How many hours of practice does it take to become an NFL cheerleader? In Lacy Fields’ case, approximately 10,560 over 18 years. Yet after she finally accomplished that feat, joining the Oakland Raiderettes in 2013, she realized that she wouldn’t get her meager paycheck of $1,250 until the end of the season. As for the requisite travel, hair salon, makeup, tanning, and manicure costs she incurred in the meantime? She was expected to pay for them out of pocket.
That’s why just months after accomplishing her lifelong goal of dancing professionally for the NFL, Fields made a decision that permanently changed the course of her career: She filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders. That lawsuit, which resulted in a $1.25 million settlement and permanent changes to the Raiderettes’ wage structure, sparked the movement for fair treatment and pay chronicled by “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.”
Moving beyond glittering pom poms and mini-skirts, director Yu Gu introduces her documentary’s main subjects by calculating exactly how many hours went into their becoming NFL cheerleaders. It’s a subtle move that directly undercuts the callous and sexist arguments slung against them for demanding to be paid fairly for their labor, the main one being: Why should they get paid for just looking pretty?
But Gu and writer Elizabeth Ai don’t stop at cheerleading. They also showcase the ways in which women’s work generally has historically been devalued. One of the ways they do so is by showing Fields’ labor as a stay-at-home mom, caring for young children. Though there’s a clear opportunity cost for such work — namely that she has to give up dancing while her husband is away — she isn’t supposed to complain about the lack of compensation. Just like NFL cheerleaders, the film hints, stay-at-home mothers are expected to be grateful for their occupation despite the fact that they’re doing it for free.
In an interview with Women and Hollywood, Gu explained that “the cheerleaders were told that this is not a job — it’s a privilege to dance on the field, to be seen as this cultural and sexual icon.” This justification was not only repeated by NFL teams and higher-ups, but also by former cheerleaders who criticized the women pursing lawsuits. In illuminating this divide in opinions, “A Woman’s Work” asks women viewers to reflect on the ways in which they may be consciously or unconsciously upholding the patriarchal views of labor that allow such discriminatory practices.
The film was partly inspired by Gu’s own experience feeling like an outsider as a Chinese immigrant in Canada and the United States. “When Lacy first filed her lawsuit alleging that she was paid less than minimum wage,” the director explained, “I suddenly saw so many parallels with my own experience of being devalued.”
Watching “A Woman’s Work,” it’s nearly impossible to not feel a similar sense of shock and anger about the minuscule wages being paid to NFL cheerleaders — the now-disbanded Buffalo Jills didn’t receive a salary at all — and the sexist and outdated codes of conduct they are expected to comply with. Though Gu began working on the film in 2014, prior to the disruption caused by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, making its timeliness entirely coincidental, her documentary is a powerful addition to an emerging group of films and stories giving life to the fight against gender inequity and discrimination in the workplace.
“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Gu won the Emerging Filmmaker Award for Documentary Feature at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and the film also screened at Hot Docs and CAAMFest.
June 20 and 21 – AFI Docs Film Festival – Washington, D.C.
Published monthly, Under the Radar offers a chance for us to highlight works by and/or about women that haven’t received big releases or significant coverage in the press, but are wholly worthy of attention.
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