Free to Be! Rah! Rah!

Nov 29 2010 Published by under Feminist Musings

For the last few days up to 14 members of my family have been living under my roof. Blogging, obviously, took a back burner to other things. Like the back burner where the gravy simmered.

I have not been completely out-of-touch with the internet, and I listened to our local NPR station Friday morning while I got dressed.  Allison Keyes interviewed the science cheerleaders, a group receiving considerable attention among the science bloggeratti.

Public Enemy or Public Service?

I came of age with Title IX, when girls could play sports, not merely wave pom poms. Teen magazines had moved beyond articles asking if you should beat your boyfriend at tennis; if you could, you should!

Of course, I am not exactly an athlete. My prowess would not have helped any team at my school. I was a cheerleader, though.

Flexible enough to do the splits, athletic enough to turn a cartwheel, and rhythmic enough to clap in time. Oh, add an extroverted streak that made standing in front of a crowd, trying to organize their frenzied shouts into a coherent message of school spirit, a dream-come-true.

I guess I should also add other experiences to my list now. I did some modelling in my teen years for local stores and photography studios. My decidedly average height and short legs precluded a career on the catwalk, but I loved fashion and the discount that came with these efforts. I also entered teen queen contests. No bathing suits, but I sang and danced and wore evening gowns and proclaimed my desire for World Peace in hopes of winning scholarships for my higher education.

A lot of my classmates doubted I would become a scientist or physician simply because I was interested in fashion and shoes and looking pretty. The 4.0 average and other scholarly awards meant little if my mind could be distracted by a sparkly dress. You had to choose sides back then: beauty queen or scholar, housewife or career.

To me, the ultimate goal of feminism should be the freedom to be who we are. Should women have to shave their legs? NO- but they can if they want. Should female participation be limited to the sidelines of athletic fields? NO- but we can still have cheerleaders.

Ultimately, the goal of the science cheerleaders is to break down stereotypes:

And the beauty of this campaign, which, you know, is surprising to me, is the level of complexity. So while it seems so simple and fluffy, oh, isn't that neat, there's a bunch of cheerleaders cheering for science. Then you start to find out that they are scientists and engineers cheering for science and that becomes the first layer where people start to dig deeper.

And some people feel that this is a campaign that strives to change the stereotypes of cheerleaders, and that's fine - or change the stereotypes of scientists, and that's a different perspective.

All in all, though, it is about empowering young women to realize that they can follow both of these dreams and the fact that there are 1.5 million little cheerleaders out there, this has the potential to be a very effective campaign in enlightening them and opening up doors that they may not have seen as viable to them.

Full transcript here.

I have a niece who is one of those little cheerleaders. If the science cheerleaders get her to consider a career option in STEM (or something besides Disney Princess), I'm all for it.

We need science cheerleaders AND geeky scientists. We need role models for every girl and boy out there.

We should all be free to be who we are, contradictions and all. We should all be free to move beyond stereotypes that limit our potential in life.

Now that is something to cheer about.

4 responses so far

  • Great post, Pascale. I think this perspective on the issue is much better received when it comes from someone that isn't male 😉

  • becca says:

    Pascale, I think you are generally awesome. I think it's awesome there are scientists who are also cheerleaders (assuming we're going to have cheerleaders at all, some should obviously be scientists).

    However, I can't shake the feeling that using cheerleaders, even science cheerleaders, to break down stereotypes is like using a shoe to cut a pumpkin pie. Wrong tool for the job.

    (Also, using cheesy mighty-morphin-power-ranger-esque moves to pretend to do martial arts in a semi-animated sequence about bustin up the stereotypes is irony in its deepest and most hilarious form. )

  • FrauTech says:

    I just don't think it's commendable as science outreach. Yes you were pretty, yes you probably had to hide your intelligence from your peers sometimes (that's not just a female thing). But to paraphrase what I've said elsewhere...

    What dismays is this is telling little girls (or me, the adult who still feels like a little girl sometimes) that our number one priority is to be a conventionally attractive female. Yes we can do science (who said we can't?) but our number one priority is to be pretty. So long as we're hot it's okay we can go be physicists or marines or whatever. I respect people who did cheer in high school or wherever else. Personally I was in band. But I don't think all of us former band geeks should make a "marching band for science." That makes about as much sense as this does. This doesn't teach little girls anything about science or why it's awesome. I guess it tells a few of them who are conventionally pretty that it's also ok for them to be a scientist and engineer and they don't have to trade in their pretty credentials or anything.

    But it doesn't tell little girls they can be whatever they want to be. Yes you can do science and still be pretty and feminine. But you darn well better be pretty and feminine, because that's society's number one requirement for you. It doesn't really show these women doing science, or what makes science cool (as opposed to what makes cheerleading cool). Just seeing these women fills me with a kind of a body shame I shouldn't have to feel if I'm just reading about science outreach. Because if I don't fit the standards of beauty, I probably shouldn't be working in a male dominated industry. Which is what STEM continues to be.

    So yeah, it's outreach, but it's not science outreach. So no I don't hate them for doing this or anything. But I'm tired of being reminded that above all my body is an object for men to admire(or criticize). A man doing science is just a man. No one questions his manliness when he puts on a lab coat instead of a football uniform. Society doesn't expect him to wear a tight shirt to get people's attention about his science. He doesn't have to dance or play a trombone or sing. He just is a scientist. But for a woman it's different. And this campaign fulfills all the patriarchal requirements. So yes it's getting attention, on science blogs, on ESPN...but is it getting little girls' attention? Are we convincing girls they can be scientists with this and what about the boys who see this? Are they more likely to to respect their classmates for having an interest in science or math or are they still growing up "expecting" conventional femininity even from their scientific colleagues?

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I am not suggesting that we all must be hot professional cheerleader types; merely that wanting to be a cheerleader (or other feminine archetype) does not preclude a woman from pursuing intellectual dreams as well.
    Little girls get the message to be cute/pretty early in life. Until we change that bit of socialization, I want to make sure that they don't also get the message that interest in science, math, and other male-dominated pursuits is incompatible with femininity- because it is not. That is the real beauty of the science cheerleaders for me.

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