Film Reviews

Review: ‘A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem’

Hot Docs 2019


A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem
(U.S.A., 85 min.)
Dir. Yu Gu
Program: Persister (International Premier)

Look closely at those cheerleaders strutting their stuff every Sunday for National Football League teams. They’re all sparkly and smiley and obviously delighted to be out there dancing up a storm. But underneath the exteriors of some of those happy, spirited young women lies deep unhappiness over how intensely they are exploited.

This story of how NFL cheerleaders fought back against their intransigent team owners and the powerful football league they control offers a lot to get outraged about. Given that fact, it’s astonishing that the directors show so much restraint.

A Woman’s Work follows Lacy Thibodeaux Fields, a member of the Oakland Raiders’ Raiderettes cheerleaders, and her counterpart with the Buffalo Jills Maria Pinzone as they brought suit against their respective teams because of unfair treatment.

Fields, an accomplished dancer, led her high school cheerleading team and then scored a spot on her squad at college, which compensated her by giving her free room and board. She considered her acceptance to the Raiderettes as a triumph until she discovered that she could be dumped from the team for the smallest infraction, including being late for practices, which themselves were not financially compensated, had to purchase uniforms out of her own pocket and would not be paid for working Sunday games until the season was over.

She takes legal action via a group of feminist lawyers who identify what’s happening to the cheerleaders as wage theft pure and simple. Even the mascots are paid more, they say with proper indignation. Soon, Buffalo Jills cheerleader Pinzone joins Fields in an attempt to get financial relief.

As the film effectively conveys, these women work hard and are highly skilled performers. But they are almost criminally undervalued. The unadulterated sexism perpetrated by the teams takes many forms, not the least of which involves the extent to which the cheerleaders are forced to “volunteer” for various community activities, for which the teams get all the credit. This is an important element of the case, since their lawyers argue persuasively that the cheerleaders give their teams “added value.”

The owner of the Buffalo Bills responds to the lawsuit by cancelling the cheerleading program. For that–in a classic example of victim-blaming–just about everyone, including the other cheerleaders, trash not the ownership, but rather those women who stood up for themselves.

And, of course, the plaintiffs have to deal with that ever-present double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re told how lucky they are to be on the team, how they’re respected and esteemed: everybody admires them for their beauty and energy. But as soon as they fight back, the hate comes fast and furious via fans at tailgate parties and on Twitter, who call them talentless bitches who “pimp themselves out to guys.”

But it is all about the money. Football players make many millions of dollars for billionaire owners who won’t pay even minimum wage to their cheerleaders. The filmmakers could have made more of this, comparing the lifestyles of the plaintiffs with those of the fabulously wealthy owners and the players whom they properly–some might argue, excessively–compensate. (For the record, the NFL Players Association supported the suit). And data detailing, among other things, the thousands of unpaid hours cheerleaders work flash too quickly across the screen.

This doc, measured as it is, still makes a strong impact. The most die-hard football fans will get the point.

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleading Problem screens:
Tue, Apr 30, 8:30 PM, Scotiabank 4
Thu, May 2 9:00 PM. Isabel Bade Theatre
Sat, May 4, 12:30 pm, Fox Theatre

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Susan G. Cole is a feminist, playwright, the author of two books on violence against women and a long-time cultural commentator. The former Entertainment Editor at NOW Magazine remains the books editor there and, as a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, continues to contribute film reviews. @susangcole

View all articles by Susan G. Cole »