Concession stand workers can often make more than just team cheerleaders for the National Football League.
The pay gap is the subject of a new documentary called “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.” PBS’s Lens Independent Films airs on Mondays.
The pay gap came to light in 2014 after a series of lawsuits filed by cheerleaders alleging they were underpaid and sexually harassed. Filmmaker Yu Gu follows the story of Maria Pinzone, former cheerleader for Buffalo Bill Jills, and Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, former cheerleader for the Los Angeles Raiderettes.
Gu, who was born in China, said he came to the US as an immigrant with high hopes of equality in democracy.
So when Gu arrived as a student at the University of Southern California and heard about Thibodeaux-Fields’ “shocking” lawsuit claiming the cheerleaders were being paid less than minimum wage, Gu was confused. He said he was immediately intrigued by the story.
“Just looking at this kind of extreme inequality is something that really piques my interest,” he said. “I want to dig deeper.”
Thibodeaux-Fields filed the lawsuit a week before Super Bowl XLVIII, Gu said. The NFL is trying to make a distinction about cheerleading salaries, saying each team is responsible for paying cheerleaders, not the league. The move was an attempt to “get rid of the responsibility,” Gu said.
In 2014, the average NFL player salary was about $420,000 a year, and mascots could earn up to $65,000 a year. A Raiderette cheerleader averages just $1,250 a year, according to the documentary.
The pay doesn’t match the work done: Soccer cheerleaders can spend more than 60 to 70 hours a week working on behalf of the team.
The NFL team acted as if the cheerleading role was an “invaluable benefit” and “women should feel lucky to have this opportunity to cheer [and] be part of this very meaningful organization,” Gu said.
The team rotates cheerleading as “not a job” but rather an act of charity to give back to your team and community, says Gu. Many fans carried the same sentiment, he said.
Ultimately, the fight over fair pay has shed light on perceptions of what cheerleaders represent. A fan in the documentary said cheerleading is not a good example for young girls, especially when it comes to body image.
“I don’t agree with the image that many of these NFL cheerleaders portray,” said a female fan in the film.
Throughout “A Woman’s Work,” Gu demonstrates the connection between low wages and how society views cheerleaders. While the lawsuits prompted some to question the relevance of cheerleading, Gu said they still remain a big part of the sport’s team.
“I think part of that is if this team is going to hire women, hire these cheerleaders, they have to be treated fairly,” he said. “And also, I think the women themselves need to be empowered to really develop their role, to develop their industry and even some kind of creative aspect of who they are and how they are marketed.”
He argues the problem goes back to how society views sexuality and the female body as well.
“I think right now, in terms of rape culture [and] toxic masculinity, I think there’s an idea that men are only entitled to women’s bodies and their affection, and their beauty should be given [and] should be free,” Gu said.
The documentary also explores the often unrecognized and often unrecognized roles of gender and female workers, such as parenting. Gu hopes that showing films about the invisible work that many women do can help “revive” respect and dignity for what “women’s work” means.
So far, there have been professional and former cheerleaders who have seen the film and feel it is a reflection of their experience, she said. They feel empowered to change the narrative of who they are and what they stand for.
“They’re not just there to be seen and not heard,” he said. “They have a voice. They have an opinion.”
Some former cheerleaders still have criticism over lawsuits and the fight for fair pay. But Gu hopes that after seeing the film, they will rethink their stance and find “it’s not impossible to like your experience as a cheerleader and also be treated fairly, get paid fairly, and have a safer workplace.”
Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This segment airs on January 1, 2021.
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