Critical Cheerleader Theory

Audrey Thompson

Although it is too late to revoke Thomasania’s M. Ed., it is not too late to do something about Mary Ann’s. She has made the mistake of deeply insulting me while still enrolled in the master’s program.

Requested and actual composite
Thomasania Leydsman’s photograph Copyright © 2002 Thomasania Leydsman

Stopping by the photocopy room where I was running off some copies yesterday, Mary Ann pulled a few strands from a pile of shredded paper in the waste can and said, “What’s this, my comps?” This was not the insult. This was just a joke. Mary Ann hasn’t been assigned her comprehensive exam questions yet. In light of the insult that followed, I am revising my ideas about suitable exam questions. “Thomasania and I were just talking about you yesterday, and how cute your new hairdo is,” said Mary Ann. “We were so surprised! Thomasania thought you looked just like a cheerleader.”

“A cheerleader!” I said. “How awful!”

“Then you may think that what I said is worse,” said Mary Ann. “I said that your new haircut looked very mainstream.”

“That is not good, but it is not worse,” I said. “Cheerleader is worse.”

“Oh,” said Mary Ann, compassion infusing her voice. “You have probably spent your whole life trying not to be a cheerleader, right?”

“I did not need to spend my whole life trying not to be a cheerleader,” I pointed out. “I am not the cheerleader type.”

Having taken the critical whiteness theory course with me last year and the critical race theory class with Octavio this year, Mary Ann claims to have learned an enormous amount about problematizing mainstream identity narratives, but the fact is that she did not, because practically the whole underlying theme of the whiteness theory course was that you could not possibly mistake me for a cheerleader. And yet Mary Ann has formed the notion that it is only through ceaseless vigilance that I have managed not to be pigeonholed as a cheerleader by one and all.

Audrey and Papa
Current haircut (Audrey with Papa Coulibaly)

This is not the first time that I have run into some version of this problem. Needless to say, I never ran into anything like it in high school, but I did run into something along these lines at the Philosophy of Education Society a few years ago, when Harvey Siegel asked me, “Audrey, how is it that you think the way you do? Your thinking seems so . . . fringy. You look like the girl next door but you don’t think like her.” Harvey does not realize that the girl next door is a feminist.

“Harvey,” I assured him, “this is how the girl next door thinks.” He did not believe me, and I see now that the problem may be the haircut. It does not exude danger. It does not say, “Comrade Thompson.”

Many of my students are amazed to discover that feminism is not another word for fascism. According to the loudest minds in the country, feminism is really just Nazi-Communism in disguise. It is surprising that there is no genre of Cold War-type spy novels featuring CIA operatives who uncover feminist plots to overturn capitalism. I am not saying that it is not our plan to overturn capitalism. That is our plan. I am just amazed that there are no paranoid spy thrillers on the subject. What I suspect is that even the most dangerous feminists are not considered all that dangerous. It is not the bombs that worry anti-feminists. It is the spiky, natural, or otherwise lawless haircuts, the sensible shoes, the lack of make-up, the rumors of bralessness. A woman I used to work with put it this way: “What bothers me,” she said, “is that they don’t accessorize.” Would it really be that big a deal, you know, to add a cute purse and a Hermes scarf to that camouflage jumpsuit?

What this kind of attitude goes to show that is that most people don’t know the first thing about feminism. Feminists are pretty much full-time accessorizers. Falling easily into the assumption that feminists are lesbians and that lesbians hate men, nervous straight men tend to equate lesbianism and feminism with not dressing to please. Believe me, lesbians dress to please. Many feminists are lesbians, although this does not mean that they hate men (naturally, exceptions will be made for the truly deserving), and many are straight; almost all are dressed to take care of business. Some are dressed to kill. The ones that you have not been worried about are the ones who are in disguise.

When Angela Davis went into hiding, she stopped wearing her Afro and put on a glamorous wig. Suddenly she no longer posed a threat, as it is a known fact that revolutionaries are neither perky nor glamorous. An equally well-known fact is that feminists are humorless. If Eve Ensler makes people laugh, it must be because the people laughing are Nazi-pinko-commie feminists themselves. It is not surprising that feminists would laugh at something that is not at all funny like that because, as we knew all along, they have no sense of humor and so are bound to get mixed up and laugh at the wrong things. Men, for example.

Many people, including men, who think that they are opposed to feminism are actually in favor of it but are confused by right-wing media propaganda.

Although my father helped to rear two feminist daughters, he was shocked to learn that we are feminists. Not that we had ever hidden it from him, but he hadn’t noticed, partly because he had gotten the idea that feminists spend all their time trying to take over men’s restrooms. This is what comes of watching too many episodes of Home Improvement and relying on U.S. News & World Report for your political information. While visiting Mom and Dad in Louisville some years ago, I said something about being a feminist and Dad said in shocked tones, “You’re a feminist?”

“Yes,” I told him. “Surely you knew that.”

“What is more,” interjected Mom, who is never loath to take things up to the next level, “your wife and younger daughter and daughter-in-law are also feminists.”

All of you are feminists?” said Dad. “But I hate feminists!”

“Too bad,” I said. “You shouldn’t have expected us to think for ourselves, then.”

Ivan never likes the way I tell this story, although I tell it exactly the way it happened. When I remind him of this, he objects that it should not have happened that way. “What about me — why wasn’t I mentioned?” he demands. “I’m a feminist. If daughters-in-law were mentioned, why weren’t sons-in-law?” But I can’t rewrite history.

Years earlier, I had shocked Dad by speaking out in favor of women keeping their names after marriage. Dad was against the practice, as were my grandparents. According to Grandpa, the only woman who should keep her own name after marriage was Elizabeth Taylor, and that was a special case. A few hours after this conversation, Dad asked Phyllis if she planned to keep her own name after marriage. Phyllis, who was about nineteen and breathlessly looking forward to marriage with Chuck, said earnestly, “Oh no! I plan to take Chuck’s name!”

“Here it comes,” I thought gloomily, “a little fatherly lecture on Phyllis having the right idea and how all women should take their husbands’ names upon marriage.”

“Hm. It’ll be funny, having two Chucks in the family,” said Dad.

I can’t say that my father’s confusion about feminism had anything to do with haircuts. In my case, perhaps he was misled by my personality. Equating feminism with militant manhating, he must have had a hard time seeing how someone as demure as myself can be a feminist.

You have to be careful about taking haircuts literally. A couple of days ago, I was next door, taking pictures of Woody with his new purple ball, when Kanyon and Rayn started banging on the window and waving. A minute later they came rushing to the front door. “Do you want me to take pictures of you too?” I asked. Yes, they said, because they had just had their hair cut. Also, could they then see the pictures right away in the camera’s digital memory?

So I took pictures, and they looked very darling, or at least they did when they weren’t looking goofy. But a haircut is not a window to the soul. For example, you can’t tell by looking at her haircut, but Kanyon is a born leader. You could definitely tell this if you lived next door. On the weekends, there are seven children next door, because there are five more living in the downstairs apartment; even without seeing them, you would always know which one is Kanyon. When I hear her voice boom out commands, I say to Ivan, “That’s the colonel.” Her voice reminds me of my grandfather’s. When he was in the hospital, they had him rooming with a major. About every ten minutes, Grandpa would say, “Major, do you think you could open the window?” “Major, what about turning down that television?” “Major, why don’t you see about getting a nurse in here?” After two days of non-stop commands, the major told him, “Colonel, you’re a born leader.”

Rayn and Kanyon
Rayn and Kanyon

Still, there’s something to be said for photographic evidence. There’s a photo my parents took of me when I was four, dressed up in winter tights and a hula skirt for Fasching. If you compare it with the photograph of my niece, Annika, wearing her hula skirt, also in February in a cold climate, albeit indoors, you cannot help but notice that one of us is demure and one of us is not. Given my father’s confusion about the nature of feminism, it is not surprising that he mistook my retiring nature for complacency.
Audrey the hula-hula girl Annika the hula-hula girl

None of this is of any help in the here and now, though. However unrelated my haircuts may have been to my father’s feminist confusion, it is obvious that other people are getting misled by my hair style. What is frustrating is that I just barely got this hair style. I have only had a total of four different hairstyles in my life, one for each decade that I have had discernible hair; I could have sworn that none of the haircuts was in what you could call a cheerleader style. Looking at pictures of us, some people have even thought that Barb and Chuck and I were all boys. Of course, some people will think anything.

Audrey, Barb and Chuck
Audrey, Barbie and Chucky

Given this, perhaps it is not surprising that Thomasania and Mary Ann confused me with a cheerleader. They should not have done so and I hold it against them, but these things happen.

I don’t mean to slight cheerleaders. My mother was a cheerleader in her youth.
How chunky is your chicken?
Mom is third from the left

Some of my best friends used to be Homecoming Queen and Reina de la Primavera and cheerleaders and members of pompom squads, although it’s true that I only met them after they had reformed. I am not allowed to tell you who they are or show any of their pictures, I’m afraid. There are a lot of them, however.

On the other hand, one of my friends used to be a thug and I am allowed to show you his picture. I only met him after he reformed, too. I must say, he has a very nice haircut. A nice fade. Kind of edgy.

Matt the thug

The thing is, though, that I myself was never a cheerleader or a thug, and I don’t see why I should be mistaken for one. It seems very unfair.

It could be that confusing me with cheerleaders is just a peculiarity of Mary Ann’s and Thomasania’s. Faulty perception, you know. Mary Ann has a history of that, come to think of it. I first met Mary Ann ten or twelve years ago; we were talking about feminism with two other teachers over dinner. The other two women were from Utah; Mary Ann is from New York; I was fresh from the Midwest. “Oh!” Mary Ann said to me all of a sudden. “You have the cutest accent!” Yet it is well known that Midwesterners have no accent at all. And if we did have an accent, it would not be cute. It would be serious.

Obviously, I have just been too sweet and easy-going over the last couple of decades or so. It is very misleading and has led people to think of me as docile and cheerleaderish. Although my mother-in-law did not find me cheerleaderish, she did find me annoyingly cheerful and namby-pamby. She put a good deal of effort into trying to wear me down. When she finally succeeded and I said, “Naomi, if that’s how you want it done, why don’t you just do it yourself?” she was deeply satisfied. “Finally!” she said — “some spirit!” Cheerleaders have lots of spirit, of course, but that is not the kind that Naomi meant. She had in mind the kind of spirit that has you dialing your state’s U.S. Senator on a regular basis to get him or her to take care of anything that seems not to be getting done. When Ivan was in Vietnam, he got a direct order from the captain relayed to him from Congressman Bob Michel. “Troop,” said the captain, “write to your mother.” Naomi was not the kind of person to take things lying down.

Neither am I, but apparently I give the impression that I am. I’m going to have to crack down.

The first thing I am going to do is to assign Mary Ann some very, very heavy duty comps questions. They are not going to be on research she has already studied. They are going to be on the newly emerging field of Critical Cheerleader Theory. If that doesn’t do the trick, I am going to have to get a new haircut.

Luckily, I have some excellent role models.
Chuck with green hair
Copyright © 2002 Charles E. Thompson III
Copyright © 2002 Cris Mayo


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