Gender, power, and performance : representations of cheerleaders in American culture
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This dissertation reveals that the various, often conflicting media representations of cheerleaders are responsible for the many ways gender and power are refracted through the lens of American popular culture and on the bodies of American youth. Beginning in the circumscribed nineteenth century world of elite male privilege, the history of cheerleading is intimately connected to the discourse of masculinity in America. It is not until almost one hundred years after the activity’s birth that its primary narrative changes from one of masculinity to one of power. This project calls attention to the ways in which sociohistoric context impacts representations of cheerleaders. My interdisciplinary project draws on sources from the popular press; children’s, adult, and mainstream literature, film, and television; material culture; and interviews with cheerleaders themselves; and engages with existing cheerleading scholarship as well as literary criticism and feminist scholarship. Each chapter interrogates a different, related trend in the cultural representation of cheerleaders, including: competing narratives of victimization, im/perfection, and popularity; a third wave feminist vision of gendered superpower; prescriptions of beauty and behavior; pornography and its connection to the professionalization of cheer; and the performance of representation by actual cheerleaders. Taken together, these chapters trace patterns of representation, fraught with nuance and complexity, to provide a picture of a shifting cultural icon whose relationship to larger social movements is often reciprocal and who challenges societal expectations of gender and generation over three centuries.
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