this culture and this iconic view of this organization. But if you take a step back, I think that we are all desensitized to it.

Sarah Clay Long

The cheerleaders shot to fame in the seventies, in large part, as eye candy for male football fans. There was an undeniable sexuality in their performance, even as the Cowboys sold them as wholesome and all-American. In this episode, we look at how swimsuit calendars and clickbait slideshows ramped up the sexualization of the cheerleaders in media, and talk to former cheerleaders who experienced that attention in different ways. They have always been more than eye candy, but will the culture appreciate the rest of what they bring to the field?

You can dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection. You’ll find videos and news stories, including a Vanity Fair exposé on cheerleading in the NFL, and Pamela Colloff’s 2005 Texas Monthly cover story on a backlash to cheerleading in Texas.

Thanks to Bill Zeeble for additional production on this episode. Footage from the Cowboys cheerleaders’ swimsuit calendar documentary is from ESPN and is housed at the Internet Archive.

America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J. K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton.

Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.


Fan: “Reporting live from AT&T Stadium, this is gonna be a disaster today.”

I’ve been watching the cheerleaders since I was five, but I’d actually never seen them live. Until late last year.

Sarah Hepola: And walking around today, it’s like you can feel . . .

Fan: “Go Cowboys!”

Sarah Hepola: . . . this energy of this place bringing people together.

It was at a Cowboys game, against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sarah Hepola: Finally, I’m going in.

This was in the thick of the pandemic, and the NFL had a rule that cheerleaders couldn’t be on the field. But the Cowboys wanted to make sure the cheerleaders could still perform, so they put them on stages behind each end zone, right next to the seats. Actually, right next to my seat. There was nobody sitting between me and the cheerleaders. And it was kind of a revelation.

From the moment they walked out and “Welcome to the Jungle” came up on the sound system, they didn’t stop moving. They swayed their hips and flicked their long hair. Their shaking pom-poms sounded like a rattlesnake ready to strike.

The game was happening down on the field, but I couldn’t stop gawking at the cheerleaders. Maybe I had always done this. But sitting that close to them—without a video screen between us—it also felt a little weird. Maybe because the dances are kind of flirtatious. It took me by surprise, because it was like, after all these years I’d spent staring at the cheerleaders . . . they were suddenly able to stare back. Each time one of them made eye contact with me, I felt like I’d been busted. 

The game was pretty amazing. The Cowboys won. At one point, I got so swept up in the excitement of a touchdown by CeeDee Lamb, I actually stood up. 

Sarah Hepola: Okay, so I just got out of the stadium.

But it was the experience of watching the cheerleaders up close that stayed with me.

Sarah Hepola: And they were so beautiful! I feel like I should have a more descriptive word for it. But the way they move is so beautiful. And I’m really struck by the marvel of their bodies, you know? And it’s that weird thing about women’s bodies where you want to look at them. But you don’t want to look too much. And so you look away. But you don’t want to insult them by not looking at them. And then you’ve been looking too long. And now you’ve been ogling them. And it’s that really tricky thing—what do you do about the beauty of a woman’s body?

A year later, I’m still asking that question. It’s on my mind every time I sit here in my recording studio—which is actually my closet—looking at the photos of these women that I’ve pinned to the wall. This tension was there early on. It’s what Dee Brock knew when she first hatched the idea of a sexy new uniform: she told me she wanted those women to show off their bodies.

It was there when Texie Waterman described what she was looking for at those early tryouts.

And it’s what pro football is grappling with today, as NFL cheerleading squads move away from the hot pants and cleavage that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders introduced, and as pro cheerleading becomes more athletic and less about looking a certain way.

The question of what we want little girls to become is fraught. Was embracing your sex appeal savvy or vapid? Was it dangerous to encourage girls to flaunt their own bodies, or was it a sign of progress and power? We don’t all agree on what a strong woman looks like, but the way you answer that question may change how you see those cheerleaders. 

This is America’s Girls, from Texas Monthly. I’m Sarah Hepola. Episode seven: “All-American Sexy Girls.

Sex has been a part of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders brand since the original seven debuted in 1972. And it might be the part people think of first. I was reminded of that when I was talking with Jia Tolentino. She’s a writer for the New Yorker and a best-selling author, and she grew up in Houston. Before we spoke, I sent her a bunch of pictures of the Cowboys cheerleaders through the years.

Sarah Hepola: So, like, I don’t know if you got a chance to look at those photos.

Jia Tolentino: Yeah.

Sarah Hepola: I wondered what went through your head as you were looking at them.

Jia Tolentino: Okay. So just pure word association.

Sarah Hepola: Great.

Jia Tolentino: Okay. Let’s see, like Baywatch, flight attendant, Wonder Woman, rodeo queen, stripper. Like that was . . .

Sarah Hepola: Beautiful.

I’d asked a number of people to play that word association game, and Jia’s list struck me as very on-point.

Jia Tolentino: I think about them in tandem with the Farrah Fawcett poster where she’s in the red bathing suit and her hair is tossed to the side. Like something that is just burned into your mind as a landmark in the pop sexualization of women. And I think I also vaguely associated Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders a little bit with the mainstreaming of strip club culture in a lot of ways.

A lot of the cheerleaders’ current and former leaders will be horrified to hear that. I think of Debbie Bond Hansen, the assistant director through the eighties, who went sneaking around Dallas strip clubs just to see if a particular cheerleader candidate was working there. That’s how important it was not to have that kind of girl on the squad.

But the cheerleaders are a jumble of contradictions. Kind of like the place they came from.

Even in Jia’s hometown of Houston, a four-hour drive from Dallas Cowboys country, the Cowboys cheerleaders reigned supreme. 

Jia Tolentino: I think there was a dress-up day at my school in fifth grade and girls would come in Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ outfits, you know? And it was just this kind of vague emblem of an extremely Texas thing of spangle and blue and white and big hair and big boobs, fake eyelashes, the whole thing.

Texas has a way of shaping little girls. It’s not as though kids in other states don’t dress up as cheerleaders, or bedazzle their wardrobe, it’s just that little girls in Texas do it so much.

Jia Tolentino: If you’re a girl in Texas, the likelihood of you being thrust toward dance or pageant or big hair, there’s so many women who have been prepped for this.

It’s no coincidence that a lot of hugely popular female entertainers grew up in Texas, working small venues, rodeo shows, talent contests, and beauty pageants. Kelly Clarkson, Kacey Musgraves, Selena Gomez, Beyoncé. And Demi Lovato, whose mother, Dianna de la Garza, was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. The push toward beauty and performance is pretty powerful in this place.

Jia Tolentino: I know, yeah. I learned to put my face on honestly at age six.

Sarah Hepola: Oh. I loved makeup so much.

Jia Tolentino: Me too.

For Jia, it wasn’t just Texas steering her this way. It was her evangelical high school, where she became a cheerleader.

Jia Tolentino: I just remember, because I loved it, I was always on the brink, I had so many conflicting feelings about cheerleading all the time. 

This is why I’d wanted to talk to her—I’d read a piece she wrote once about being a high school cheerleader. It was such a beautiful story about that complicated jumble, of being part of something sacred and profane at once. Something that brought her joy but also made her wary. 

Jia Tolentino: Like, I took such an almost animal pleasure in being on the football field every Friday at sunset and just feeling like I was drifting into the wind. Like, I can still very much feel exactly what the lights and the band off that way and all of us standing in a line with our hands clasped behind our back and the megaphones in front of us and the pom-poms below the megaphones, and there’s whistles and there’s all of this ritualized violence on the field, and you can feel your ponytail flapping in the breeze like a horse’s tail. And yeah, there was just this absolutely almost transcendence.

The way she describes this, it sounds to me almost like a religious experience. But her private Christian school was about a different kind of religion. It was a place of abstinence pledges, purity rings, and strict dress codes. 

Jia Tolentino: Like, my skirt was always too short and I would get in trouble and I would get detention, they would make you kneel on the ground to see if your fingertips were longer than your skirt and all of this stuff that I found incredibly offensive. But on game days, every time there was a game we were cheering for, we were required to wear our uniforms to school. And our uniforms were very, very small, they were the Bring It On uniforms, like short sleeves, skintight, really short skirt hiding nothing. You’d walk up the stairs and everyone could see your underwear.

So on those game days, she’d wear pajama pants under her uniform.

Jia Tolentino: You know, it was cold! Texas keeps every indoor building at sixty degrees anyway, and so I was always wearing a blanket, wearing my pajama pants, and I would always get in trouble. So on days when I wasn’t wearing the uniform, I would get in trouble for showing too much skin, and then on days where I was wearing my pajama pants under my cheerleading uniform, I would get in trouble for not showing the uniform.

I remember the dress code at my conservative public high school in Dallas. Skirts had to be within two inches of the knees, and if they thought a girl was offsides, they’d send her to the assistant principal, who pulled out a ruler.

Jia Tolentino: You know, it was so clear that what we want from women showing their bodies is so context dependent, it has nothing to do with any real logic. It bothered me that I was supposed to sexualize myself on game days and not allowed to any other days. And it was very clear, it was like, “Okay. I’m supposed to be appropriately decorative in service of men’s sports.” But as far as how I felt about the uniform, when I wasn’t at school, I loved it.

Jia told me she liked how the uniform looked, and felt. And even though it was revealing, she also said she felt kind of hidden—like the uniform was a disguise she could step in and out of. People would look at her and only see the role she was playing, and there was freedom in that.

Jia Tolentino: But there was something particular about being a teenage girl at a conservative Christian school where everything that was demanded of us was purity, and no one was admitting that what they were simultaneously demanding of us was sexualization.

I wondered what the Cowboys cheerleaders thought about this question too. But when I first started talking to them, I was surprised by how many didn’t see their uniform as provocative. These were cheerleaders from the aughts, and they’d say, “I don’t really think about being sexy. I think the uniform is just normal.” But I mean, their official pantyhose are sold at Hooters—a cheerleader from the aughts told me that’s where she went to buy them, from a vending machine in the back. And yet, they’re not sexy? I kept wondering: Did the cheerleaders just not want to go there with me? Or had skimpy uniforms and thumping dance moves been part of the culture so long that their sexiness had become invisible to them?

The cheerleaders’ raciest era was probably the aughts. It was a decade of visible thongs and Victoria’s Secret angels and pole-dancing classes. Compared to everything else happening in the culture at the time, maybe that uniform was normal.

But cheerleaders didn’t just appear in uniforms. The Cowboys released a swimsuit calendar each year. I remember seeing those calendars on display tables at Barnes & Noble, next to Sports Illustrated pinups and Far Side desk calendars.

The Cowboys cheerleaders say they were the first NFL squad to sell swimsuit calendars. The next evolution of this merchandising came in the late nineties, when sports channels began airing behind-the-scenes specials. It’s wild to watch the products I’d only seen in bookstores brought to life on sandy beaches with crashing waves and women in tiny bikinis. It turned the flat office calendar into a frolicking beach adventure. Here’s director Kelli Finglass, in a special that aired on ESPN. 

Kelli Finglass: “Well, being the 2000 calendar, we really wanted this year’s calendar to be special. We wanted it to be classy and elegant, and to expose the cheerleaders as the premier group of women in all sports.”

And the Cowboys kept right on exposing those cheerleaders. They filmed their own making-of DVD. At one point, a few lucky fans could even buy their own tickets to the swimsuit shoots—for 6,999 dollars you could enjoy a three-day trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico, for an exclusive look at the making of the calendar.

Amber Gosdin, a cheerleader you heard from in the last episode, went to Mexico for two swimsuit calendar shoots in the mid-aughts.

Amber Gosdin: My first one was in Cozumel. My second calendar shoot was in Cabo San Lucas. And that was incredible. I mean, we were on top of Pedregal, in this beautiful, beautiful, I mean, multimillion-dollar home, all these, I mean, Picassos hanging on the walls, pools that dropped off into waterfalls over this big mountain. It was gorgeous.

Like a lot of young women growing up in the eighties, Amber had swimsuit models on her bedroom wall as a girl, and getting to pose in a calendar of her own was something like a dream.

Amber Gosdin: I mean, it was the best time having someone dote all over you and do your makeup and do your hair, one little hair out of the way. It’s fun. It’s fun to feel like that for a little bit.

It was 2003, and she’d just rejoined the squad after a few years away. When she first auditioned, she hadn’t even finished high school. Now she’d graduated from SMU, she was twenty-five, she was much more self-confident, and she’d finally been picked to appear in the swimsuit calendar.

The Cowboys put out a making-of DVD from that shoot, and you can watch Amber by a pool that overlooks the ocean. She’s posing in stilettos and a white swimsuit that kind of criss-crosses over her tan stomach. She looks amazing. 

And the shot of Amber they picked for the calendar is . . . striking.

Amber Gosdin: It was actually pretty random because we had shot at this house all day, and then the one of, I guess that was the makeup artist, David. He was like, “Look at those guys over there. Over there on the beach,” and there was this kind of big tank truck and he goes, “This has to be a cool shoot.” I saw him over there whispering to Kelli. And I see them kind of game planning. And here we go, we go over there and do this kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-our pants photo shot. And that’s the one that made the calendar.

Amber’s in that white swimsuit, flanked by men in fatigues carrying automatic weapons. The first time I saw it, I thought these were soldiers headed to Iraq, since 2003 was the start of that war and the height of a certain post-9/11 patriotism—but they’re actually Mexican federales. 

Amber Gosdin: I’m a very feminine person, so it was very hard for me to see that was my calendar shot. I just looked very Rambo-ish, kind of. And it was very intense and I’m like, “I just wanted to be feminine and pretty.”

The next year, Amber’s swimsuit photo was exactly that. She liked it so much she got her own copy of it blown up to poster size. She keeps it in her attic these days, but she got it out to show me. She’s lying on her stomach in a white and black bikini, resting her elbows on the sand and her cleavage front and center. If you told me that was a professional swimsuit model, I would have believed you. 

Sarah Hepola: We talked about this being sort of like the realization of a dream and to be beautiful and sexy and I think a lot of women share that. And then I wonder, I’m thinking about like, the rule book and how you dress and different. . . . Was there ever any part of you that felt like you were only allowed to be sexualized during certain times and not others? 

Amber Gosdin: I guess I never really felt, I mean I felt beautiful during calendar shoots and things like that, but I never really felt sexualized. I really always felt all-American.

“I felt all-American.” Hearing Amber say that, I immediately thought of Texie Waterman, at the tryouts in 1976, when a reporter asked what she was looking for and she said . . .

Texie Waterman: We’re looking for an all-American, sexy girl.

“Sexy” was a core part of the identity, but maybe it was a little tricky to own. I never heard Kelli Finglass use that word with reporters. She said “classy and elegant.” But the sexiness is unmistakable. I have a copy of the making-of DVD from Amber’s shoot. On the cover, it shows a cheerleader tugging down the side of her bikini bottom with a smoldering look on her face. A friend of mine saw that DVD at my house, and he asked if it was porn, even though the title said “America’s Sweethearts.”

Amber does remember situations when being a cheerleader felt uncomfortable, but she doesn’t blame the Cowboys.

Amber Gosdin: I never felt oversexualized by the organization. Not even in this swimsuit calendar. I don’t know why, but . . . That’s when I started to feel dirty and I would get very, like if a man were to come up and say something sexual, that’s when I, all of a sudden, it would snap me out of character. One time we were doing a player intro line and there was a photographer and I looked down and saw that part of my breast, my areola was out, and he started taking pictures of it. He was from another, he was not our team photographer. All I had to do was go and get my security officer. And I told him, and he went over there and took the camera and took the film out. They don’t want anything out there like that. They were very protective of the image to keep it all-American. 

While most cheerleaders I talked to felt this way, I did meet one who has a very different perspective. More after this. . . . 

I met a cheerleader named Sarah Clay Long. She made the squad in 2007. She was excited at first. But something happened while she was on the squad that really changed her perspective. She came to my place to talk.

[door opens]

Sarah Hepola: Okay, come on in . . . so we’re gonna do the interview down here…

Sarah grew up in Houston, and she lives in Dallas now with her husband and four children. She told me she started dancing at a young age. Her mom taught drill team.

Sarah Clay Long: And so I lived in the studio. I was there at least four or five nights a week. That’s what my life kind of revolved around. It was an identity that I took on and I know that that’s probably the case for a lot of young girls in Texas.

Like the football players, the cheerleaders have recruiters who keep an eye out for beautiful and talented dancers across Texas. 

Sarah Clay Long: And when I was a senior in high school, I had done really well at a competition. And because of that was given a letter requesting that I come and audition for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

A few years later, she tried out. On her second attempt, she made the team. It was 2007.

On my coffee table, I’d set out pictures from her two seasons with the cheerleaders. I’d found them on the internet.

Sarah Hepola: By the way, you might have noticed—

Sarah Clay Long: I see this.

Sarah Hepola: I know. It’s been waiting for you.

Sarah Clay Long: I haven’t flipped through them, but I see that top one.

Sarah Hepola: Yes. We have some pictures for you to look through.

Sarah Clay Long: Look at that. I know. I remember the first thing I yelled. I can’t believe I said it, but the first thing I yelled was, oh my gosh, my boobs, they don’t look like that.

Sarah Hepola: What do you mean?

Sarah Clay Long: Or like, I just have never done this with them. And we have this Victoria’s Secret bra, push-up bra, that we dye blue and then tie the shirt through the front and then pull it. It squeezes the goods together apparently. And so I saw this and was like, oh my.

The Cowboys have a partnership with Victoria’s Secret, and in 2012 AT&T Stadium became the first professional sports stadium to have a Victoria’s Secret store in it. There’s a clear overlap between Victoria’s Secret models and the cheerleaders, but unlike those sultry angels, the cheerleaders had to maintain an appearance of sweetness and wholesomeness. Sarah told me it wasn’t an act.

Sarah Clay Long: So I think the first thing that really surprised me was just the authenticity of most of the women there. And there’s a lot of good that can come out of it. You can make someone’s day or visit someone in a nursing home or in a hospital, and that just brings them a lot of joy, that was just really, really sweet.

But while Sarah was still in training camp, she was having a hard time at home. And she didn’t want to get into specifics.

Sarah Clay Long: But there was a lot of hurt and there was a lot of pain for me. And to mask that I really just entered into a time of partying, of drinking. And yeah, that was probably a good two years of my life where I just didn’t want to feel anything.

One night, she goes out drinking with friends, and drives herself home. She was hesitant to share this part of her story. She really hates that she did this. But that’s when she gets pulled over. She takes a breathalyzer test and fails it.

And she’s arrested, and taken to jail. That’s where she had an experience that changed her life.

Sarah Clay Long: I was sitting in a jail cell and just felt the presence of God just go, are you done running? Are you done? And so I was really wrestling with just questioning who I am, questioning choices that I’ve made. You know, am I doing the right thing with my life?

She stopped hanging out with the college friends she’d partied with. She started going to a church, where she found a new community and purpose. 

Sarah Clay Long: And so that was a huge part of my story, but that happened simultaneously as I was a rookie on the DCC.

Along with her constant cheerleader practices, she’s going to church—twice on Sundays. And over the next year, she starts to see the uniforms and the performances in a very different way.

Sarah Clay Long: That old self to me was just this desire to be somebody. And man, it’s just vanity.

Even on the goodwill trips to nursing homes and hospitals—as much as she feels called to help, she realizes, she doesn’t want to be in that uniform while she does it.

Sarah Clay Long: Just wanted to love on and care for and minister to these people. And it was really hard to do that just being so exposed.

One day her dad was in the stands, and doing those sexy dances in front of him—it was just weird. 

It’s like the sexual tease, the inherent provocativeness of the role she was playing, suddenly became visible to her.

Sarah Clay Long: And just remember, my dad was so excited that I was a cheerleader. And they had tickets and I just remember the dance that we were doing in front of my dad. And I just felt like, man, this is . . . just feels wrong. 

And it wasn’t just dancing for her dad that made her uncomfortable.

Sarah Clay Long: It was very awkward to have a male who is there with his family or something and wanting a picture with you. And you know that his wife is right here. Like, I know that there’s this culture and this iconic views of this organization. But if you take a step back, I think that we are all desensitized to it.

Not everyone was desensitized to this. In 2005, a group of Texas lawmakers introduced a bill—nicknamed the “booty bill”—aimed at what they perceived to be a hypersexualized culture that had trickled down into the way girls dressed and moved on cheer squads, marching bands, and drill teams. It didn’t pass, but it reflected a growing concern over how girls behave and dress. In the years that followed, cheer schools started banning the bare midriffs that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders made popular.

I spoke to a lot of cheerleaders who describe themselves as Christian, but they never had a problem with the uniform. Sarah’s the only cheerleader I met who did such a 180 while she was on the squad. And what’s fascinating about her transformation is that suddenly she saw the uniform—and even the nature of the cheerleaders’ work—with the critical eye that a lot of people outside the squad share. And not just conservatives anymore, but progressives too.

Sarah Clay Long: So, yes, I want little girls to have dreams, but I especially want my children, my daughters, but my sons also to know that they’re so much more than just what they look like.

But just as these tensions were coming to a head for Sarah, she got an invitation she wasn’t expecting. She was chosen to pose for the squad’s swimsuit calendar.

Sarah Clay Long: So I did have a meeting with a staff person and just say, you know, I am concerned about this. I’m not sure I should go on the trip. Anyways what was told to me was like, oh, that’s, that’s cute and don’t worry about it. Just go have a good time, take pictures for yourself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you know. And so I did.

Sarah tried to make the best of the situation. She lounged on the sand in a red bikini, with her dark hair long and loose. But inside she was struggling: should she be doing this?

Sarah knows a lot of women would have been thrilled to have this opportunity—but for her it was a breaking point.

Sarah Clay Long: There’s more than just what you see on the calendar. There are real lives and real women and real hearts and real concerns and real disappointments and real wins and stuff behind that picture.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders swimsuit calendars gave rise to a whole industry across the NFL.

Other teams followed the Cowboys’ lead and sold videos documenting the shoots. Each of them were ramping up the sex. It was at another calendar shoot—around the same time Sarah was posing for the Cowboys—that another team went way too far.

It was in Aruba, in 2008, where cheerleaders for the Washington Football Team were posing for their calendar. 

Like the Cowboys, Washington put its cheerleaders in fancy swimsuits, in a dream setting. You can see it in the video they released, where cheerleaders pose on the sand, and against the crashing waves of the surf.

But the team’s staff cut another video with that footage that they didn’t release publicly. According to people interviewed by the Washington Post, this cut was for senior management.

The Washington Post’s sources alleged that team employees were told, by someone high in the organization, to cut together moments where the cameras caught cheerleaders uncovered by their swimsuits. Two years later, the team did it again.

According to a former producer in the team’s broadcast department, those videos were for Washington owner Dan Snyder. Washington staff denied the allegations, and Snyder told the Post he hadn’t asked for or seen the videos. He said he wasn’t even aware of them. 

But images like this also seem to have been passed around. An investigation revealed that someone sent a picture of topless Washington cheerleaders to NFL coach Jon Gruden—who didn’t even work for Washington.

And this kind of creepy voyeurism likely went back decades. In the early eighties, someone allegedly put a peephole in the locker room of the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleaders, so that visiting players could spy on the cheerleaders while they changed. It was apparently an open secret among football players who visited the Philadelphia stadium—it went on for almost twenty years, until news reports and a lawsuit finally brought it to an end.

But the past two decades have made a low-key voyeurism even easier, in clickbait slideshows and videos of “the hottest cheerleaders,” all over the internet. 

And then there’s the Jumbotron at AT&T Stadium. When the Cowboys opened the stadium in 2009, it was the biggest high-definition video board in the world. The screens are 160 feet wide and 72 feet tall.

Sharon Grigsby: I can tell you this. Most anyone I’ve ever talked to who goes to the game, ends up watching the game on the Jumbotron. 

This is Sharon Grigsby. She’s the metro columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

Sharon Grigsby: We’re not talking about a big screen at the end of the stadium. We are talking about something that goes almost from end zone to end zone.

The board really lets you see the action on the field, but between plays, with the cheerleaders up there—the effect isn’t subtle. Sharon heard about it from a friend of hers, the late Dallas journalist and author Karen Blumenthal.

Sharon Grigsby: She had some concerns about what she and her husband had come to call the breast board at Cowboys Stadium.

And Sharon went to see for herself.

Sharon Grigsby: And what I saw was shots where the camera is positioned on the field and shooting up on an individual cheerleader to the point that there was very little that was not revealed. In other words, it’s one thing to see breasts and tight-fitting clothes and slinky outfits when they’re down on the field, but when they’re blown up that large, in Karen’s mind, that was on the edge of pornographic.

TV sports had invented “honey shots,” but now you could get them live in the stadium too. One guy I spoke to about this said it was like the entire stadium getting a lap dance.

Sharon Grigsby: And I saw guys with their cell phones photographing what was on the big screen, and you could see them enlarging further various close crotch or breast shots of the women. I did come away feeling that there was an exploitative piece to what the video crew was doing with those women.

Sharon’s impression was that a lot of fans just ignored the cheerleaders. And then some fans treated them with this uncomfortable fixation. She wrote about this in a column that ran in 2019.

Sharon Grigsby: The column said that for all that women should have pride in our bodies, we should feel that empowerment, we do have to balance that against how systems and institutions can exploit our appearances, our bodies for men’s pleasure. 

But the piece was more about the latest version of that old tension that’s been with the cheerleaders from the beginning. A woman owning her sexuality was empowering, but a woman’s body used for men’s pleasure was seen as exploitation.

In her column, Sharon called the squad, quote, “a twentieth-century throwback dragged into a new era that doesn’t want or need them.”

Sharon Grigsby: I’ve been a columnist a long time, and so I know what hits people’s hot buttons. And I knew people had really strong opinions about the cheerleaders. And I have to say this exceeded all of my worst expectations. [laughs]

She got about as much hate mail for this story as she’s ever gotten. She got dragged on Twitter for days. That column came out more than two years ago, but she still gets nasty letters. 

Sharon Grigsby: It’s interesting. One segment of the people, that die-hard, “Oh, she’s writing negative about beautiful women, so she’s got to be jealous, an old fogy.” And so there was all of that. Then there was the young women who were like, immediately wanted to equate my column with, “That’s like blaming women for rape if they get drunk.”

But she says her discomfort with the cheerleaders’ uniforms was rooted in her own experience of being harassed at work.

Sharon Grigsby: In those years, ’75 to ’80, there were a lot of women I know who felt that in the workplace, our bodies were personal property of the men who worked alongside us. There’s no doubt that imprinted for me a discomfort with the fact that women were in such scantily clad outfits for men’s enjoyment. 

But one wrinkle here is that—probably now more than ever—the cheerleaders aren’t just there for men’s enjoyment. Thanks to their reality show, and their social media lives, the cheerleaders have a huge following among women.

I talked about this with one of them.

Sarah Hepola: When did you first see the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and what did you think of them?

Paige Skinner: I have no idea. That’s like asking me when I first saw the grass.

Paige Skinner is a big fan of the squad, and she’s a journalist in Dallas. Over the last few years, she’s covered the Cowboys cheerleaders more than probably anyone else.

She has a family connection to the cheerleaders’ history: her dad, Greg Skinner, is the guy you heard earlier in the series, who was there at the Cotton Bowl for the Bubbles Cash game.

But Paige came to love the cheerleaders on her own, as a teenager on her high school drill team in the mid-2000s.

Sarah Hepola: What was it that appealed to you?

Paige Skinner: It showed that dancing was a real sport and it actually was hard and that these women should be taken seriously as athletes and performers. And I think I related to it because my drill team director was a lot like Kelli Finglass, very tough and didn’t like excuses.

She isn’t just a fan. She’s interviewed cheerleaders and written deeply reported pieces about fair pay, and race, and sexual harassment—all the complications of modern NFL cheerleading. She has strong feelings about the problems in pro cheer. But she did not agree with Sharon.

Paige Skinner: Well, when I read Sharon’s piece, I was infuriated because just because some things are wrong, doesn’t mean the entire thing has to be shut down. And she implied that the women were there for the male gaze, which was definitely how it started. But I think the women have taken it back and are there because they want to be. And then she essentially, I felt, victim-blamed the women for the way the men in the stands were treating them. If anything, the problem is the fans, and how they’re treating the cheerleaders.

This was such an interesting shift to me. Back in the early days, the idea that men would be titillated by the cheerleaders was part of the game plan. But in a #metoo era, that idea had become problematic.

Paige Skinner: One NFL cheerleader told me that if she thinks about it too long she’ll go crazy, but essentially how many men have touched her ass at corporate events. And so I think that’s just another level of harassment these women go through. And I think it goes back to, in my opinion, men need to change.

What Paige has seen up close in her own reporting is how precarious the situation is today for pro cheerleaders. Sharon told me she never actually thought the Cowboys would get rid of their cheerleaders. But Paige has seen teams shut down their squads after cheerleaders came forward to complain about being harassed and exploited. We’ll hear her talk about that more next week.

But I had to wonder. Is the behavior of 80,000 fans something a team can realistically police? Is there a future where a stadium of people can look up at those women on the video board and appreciate their performance? Because what they bring to the game—it’s a lot more than shaking their pom-poms.

Paige Skinner: It’s been ten years since I last did a jump split and I still have to wake up in the middle of the night and pop my hip back into place. It’s an incredibly difficult thing that they’re doing. And these women wouldn’t train their entire lives just to shake their ass on the field. It’s complicated choreography and complicated dance training, and they are the best of the best.

There’s another important distinction here. Paige told me she’d actually never been to a Cowboys game. She’s not a football fan. She mostly knew the cheerleaders from the reality show, where they were portrayed in one way, while a stadium of sports fans might see them another way. It’s confusing. What those cheerleaders mean, and how they’re seen—it really depends on the context. 

Sharon actually quoted me in her Dallas Morning News column. We’re friends, and she knew I’d grown up loving the cheerleaders. I told her then that when I was young and my dad would watch football, the only place I’d see myself was in those beautiful girls on the sidelines. But I also told her, “We don’t need that place anymore. We have other places in sports.” 

And I’m not sure I believe that anymore. Because while it’s true that women have made tremendous strides in sports, it’s also true that’s not my passion. What I love is watching women dance. I love their bodies, which are beautiful, and I love their graceful feminine energy on that field where men smash into each other. And I’m not convinced we have to lose that in order for other women to rise in the games where they bring their own excellence. But the politics of this are complicated.

I think it’s hard to “own your sexuality,” as the saying goes, because sexuality is something that is shared, and who knows what someone else will do with it? 

Women’s bodies have tremendous power. The sexuality they exude brings up questions I can’t possibly solve about how our culture sees women, how we value women, what we want from women.

And while sex can be both easily commodified and painfully repressed—and the cheerleaders have done plenty of both in their time—it’s also a life force that cannot be denied. And when I find myself unable to take my eyes off those women as they dance—that’s what I see.