What I learned at TCA, Part 1: Women still fight an uphill battle

TV critics may not know what to do with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, but I do.

Back on July 13, my second day at the TCA summer press tour, I came down to the lobby of the Beverly Hilton on my way to breakfast and ran into a slew of women dressed in white hot pants and blue midriff-baring tops. Yeah, my jaw dropped a little, but partly because I saw they were all wearing matching white go-go boots and I kept thinking, "Damn, I really need to get me some of those."

Anyway, turns out these women were members of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Show Group, and they were there to do a brief performance before promoting the second season of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team. This eight-episode reality series from CMT documents the process by which thousands of hopefuls audition to become members of the famous cheerleading squad.

Unfortunately, I missed the cheerleaders’ live, in-person dance routine that was choreographed expressly for the TV critics gathered at the Beverly Hilton that morning, because I was busy interviewing the creator of the BBC America series Jekyll (more about that next week). By the time I rushed back to the press conference, my colleague Michael Jensen from AfterElton.com told me that I’d already missed the big show — the cheerleaders had come onstage, done their number, and now only a few representatives were left, answering questions from a bunch of mostly middle-aged straight white men who were obviously trying hard to project an aura of studied, critical indifference to the sight of hot girls shaking their booties at 10 in the morning.

They asked questions like the following: "What’s this sort of continuing appeal of being a part of this squad and why so many women come out and try to make it through this audition process?" (to me the answers are obvious) and made comments such as, "The press materials we have here describe — they call it the sacred try-outs and sacred blue and white uniform, which seems to be a bit much" (uh, patronizing much?).

But it became abundantly clear that the gathered critics found cheerleading to be, well, a ridiculous endeavor when Sarah Shahi, former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and currently starring in NBC’s new drama Life, arrived for her show’s press conference several days later.

During the press conference, Shahi received two questions. One was from me, in which I asked her to describe her character on the show. The other question was from a male reporter who essentially insulted her. Here’s what went down:

QUESTION: For Sarah. We had some actual Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders here a couple days ago.
SARAH SHAHI: Why?
(Laughter.)

QUESTION: It’s reality, baby. (Laughter.)
RAND RAVICH: Did you know she was a cheerleader?

QUESTION: Being a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and being even a kind of moderately successful actor seem to be kind of mutually exclusive. Can you talk about what it’s like to go from having been one to the other?
SARAH SHAHI: I draw a lot from my cheerleading days in my character, in life. (Laughter.) When I don’t hold a gun, I’m holding pom-poms. What can I say? I’m sorry, what do you want to know? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It seems like an unusual move from being one of these cheerleaders to becoming an actual real actor.
SARAH SHAHI: The cheerleaders, for me, was strictly a steppingstone. I’d heard that they had been on "SNL" back in ’95. I was a cheerleader in the ’99-2000 season, and it was my way, more or less — I thought I was going to get on "SNL" and Lorne Michaels was going to meet me and fall in love with me and I would hang out my boots forever. So it didn’t quite happen that way, but nonetheless it still led me here.

QUESTION: So did you set out to be a sketch comic?
SARAH SHAHI: No.

What that transcript doesn’t deliver is Shahi’s pointed, you-are-an-idiot tone when she said, "No." I wanted to stand up and applaud.

That panel, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders one, made me realize that women face some pretty high obstacles in the entertainment industry. When complex, older women characters are on TV shows such as Damages or The Closer, actresses face questions about why it’s taken so long for complicated older women to make it onto the small screen (or anywhere). The answer, though they rarely give it, is sexism. When young, sexy women are on TV, they’re faced with patronizing attitudes and judgements about the way they look. Why? The answer, though the question is rarely asked, is sexism.

If you’ve seen those professional cheerleading competitions on ESPN, you’ll know that cheerleading is no sport for wusses. I have no idea if the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders perform at that level, but after those panels, I’m planning to watch that CMT series. I probably wouldn’t personally get along with some of the women in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders for a variety of reasons (political, religious, fashion choices), but ultimately, I want to support women in their careers — and look at where being a cheerleader took Ms. Shahi.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team premieres Sept. 14 on CMT.

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