'America's Sweethearts' Is Surprisingly Infuriating

There is an obvious reason why the sixth episode of Netflix’s seven-part documentary America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is titled “9 to 5.” Set in the fall of 2023, it features Dolly Parton performing her hit at the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game half-time show, dressed in full cheerleader regalia. But there’s some subtext to the title as well. The theme song to Parton’s cult comedy of the same name, in which three put-upon working women kidnap their sexist, sadistic boss, “9 to 5” includes lyrics like: “Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'/ They just use your mind and they never give you credit/ It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

By this point in the series, directed and executive produced by the prolific Netflix sports documentarian Greg Whiteley, this lament has profound resonance. America’s Sweethearts is a show about women’s work and its dubious rewards. Like Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team, the long-running CMT reality show that wrapped in 2022, it follows DCC director and alum Kelli Finglass as she narrows down hundreds of talented dancers to an elite squad of 36. But in a welcome departure from its peppy predecessor, the empathetic, observant but uneven doc keeps cameras trained on the cheerleaders throughout the football season, capturing their personal lives, the sacrifices they make, and the grueling, precarious, often thankless labor of love that keeps them grinding from well before nine to way after five.

<i>America's Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders</i><span class="copyright">Netflix</span>
America's Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys CheerleadersNetflix

Whiteley makes sports documentaries that, despite their many inspiring moments, meditate on the vast distance between the American Dream of meritocracy and an American reality marked by inequality, fruitless striving, and squandered talent. From the community-college athletes of Last Chance U and Cheer to the bruise-covered gladiators of Wrestlers’ struggling Ohio Valley Wrestling, his subjects tend to be underdogs. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders seem, at first, like a departure for Whiteley; they are, after all, the most iconic cheerleading squad in the world. But they’re also female performers in an organization built to celebrate male athletes and satisfy macho fans, which means their lives are nowhere near as glamorous as they might seem.

America’s Sweethearts’ greatest contribution is to put DCC’s public profile in context. Whiteley spends plenty of time documenting the cheerleaders’ prowess and precision as athletes—the synchronization, the stamina, the painful jump splits that the squad could never consider quitting because the fans love them so much. Even if you had no prior interest in the sport, a full-length performance of their signature “Thunderstruck” routine is a marvel to behold. Yet it’s apparent throughout the series that DCC’s perfection is a product of the obsessive perfectionism imposed upon the women by Finglass, choreographer Judy Trammell, and their colleagues.

Kelli Finglass in <i>America's Sweethearts</i><span class="copyright">Netflix</span>
Kelli Finglass in America's SweetheartsNetflix

For many of the would-be cheerleaders, that means being as fastidious about their appearance and charm as they are about their dancing. Women get dinged for being too short, “too scrawny,” insufficiently toned, or lacking expert-level makeup skills. “Is that bronzer or structural?” Kelli wonders about a blemish on the forehead of a rookie at training camp who is, soon after, cut from the team. There is a lot of hand-wringing about how unforgiving DCC’s famous uniform of cropped vest, midriff top, star-spangled hot pants, and knee-high cowboy boots can be to the female form. But no one ever seems to be asking themselves why it should be the women who must change their bodies to fit that uniform, not the other way around.

A feminist-minded viewer could tie herself in knots trying to untangle the show’s—and the squad’s—gender politics, and Whiteley deserves credit for doing justice to that complexity. Everyone who makes the team is shown to be a consummate athlete, possessing remarkable skill, strength, and discipline. The line separating physical fitness, a basic job requirement, from aesthetics can be thin. And contrary to what you might expect of beautiful women competing for the male gaze of a nation, the hopefuls come off as extraordinarily kind to and supportive of one another. Yet there isn’t much institutional support for cheerleaders whose mental health or food issues are exacerbated by the stressful atmosphere of training camp. Victoria, a vulnerable second-generation DCC veteran whose unconcealed yearning for the approval of Kelli and her teammates might be just the thing that is pushing them away, has an especially frustrating arc.

Victoria, left, and her DCC alum mom, Tina, in <i>America's Sweethearts</i><span class="copyright">Netflix</span>
Victoria, left, and her DCC alum mom, Tina, in America's SweetheartsNetflix

You might protest that all professional sports make unhealthy demands of the athletes who play them; excellence has a price. While Whiteley’s editorial hand is light, America’s Sweethearts seems to anticipate this kind of pushback to its depiction of pro cheerleading as uniquely punishing work. Men may ruin their bodies playing football or be shunned by the NBA because they aren’t seven feet tall. But no one expects them to fulfill every fan’s fantasy, as sweet surrogate granddaughters to the nursing-home residents we see DCC visit, role models to the little girls who idolize them, eye candy to guys of all demographics. (Isn’t “America’s sweethearts,” which is also the squad’s nickname, just a quaint way of saying “America’s girlfriends”?)

That attention can turn terrifying. In “9 to 5,” Kelcey, a five-year veteran and the team’s most respected leader, recounts the time a stalker put an AirTag on her car so that he could track her movements. Later, a photographer gropes Sophy while she’s on the field during the game. She reacts precisely as she’s supposed to, reporting him to authorities through tears. Somehow, though, the police rarely seem to find sufficient evidence to arrest the cheerleaders’ assailants.

You’d think the Cowboys would at least compensate these performers at a level commensurate with their skills, responsibilities, and visibility. Whiteley finds that this is not the case. While the most highly paid NFL players make upwards of $50 million a year, 2022 DCC alum Kat compares her salary to that of “a Chick-fil-A worker who works full time.” Past generations earned even less—$15 or $35 per game for a role they understood as honorary. Asked about the pay issue, Charlotte Jones, the Cowboys’ chief brand officer and daughter of owner Jerry Jones, rambles condescendingly: “There’s a lot of cynicism around pay for NFL cheerleaders—as it should be. They’re not paid a lot. But the facts are, they actually don’t come here for the money. They come here for something that’s actually bigger than that to them. They have a passion for dance. There are not a lot of opportunities in the field of dance to get to perform at an elite level. It is about being a part of something bigger than themselves. It is about a sisterhood that they are able to form, about relationships that they have for the rest of their life. They have a chance to feel like they are valued, they are special, and they are making a difference. When the women come here, they find their passion and they find their purpose.”

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader hopefuls rehearse at training camp, in <i>America's Sweethearts</i><span class="copyright">Netflix</span>
Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader hopefuls rehearse at training camp, in America's SweetheartsNetflix

Low pay, long hours (at one point we’re told the cheerleaders are working for 21 straight days during a performance-packed holiday season), increased vulnerability to sexual violence, the expectation that purpose and camaraderie should make up for being woefully undervalued? If you’re familiar with the occupational hazards of women’s work, it all starts to sound pretty familiar. A portrait emerges of NFL cheerleading as the ultimate pink-collar vocation, with many of the same downsides as nursing or teaching. (It’s no surprise to learn that many of the women on the squad support themselves with day jobs in healthcare.) America’s Sweethearts doesn’t blame its subjects for accepting such poor treatment; it gently guides us to question why women who love and excel in female-dominated careers are expected to sacrifice endlessly for them.

Whiteley’s subtlety can work brilliantly, as it does in his portrayal of Finglass (who was an executive producer, along with Charlotte Jones, of Making the Team but not America’s Sweethearts), who comes off as a no-nonsense, though never fully cold, woman circumscribed by her own exacting standards. But there are moments when his approach isn’t quite so effective. Some early cuts suggest that DCC’s preferred dance styles and beauty standards put women of color at a disadvantage, though the show doesn’t spend much time getting to know the squad’s handful of nonwhite cheerleaders. The series’ scattered finale ties up the football season but doesn’t bring much thematic closure. An episode framed by a megachurch preacher’s insistence that “God loves Dallas” highlights many squad members’ Christian faith, but the connection between cheerleading and Jesus remains an unfinished thought.

By far the superior of the two series, America’s Sweethearts makes an effective coda and a sorely needed corrective to the context-free glamor of Making the Team. Freighted with family legacies, big ambitions, and uncertainty about their post-DCC futures, the young women it spotlights come off as more than photogenic bodies. At best, they’re athletes working at the apex of their sport; at worst, they’re casualties of a job market, a form of entertainment, and a society in which misogyny is so deeply ingrained, it’s often enforced by the women it oppresses. As Dolly once said about a very different sort of daily grind: What a way to make a living!

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