NFL cheerleaders: Gratuitous sexism or all-American fun?

Story highlights

  • Cheerleaders have been involved in the NFL since 1954
  • They were first introduced as part of the Baltimore Colts marching band
  • The Minnesota Vikings are one of 26 NFL teams with cheerleading squads
  • Kaylee and Missy have both been Vikings cheerleaders for the last five years

Bright eyes, sparkling white teeth, big hair and barely covered breasts, these are the women whose gyrating hips bring a hint of glamor to National Football League fields from New England to California.

The antithesis of the man-mountains they cheer on from the side lines, cheerleaders are the apple pie served up alongside the rib-eye steak of the NFL.

"It's entertainment, it's Hollywood, its spectacle," Joanne Gerstner, a past president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, told CNN.

The stop-start nature of American Football -- there are many breaks in play with games lasting up to three hours -- provides the opportunity for these pompom-wielding women to help keep fans' eyes fixed on the field.

"I think it's everyone's dream, if you're a dancer, to pursue that passion at a professional level," Missy Mooty, a 26-year-old member of the Minnesota Vikings cheerleading squad, or MVC, told CNN ahead of a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Wembley in October.

"This is the time of my life that it worked out, it happened to be a dream that came true so it was a great next step in my dance career."

Moving the 2022 Qatar World Cup

    Just Watched

    Moving the 2022 Qatar World Cup

Moving the 2022 Qatar World Cup 01:22
NFL sibling rivalry: Manning vs. Manning

    Just Watched

    NFL sibling rivalry: Manning vs. Manning

NFL sibling rivalry: Manning vs. Manning 02:03
NFL's pink sales under scrutiny

    Just Watched

    NFL's pink sales under scrutiny

NFL's pink sales under scrutiny 01:04

Blog: Redskins -- racist or sporting exception?

Mooty and fellow MVC member Kaylee Munson are paid by the Vikings, but not enough to make a living, meaning cheerleading is combined with a career, full-time studies or balanced with family responsibilities.

"We like to say it's a part-time job, full-time commitment," said Munson, who works as a nurse in schools, teaching kids about healthy living.

Cheerleading first came to the NFL in 1954, when they were premiered by the Baltimore Colts as part of the team's marching band.

The spectacle snowballed and now most self-respecting NFL franchises wouldn't be seen dead without cheerleaders -- 26 of the 32 current NFL franchises have squads.

Munson and Mooty have been dancing all their lives, taking the well-trodden path into the NFL through high-school and college dancing or by competing with a studio.

"I had always danced growing up, so I thought maybe I would try out for the Vikings to expand on my dance career," said Munson. "So I gave it a shot, I tried out and made it my first year which was very exciting."

The skimpy attire a cheerleader is required to wear is water off a duck's back for two women with dancing backgrounds who work hard to sculpt and tone their bodies.

"In the culture of the dance world, that's just kind of the uniform," said Mooty. "We need to be able to move and our bodies, our lines, need to be defined ... (the uniform) can be very sporty and be very flattering."

"Of course, my grandma just loves our costume," adds Munson. "She thinks it's the cutest darn thing ever and loves the sparkles on it. Everyone has a different point of view."

Blog: Why the clocks never go back in U.S. sport

Many cheerleaders also pride themselves on the work they do with their local communities, while some, like the New Orleans Saints demand the women have public speaking skills as well as dance technique.

But a harsher view of the cheerleading industry is that women dancing on the fringes of competitive sport is an echo from an age of sexism and misogyny.

"When the whole essence of your job is basically hanging out in a tiny bikini and a bandeau top, it kind of undercuts the rest of your argument that you are a well-rounded person," said Gerstner, who is also professor of media & sports at the University of Michigan.

A video released by the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad showing women in bikinis dancing to Robin Thicke's blurred lines with the team's mascot "TD" arguably supports Gerstner's view.

"It's almost like in Paris, having the dancing girls doing the cancan while the guillotine is going down," added Gerstner, who views cheerleading as accessorizing women.

Mooty and Munson remain undeterred and as cheerleading enters its seventh decade in the NFL, it shows no signs of kicking off its cowboy boots and calling it a day.

"Cheerleading has a long tradition in the majority of American sports at both professional and amateur levels," NFL head of communications David Tossell told CNN.

"Cheerleaders are part of American football culture from youth leagues to the NFL and are part of the game day experience for our fans."

The question of whether that culture is one that degrades women is one which hangs over cheerleaders like Mooty and Munson.

Blog: The naked truth -- how close is too close?

Many negative stereotypes surround the cheerleaders, but Mooty enjoys challenging people's preconceptions.

"I think that's a big challenge of ours to overcome," she said. "We take a lot of pride in our uniforms and we like to use them to represent the team. It's part of our team spirit and part of the experience.

"I feel that if we offer a classy and poised portrayal, then hopefully that is the way that it is received. Like anything, it's in the eye of the beholder."

While the integrity of individuals like Mooty and Munson is unquestionable, Gerstner still feels cheerleading encourages people to judge women purely on their appearance.

"They might be intelligent, grounded amazing women but we're solely left to judge them by the outside packaging, which is getting skimpier and skimpier as cheerleading evolves in the United States.

"If cheerleaders are necessary, why are there no cheerleaders for any women's sports?"

      U.S. Sport

    • SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 23:  Sidney Crosby #87 of Canada celebrates after scoring his team's second goal in the second period during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match against Sweden on Day 16 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

      With a growing audience boosted by the drama of ice hockey on show in Sochi at the Winter Olympics, can the sport capitalize on its popularity?
    • Jason Collins makes his debut on the Brooklyn Nets against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 23.

      Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in the NBA, wearing a Brooklyn Nets uniform in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

      When the Super Bowl kicks off in New Jersey, photographer John Biever was there. Just as he was for all of the 47 other Super Bowls.
    • Sergio Pinales, one of the original Compton Cricket Club players.

      A cricket club based in Compton has turned neighborhood boys into gentlemen on the pitch. CNN's Paul Vercammen reports.
    • Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

      Music is becoming an increasingly big part of sport, whether on TV or at the stadiums -- but what does it add, asks CNN's Don Riddell?
    • Robbie Rogers plays for Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer.

      What is life really like for a gay sports star after they come out? U.S. footballer Robbie Rogers tells all.