Reading Group Guide
Kate Torgovnick would be thrilled if your group would consider reading Cheer! Below are discussion questions to jump start a lively conversation. Kate is also available to talk to your group -- in person if you are in New York, or via phone if you live elsewhere. Email her at email@example.com if you are interested. Enjoy!
Part One: Tryouts
1. Cheerleading is one of the only sports where men and women compete together. Yet when asked about dating teammates, James Turner, captain of the Southern University cheer squad says, "The girls on the squad are like my younger sisters. People always ask 'Are you holla-ing at 'em?' But I don't even look at them that way." (p. 30) How do gender dynamics seem to play out on college cheerleading squads? Does dating a teammate have the same implications as dating a coworker? How could team romances effect the squad's overall chemistry? How do the cheerleaders in the book navigate this minefield?
2. In Cheer!, Torgovnick gives many reasons why, in the cheerleading world, All-Girl teams are seen as secondary to coed teams -- including that All-Girl teams are associated with high school, and that All-Girl squads typically cheer for less-attended sports like women's basketball and volleyball. Why do you think this hierarchy has developed? The University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers say that one of their objectives in creating new moves and trying coed stunts is to get All-Girl cheerleading the respect it deserves. Is this a feminist undertaking?
3. During the tryouts at Stephen F. Austin University, Samantha -- who is listed at 5'1" -- is nearly cut on account of her being "too tall." Do flyers need to be tiny, tiny, tiny to be good cheerleaders? What kinds of pressure do you think this puts on the women? Is this different than the fact that top football players are 250-300 lbs and that many basketball players are close to (if not over) 7 feet?
4. While observing the Memphis tryouts, Torgovnick notes that of all the criteria the judges consider, "look" carries the greatest amount of weight. Discuss cheerleading's emphasis on appearance. Is it a necessary evil and/or an inherent part of the sport? Is cheerleading capable of shaking this infatuation? Should it? What are some other subcultures that place such a high value on looking good?
Part Two: Spirit Camp
5. When discussing the differences between male and female coaches, Sierra says, "Honestly, I was kind of worried about coming to SFA and having a guy coach." What factors contributed to her making this statement? Consider the case of Trisha replacing Brad. How significant is the sex of a coach in the world of cheerleading?
6. Safety is a primary concern of counselors at spirit camp, but ruminate on this statement made by an announcer at the UCA camp Memphis attended: "Right now cheerleading attracts athletic people. Y'all are good-looking, all-American people. If they decide to ground you, they won't see the effects for five years...Remember, a girl goes down and cheerleading will change." How do cheerleading's governing bodies approach the sport's built-in safety hazards? Do safety restrictions limit the sport? How do cheerleaders seem to interpret the risks inherent in their sport? Are they cavalier about the danger, or is their risk-taking admirable?
7. Southern University's status as one of the premier historically black college cheerleading teams is both a blessing and a curse. They routinely lack the necessary funds and numbers to compete with the better-funded, traditional powerhouses. At the same time, every time the team performs, Torgovnick notes, everybody stops what they're doing to "watch them intently." Why is competitive cheerleading so expensive? Should schools provide bigger budgets to cheerleading teams? And should attendance at Nationals require large sums of money?
8. Speaking candidly about steroid use in the sport, one cheerleader at camp says, "If they started drug testing...hoo boy! All those guys -- Louisville, Kentucky, SFA." If steroid use is as prevalent as he says, why don't the major cheer organizations police it? Or should this responsibility fall on individual schools and coaches? How would open discussion about steroids change the cheerleading world? Why do you think athletes go to these extremes?
Part Three: Football Season
9. Upon winning the intramural football championship at the University of Memphis, one member of the cheerleading team says, "This takes away every doubt people have that cheerleaders are athletes." This theme, cheerleaders reaffirming their status as athletes, recurs throughout Torgovnick's narrative. Do college cheerleaders seem to have an inferiority complex? Why do you think people tend to view cheerleading as just pom-poms, hair ribbons, and rhyming chants? Why is the common understanding of cheerleading so different from the reality?
10. Throughout SFA's chapters in Cheer!, the letters LCLM come up over and over again. Why do the Lumberjack cheerleaders guard the meaning so vigorously? Consider the role these letters play in building a collective identity for a squad like SFA, where team members are recruited from across the country, versus at schools like Southern and Memphis, where cheerleaders tend to be local talent drawn to cheer for their love of the school.
11. Regarding friendships with non-cheerleaders, Torgovnick quotes Sierra, "It's boring to me to talk to normal people." Is this sentiment consistent throughout all of the teams Torgovnick analyzes, or is it unique to SFA? How would you imagine "normal people" perceive the cheerleaders on campus? Consider what the Memphis cheerleaders' have to say about preferring to date other athletes. Would they fit Sierra's definition of normal?
12. In Chapter 9, Torgovnick tells the story of Mary, who started using cocaine as a way to stay skinny for cheerleading. Discuss Mary's story. Ultimately, who is responsible for her spiraling out of control? Should coaches and advisors be expected to supervise and stop this sort of behavior? Can they? Considering all the body image pressures on cheerleading, how can coaches, schools, and the major cheerleading organizations make sure that cheerleaders don't go to hazardous extremes -- like developing eating disorders or using hard drugs -- to keep their weight down?
13. Discussing Southern's failure to secure a paid bid to Nationals, one squad member says, "The system is not designed to entice a struggling historically black college team." Later, Coach James hypothesizes that "Talent is not the question, it's just the finances." Based on what your reading, are these statements accurate? Analyze the racial undertones of Torgovnick's book. What role, if any, does race play in the world of competitive collegiate cheerleading?
Part Four: Bid Videos
14. Before devoting an afternoon to community service at a retirement home, Casi mentions she might lose her job on account of missing so much work for cheer practice. Later, Kristen mentions missing a friend's wedding for a cheerleading commitment. Cheerleading, it seems, always takes precedence over the rest of a cheerleader's life. What other examples of this did you find in the book? In your opinion, do the benefits outweigh the sacrifices?
15. Even with safety training and precautions, injuries remain a constant part of cheerleading. One Memphis cheerleader quoted in the book almost seems proud of the sport's dangerous nature, because as Torgovnick points out, doing so "somehow legitimizes her hard work." Yet despite the obvious risks and frequent injuries, few cheerleading teams have their own athletic trainers to deal with medical concerns. What would it take for this to change?
16. Compare the rapport between stunt partners Tyrone and Samantha with that of James Brown and Sierra. What are some of the major differences between how they treat each other, and how they approach the sport? If you could partner with any of these athletes, who would it be, and why?
17. At the conclusion of section four, we learn Southern will not produce a bid video, essentially forgoing Nationals. The decision comes after several members leave the squad to focus on non-cheerleading activities. One of them, Tiffany Jones, says, "It's a hard decision, but what I came here for was an education." Compare this sentiment to those of the SFA or Memphis cheerleaders. Can you imagine people on those squads making this statement?
Part Five: Nationals
18. Going into Nationals, Kern was Memphis' savior. After the team's disappointing performance, though, she was sobbing alone, avoiding her teammates. Discuss Kern's swift fall from hero to zero. Can one person deserve responsibility for a failed routine? Consider the way her teammates treat her in response to her mistakes. Is their behavior justified?
19. How would you have reacted in Chapter 17, when Sierra falls during a basket toss and is rushed to the hospital? How does this injury effect the team? And what do you think of her drive to come back?
20. Talk about all of the obstacles faced by the Southern Jaguars, from the start of the season to the anticlimactic finale at the New Orleans Convention Center. Put yourself in their shoes. Considering all of the turmoil faced throughout the season, how/why do you think they never gave up? How does their experience at a relatively insignificant competition compare to those of the book's other teams who were able to compete at Nationals?
21. With the conclusion of each team's season, several members seem set on retiring early from the sport, even if they are not graduating. Torgovnick isn't entirely convinced. Why do you think so many cheerleaders feel this way at the end of the season? And why doesn't the author buy it? If you had to guess, which of these cheerleaders do you think came back for the 2007-2008 season? (Email Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out the answer.)