When you think of cheerleaders, and skimpy outfits, you probably do not consider them as being on the front lines of challenging stereotypes. But they are. No one is a professional cheerleader, instead they are scientists, engineers and just about any other occupation who compete to be on squads for the same reason anyone competes in anything.

And it has become an inclusive activity for both boys and girls, which means it can do a lot more to challenge traditional ideas about gender roles than forcing mixed-sex sports on kids. 

Drs. Esther Priyadharshani and Amy Pressland from University of East Anglia's School of Education argue that cheerleading can have a progressive influence on ideas about gender and the performances of both male and female participants, for example by encouraging teamwork and respect, without the cultural drama of forced desegregation that would go into making other sports open to males and females. 

"It seems imperative to consider how the sport can be shaped in socially progressive ways," said Dr Pressland. "Cheerleading is very much viewed as an activity for girls, a safe activity where they can remain girls and women. We were really interested in what happens when boys and girls take part it in it together, for boys in terms of their masculinity and how the gender relationships work within the team."

Dr Pressland added: "With many sports the focus often ends up being on who is the fastest or strongest. Cheerleading is a very physical, and potentially dangerous, activity where skill is just as important as strength. We found that because of the specific safety issues, people rallied round and were very protective of each other, which you don't find in other sports."

The study follows a growth in the popularity of cheerleading in the UK in recent years, with national competitions and schools offering the activity in PE lessons. The researchers looked at four cheerleading teams: one national level, non-university, mixed-sex competitive team and three university teams -- two mixed-sex stunt groups and an all-female dance one. They observed the teams and interviewed members about their experiences.

The authors found that the male participants were very protective of the females and their team mates. There was no inappropriateness or sexualization of bodies in the team and even when they felt uncomfortable doing things they might not consider masculine, such as wearing 'sparkles' for competitions or performing certain dance moves, they did it for the team. 

Published in Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics. Top image credit: ScienceCheerleader.com