Cheerleaders are synonymous with tiny skirts, bubbly personalities, and a can-do attitude that helps drive their team to victory. Glossy smiles, perfect bodies, and flirty demeanors are also expected as the go-to to help keep fans and players entertained as America’s most sacred game roars around them. But, while these gals glow from the sidelines, they’ve been keeping one of the NFL’s dirty secrets – these cheerleaders are underpaid, undervalued, and, in some cases, harassed. This documentary follows two of the brave women who decided to stand up to a cadre of toxic masculinity and demand that they be recognized for the contributions they make. Welcome to the enraging and inspiring A Woman’s Work.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a delightful, upbeat person who truly shines. Whether she’s shaking her pom poms or trying to practice a routine while simultaneously nursing her daughter, this is a woman who does not quit. Born into poverty, Thibodeaux-Fields has a positive drive that never lets her circumstances dictate where she would go in life – and where she wanted to go was to the stage to be a dancer. Lacy logged 10,560 hours and 18 years of dance training into her goal, so when she set her sights on becoming a professional cheerleader, she was all but a shoo-in, officially joining the Raiderettes for the (then Oakland) Raiders in 2013. By 2014, she was the first woman to file a lawsuit against the team, alleging wage theft and illegal employment practices.
What happened within that year to push her to the limit? Realizing, after countless hours of service, travel, games, and promotional appearances, that her compensation was well below minimum wage. Insult to injury? The Raiderettes were only paid when the season ended – a full nine months after practice began. When she realized her dream job was actually costing her money, she knew she had to act.
The film also follows the lovely Maria Pinzone, who believed she landed her dream gig when she was chosen to be a member of the Jills (the Buffalo Bills cheer squad) in 2012. She soon found herself in a similar position – disillusioned, disrespected, and embroiled in a legal battle that continues to this day.
Even in the midst of happier times, Pinzone recalls a coach making her teammates do endless jumping jacks to “see what jiggled.” If too many ripples were detected, the women were benched from the game. At one point, the Jills even had to hold a fundraiser for their uniforms. That’s when Maria tried to form a union. Needless to say, this was not welcome news to the NFL – and, surprisingly, not to the majority of her cheer squad, who she relentlessly worked to champion. (When Pinzone found a secret Facebook group that was disparaging of her efforts she exclaimed, “I’m fighting for you. Why are you against me?”) Maria asserts, “I want to be in charge, be creative, and get recognized for it.” Instead she found herself permanently kicked off the team. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Buffalo Bills opted to disband the Jills rather than deal with having cheerleaders at all – a decision that currently stands.
These are a few of the choices and consequences many women face – not just here, but in a variety of professions, as well as life in general. Speak up = get punished. Stay silent = remain uncompensated. (Lacy's lawyer even had to warn her, "Yes, you could make a difference with this lawsuit. You also have to be prepared to never dance professionally again.") In this film, the prevailing attitude is, “You’re lucky just to be here. Isn’t that enough?” Meanwhile, the women’s athleticism, time, skill, out of pocket expenses, and emotional wellbeing were continually devalued.
It’s a stunning move – on behalf of both teams, as well as the NFL as a whole – to realize how deeply committed they are to not paying their cheerleaders, especially considering that we’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar franchise that has no problem handsomely paying all men within their organization. (It’s pointed out in the documentary that even concession stand workers make more than the dancers.) Sean Cooney, Maria’s lawyer, posits that the NFL believes they are untouchable. They present the squad as a part of the package but are unwilling to part with even a small amount of the profit. At one point it's noted by Lacy's lawyer that no one from the NFL has come forward to say, "We've broken the law. We're sorry."
Director Yu Gu spent seven years of her time helping Lacy and Maria tell their stories. She says,
“It's really a microcosm into what all women are facing right now in the workplace, battling these stereotypes and these hypocritical standards that we're faced with.”
While The NFL Cheerleader Problem focuses on a specific niche, it’s clear that it speaks to the universal problem of inequality that’s so pervasive. Yu Gu did an excellent job compiling the numerous years of footage into a tight 80-minute run (if anything, it could’ve been longer), and, as mentioned both Lacy and Maria make for compelling leads. I found this film to be so compelling that I was inspired to reach out to other women writers in a personal word-of-mouth campaign. I told everyone I contacted, “Hey, you should watch this!” This a story that deserves to be seen. So, hey – I’ll say it again. You should watch this.
A small slice of what many women contended with in the workforce, helmed by a talented director that I hope to see more from in the future. Whether you’re a football fan or not, these stories will resonate long after the pom poms are put away.
Nuggets – more film thoughts:
* $1.25 million was awarded for Lacy’s case in California, due in part to passionate support from CA Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. Thanks to this lawsuit, the Raiderettes now make $9 an hour. (Below minimum wage for the win!) Meanwhile, Maria’s case is still left undecided, with one NFL defendant declaring, “I don’t give a shit if the Jills exist.”
* The documentary was made with the support of WMM: Women Make Movies production assistance program. So cool!
* Lacy struggled with the fear of people not liking her and/or being mad at her when she decided to file. But over the years, she grew, along with the scope of the lawsuit. One of the most satisfying moments is when she divulges how scared she used to be before turning to the camera and saying, “Now I don’t care anymore.” It's so great to see her slamming her car door and confidently strolling away. That click is closure!