NFL Cheerleaders Fight for Labor Rights in ‘Women’s Work’

That’s the question at the center of A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, a documentary directed by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yu Gu, which chronicles two cheerleaders’ fight for good. wages and working conditions in the male-dominated industry.

In 2014, Oakland Raiderette Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields sued her team for violating labor laws, including paying her and her teammates less than minimum wage ($1,250 for the entire season , or only $125 per game) and the inability to pay for legal or public practices. appearance. That same year, another entertainer, Maria Pinzone of the Buffalo Jills, filed a lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills, alleging poor working conditions. Gu followed the women for years as they faced social ridicule, workplace exclusion, and gender roles.

A Woman’s Work, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and airs tonight on PBS, delivers an endlessly compelling story that challenges audiences to rethink their assumptions about actors. but also in women’s work in the workplace and at home. And although some positive changes have been made since the beginning of the movie (such as the Raiderettes changing their contracts to comply with labor laws and California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez creating special laws to protect professional sports ), Gu cautions that there is still much work to be done. done.

“The journeys these women took were not accidental,” Gu said. “They came from a history and a lineage of struggling women.” spoke to Gu about the making of the documentary and the connections between all American entertainment leaders and labor movements.

Read on for the full interview and be sure to tune in to A Woman’s Work as part of PBS’ Independent Lens show tonight, January 4, at 10 p.m. ET.

How did you first hear about what was happening to these NFL cheerleaders? And what was your reaction?

I first read about Lacy’s lawsuit against the Raiders in a 2014 LA Times article by Robin Abcarian, a long-time writer on women’s issues. At that time, I had just graduated from USC’s film school in L. To see also : Photos: Week 9 Chiefs Cheerleaders vs Carolina Panthers.A., and I developed this passion and love for football. Not only the game itself, but the story and culture surrounding the game.

I loved watching Friday Night Lights. I really enjoyed watching a football movie—like that story of the underdog, that story of someone who came from nothing and could become a champion and bring glory and fortune. in his village. And, of course, all the stories were centered on men and mostly disadvantaged African-American women who were brought into this kind of system and branded with the idea that, “This is your opportunity, this is your opportunity.” now. .”

It was interesting, because I was at USC, and USC’s football coach at the time, Pete Carroll, was aggressively recruiting from the South L.A. community. in the school. So there are many interesting ways that football legends shine a light on American history and the humanities of wealth and class.

Something that was very interesting to me as someone who immigrated to this country. I was born in China and grew up in Canada, and I didn’t really know anything about football until I came here. When I read the story about the Lacy trial in 2014, it was an amazing and personal window for me to delve into this kind of American history and see how these stories have affected men and women in this world dominated by men.

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You’ve previously talked about football as a metaphor for the American Dream, given its intense and competitive nature. How did you reconcile the All-American cheerleader trope within this larger picture of labor struggle?

I think it helped a lot not to grow up with football and love it. I think for most Americans, it’s a religion, right? It’s something you were born with. Most people become fans of certain teams because their parents watched them from a young age and it has always been a part of their lives. This may interest you : Matthew McConaughey ‘joins’ Jay-Z and Jeff Bezos’ joint bid for NFL’s Commanders. For me, as someone coming at it from an outsider’s point of view, the only knowledge I’ve had is in film and Hollywood, and I’m someone who doesn’t all that is the truth. It’s more about the people who created these stories and thoughts, and why these people serve in great American history.

It’s common to think about leadership interests and the rights of co-workers. When we were making this film, my team and I did a lot of research to look at the history of the women’s wave, as well as the history of the NFL and football itself. And if you look at that history, it’s really tied to work. I think the trick is to find ways to show that in the film.

Some of the interesting things we found in our research are not in the picture, for example, a group of 1960s Las Vegas showgirls together. They were complaining about the same things that some of these fans are complaining about in 2014 and later, the theft of salaries, no breaks, four Poor wages, no childcare. All of these are issues that women have faced since the beginning of women working.

I guess I didn’t have a taboo in my mind, like, “Oh, well, these women are doing it for show, trying to be pretty,” or whatever. I realized that the importance of women in the workplace is often tied to women’s bodies and that gender roles are diminished.

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Those taboos you mention are also shown in the documentary. There’s a part in the film where some Buffalo Bills fans say that the cheerleaders aren’t good role models or that their work isn’t real labor. Why do you think this sentiment seems to persist?

It’s a combination of a few different things. Number one, the nature of their work—the way it’s marketed and presented by the team they’re working with—means it looks effortless. See the article : Photos: NFL Cheerleaders Best Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Shots. If you look at some of their handbooks, like Lacy’s Raiderettes handbook, they have a rule that whenever she goes out, even to the store, she has to be fully clothed. There is a concerted effort to portray these women as perfect people who are naturally special and beautiful and athletic and talented.

Another part of this type of feminism is taking women’s work for granted. It is normal for women to become mothers. It is normal for them to do homework. This is a common misconception of this type of work.

Lacy Thibodeaux and pom poms at night.

And, I think it’s also related to the rape culture. A few years ago, a man who shot a group of people at UC Santa Barbara, wrote this statement that, as a man, he should be loved by women, and he was very angry. he and they do not offer themselves. he. That’s the idea that women’s sex, women’s love, women’s attention–they’re usually due to men. It should be free. And I think that’s kind of the same thing that some women like this attitude are like, “They’re just there. They have to be there. I have to get them for free. So, why should you pay them? Why should there be a price assigned to this?”

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A compelling part of the documentary is when some former Raiderettes at a reunion talk about the lawsuit with what could be perceived as resentment. Can you talk about the fears or complicated feelings you may have encountered with other cheerleaders as the suit went on?

It was great to meet the older generation of fans at that Reiderettes reunion in Las Vegas. There were happy leaders from the 60s, 80s, and 90s who have been dating for over thirty years. It was a special time in their lives that they formed these relationships with people, but since then, they have been working on other jobs. Some had families. They moved to different places. But they had this unique experience that it was almost as if they went to war together and no one else understood what they were going through except them.

I think that being in Lacy’s trial to bring this whole experience out in a public way, and then have some of the media and the public react in a very disrespectful way—I think there was an element of shame, but also a response, “No, we want to protect this. This is something we loved and we still love, and we want to protect it. So it was in In a way, they felt like these women were responsible for dragging their names and their influence and the team’s reputation into the dirt.

I also think that – according to Jills claim, and when Maria went to talk to some of the women who might be members of the class, because of a trial – it was very difficult because of the controversial nature of the how the claim was processed. Not long after Maria and other women filed the lawsuit, the Buffalo Bills and Jills management decided to end the team. In local media, headlines like, “Buffalo Jills lawsuit shuts down incoming Jills team.” So the blame was placed on the women who spoke, instead of placing the responsibility on the team itself. Most of the women who were practicing and would be able to perform were not able to get the opportunity. That created division and anger between them, and when it came time to choose the class inside or outside, that became a contentious issue.

In the film, some of the women that Maria talked to do not know what to do, because of their loyalty and their sense of doing the right thing. They felt like their decision could harm their community. It was interesting to hear that thought process, because, again, a lot of it is not, “What should I do for what’s right for me?” Like, “How should I make this decision so it doesn’t hurt other women, the friendships I’ve built, and this community I’ve found?” I have a lot of love for that. I think that’s what happens in women’s minds. We don’t just think about what’s best for ourselves. Sometimes, that’s a double-edged sword, but, on the other hand, I don’t think it’s a mistake or a bad thing.

That reminds me of the part in the documentary when Lacy says, “All I do all day is take care of other people.” That’s also something that’s shown throughout the film, as the women deal with the progression of these different lawsuits but also take care of their families. There’s also a domestic aspect to it. How did you decide to show those things, and how does it relate to the title, A Woman’s Work?

It’s funny, because the title has stuck with the film since we wrote the first treatment to ask for funding. Coming into it, I knew it would be about this particular job of being an entertainer as well as women’s rights in the workplace in general. I didn’t want to just make a film about cheerleaders or a film about women in the world of football. It’s really about looking at women’s work and women’s work, whether in their work or outside of their work. I think any woman will tell you that it is not so easy. It’s not just, “This is my one job, I’m going to come home and I’m not going to do anything else, all my time is all my time.” Even if you have the most amazing job, you are doing your job, but you are also struggling to change the world around you, to change your workplace, to change your business. You are also trying to uplift others at the same time. You are also trying to provide for your family. That is the true nature of women’s work. This is a multifaceted experience. While we were making the film, we wanted to look at the history of women in the workforce and give it a unique perspective. These women’s trip came suddenly. They came from a history and lineage of struggling women.

Much of the litigation that took place was before the Me Too movement gained traction in mainstream spaces. Then, at the end of the documentary, we see that many other lawsuits were beginning to take shape within different cheerleading and dance teams. What was it like for you to witness that shift?

Going into it, we didn’t know the Me Too movement was going to happen. I think for a long time, Lacy and Maria and some of the women felt like they were alone in some ways. They are all spread across the country. Each team has different contracts. The only thing they have in common is the fact that their wages are low and they do poorly at work, but there is no common knowledge.

When Me Too hit, it was just wonderful to open up opportunities. I think we saw this new wave of women in 2018, including Bailey Davis and the Houston Texans fans. There was a sense of hope that their judgments and what they did would be an empty experience that would continue. I think that was very liberating and reassuring and satisfying for Lacy and Maria to see it continue. With every wave of women standing up, you push a little harder, you create a little more space for open dialogue and answers.

However, even now, as we share our trailer for the PBS broadcast and read some of the latest social media coverage—obviously, I know social media isn’t the be all, end all—but there’s still this sense of guilt. . There is the idea that, “If you agree to do this work for free or for a low wage, you will surely be used by powerful companies. Leaving These kinds of things are still common. I think there will be more work and more unity to open the floodgates.

It’s been six years since you first started working on A Woman’s Work and more than a year since it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. What do you think has changed or hasn’t changed in terms of working conditions for these cheerleaders?

Many teams, in response to the Me Too movement and some serious sexual harassment that has become part of the NFL, are trying to suppress the sexuality of these women, from changing their uniforms to . fewer species include male dancers. I guess they are trying to restore the image of the fans, which I feel is misrepresented and misrepresented. Instead of just listening to the needs of women to make their workplaces better, they are making changes to combat the problem and not really helps to solve the problem.

And, you have this past season during the pandemic, which is crazy for all businesses and workplaces around the world. Almost every team auditioned and picked a cheerleader, but they decided, “Okay, it’s just going to be the seniors and the returning cheerleaders.” join our team.” They were not allowed to be in a stadium, but they were brought into the stadium and they had to perform in another area on the sidelines.

On Thanksgiving Day, there was a full halftime show with Dallas Cowboys fans, and they wore masks. There are many cases of the coronavirus among the players and the team, but there is no information or clarity on how the players are doing. Are they even being tested? Are they following the team’s COVID instructions? There is no information about that. So I think it’s clear that these entertainers need better protection in the workplace. The league hasn’t changed yet.

I am in contact with a former cheerleader who runs the Pro Cheerleading Podcast, which really helps build community and the consensus on what kinds of things these women want for themselves and their workplaces. He did a different study where he looked at the differences in both NFL and NBA teams. I also think about the tribal violence in the summer, all these things have encouraged women to reconsider their silence on these issues and to reach out to their communities and make changes in a positive way for themselves. .

This media culture has been here in the professional entertainment world for a long time. I think it comes from the deliberate direction, the way the women were handled in the handbooks and the level of control the team had over their careers and their outside lives. of work. But now, there is this collective desire to destroy that culture of fear. This is very good, and this is a very important step towards achieving more unity and taking action together.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

As an associate editor at, Chelsey keeps a finger on the pulse on all things news. He also writes on social activism, connecting with activists who lead the fight for workers’ rights, climate justice, and more. There is no internet, he is probably spending a lot of time on TikTok, watching Emma again (the 2020 version, of course), or buying another corset.

Are NFL cheerleaders independent contractors?

Fans are considered independent contractors, and as such, the NFL is not required to pay operating expenses, such as game-day uniforms. .


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