Published on Saturday, August 23, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
Meet the Ra-Ra Radicals
Forget Sit-Down Protests and Marching, America's Newest Campaigners are Cheering (and Shaking Their Pompoms) for Change
by David Usborne
Pity the woman emerging from her home in the comfy Wicker Park neighbourhood of Chicago. She is on her mobile when five bizarrely attired young people pass on the street rehearsing some kind of profane chant. "We're Girl, We're Boy, We're not your Barbie Toy. We're Gay, We're Straight, Let's all just masturbate!" Nonplussed, the woman laughs nervously and resumes talking into the phone. "God. There are these people here. But, erm, I don't know what it is all about."
Apparently, she has never seen any radical cheerleaders before. Meet Amy, Margaret, Sue, Abigail and Eric, the fab five of the Chicago-based cheerleading team Lickity Split. Dressed in ripped T-shirts, skimpy skirts and shorts in garish hues of purple and green, they do make a puzzling picture. As they sing and cavort, they brandish plastic pompoms and pink water guns. They have stage names too, but they are barely repeatable in polite company. Eric is "The Inserter". Margaret is "Hello Clitty". You get the idea.
So it is back to rehearsing. They are to be the opening act tonight for an all-woman rock band called Concrete Blondes, who are headliners at a feminist music festival in town called "Estrojam". It's an important gig for the five, the biggest they have ever done. They are nervous and have to get the moves right. "George Bush and my bush, We're sitting by a tree. Said my bush to Georgie, Stay away from Me!" Suddenly, Eric and Margaret link hands and hoist Abigail, the smallest of the group, into the air. "George don't know jack about my Bush!" Someone leans out of a nearby apartment window and hoots approval.
It has been about a year since Lickity Split started subverting the all-American tradition of team cheerleading for political ends. They have kept the pompoms and the ear-to-ear saccharin smiles. And they gleefully display lots of flesh. (A little too much, you might say.) But this definitely is not the version of cheerleading you will see on the average college football field or as portrayed in films like American Beauty. Their energies are not going into perpetuating the macho image of the American jock, but rather into voicing anger at the system. Anger at Bush. Anger at homophobia. Anger at war. Anger at whatever.
And while they are the only group in Chicago, Lickity Split are hardly alone in the land. First dreamed up by two sisters in Florida six years ago as a new means of expressing political outrage, Radical Cheerleading is fast becoming a movement all of its own, with an estimated 100 squads trading clenched fists for pompoms in cities all across the United States and Canada. Watch out for them at a street demonstration near you soon. Websites dedicated to advertising the efforts of radical cheerleaders have recently been receiving word from groups coming together in Spain and France.
Since 1999, when anti-globalisation protests disrupted the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle, radical cheerleaders have been represented at almost any event that has drawn large numbers of political agitators, including the marches against the war in Iraq that erupted in many American cities last March. And they have one important advantage. Riot police are less likely to arrest you or fumigate you with tear gas if your skirt ends just beneath the crotch and your most dangerous weapon is a pompom.
And they come, by the way, in all sizes, shapes and genders. As many as half are men, often cheering for gay rights. A conference of "alternative mothers" - many of them in lesbian relationships - in Los Angeles last month featured performances by a radical cheer group of mothers called the Hip Mama Radical Cheerleaders. "Our babies go to protests, Our babies change the world. Our babies rewrite what it is to be a boy or a girl". Los Angeles is also home to a group of about 20 cheerleaders aged between 14 and 20 who call themselves Teen Radical Cheer. Most of them are Latino school children from working-class sections of the city, voicing their anger at economic and racial inequality.
Another favourite theme of most of the radical cheerleading teams is to rage against society's demands on women - and men - to have the perfect body. "It's important for people to see that the average body - or even the not average body - is beautiful as well," says Lickity Split's Sue Ashman, 25. "My fat ass is hot. Don't cover it girls!" The same message is a favourite with a Radical Cheerleading team in Orlando, Florida. "Riot, Don't Diet. Get up, get out and try it! Hey Girl (clap, clap, clap). Get your face out of that magazine. You've got anger, soul and more. Take to the street and let it roar!"
As movements go, radical cheerleading is still in its infant stages. There is no national organisation or association for the groups to belong to. But that might come soon. Already, groups are starting to come together whenever they can to learn from one another and just socialise. Thus, about 100 radical cheerleading activists gathered last year for a few days at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. The organiser was Kate MacLean. The value of radical cheerleading, she explained, is that it offers something different from the old "Hey, Ho" choruses from angry young people carrying banners.
"It's a break from the same old chants and concepts used at protests," she said, adding that it offers the participants themselves a new way to have fun while out on the streets. "People believe in change, but when the act of changing the world isn't fun, you don't want to do it." But MacLean admitted that there will always be a few among the hardcore radical militants who will not be impressed. "Some people who consider themselves serious activists don't consider this a valid form of protest."
But what would Lickity Split care about them? We have repaired now to Sue's apartment to share some beers. Someone briefly worries out loud that maybe they are getting a little drunk ahead of the evening's show at Estrojam. The doors don't open until 11pm. So they agree that it might be wise to forgo the hoisting-Abby move tonight. Eric Drain, 27, leaves for the corner shop for another six-pack of Coronas. Wisely, perhaps, he has changed out of his costume of straw cowboy hat, sleeveless purple country and western shirt and shockingly tight purple shorts (apparently worn sans underwear).
What they lack in political sophistication - the Lickity Splitters have no concisely defined ideology beyond disgust with the President - is amply compensated for with sheer energy and delight at what they are doing. Above all, they agree that they have fun. They practise three days a week, whenever possible in an outdoor park so passers-by can get a glimpse. They have joined marches, including Chicago's own huge rally against the Iraq war that swarmed its streets four months ago. And increasingly, they are being invited to appear at festivals and events like this evening's concert. "Some of our friends say we shouldn't do them, but my attitude is the more people who are exposed to our message the better," says Amy Miller. "We have to get out there." While they haven't yet made direct contact with any of the other cheerleading groups around the country, they plan to join others at a free-choice march in support of abortion in Washington DC next spring. They dream of high-kicking in front of the White House.
"It's our way of reclaiming the sport of cheerleading," explains Amy, 26, who has tinted the fringe on her bob of blond hair with an electric smudge of pink. She has a girlish round face and an impish grin. "We're reclaiming it as an art form; as an outlet for our activism." She is well qualified. She and Sue did sports cheerleading at high school. Little did they know back then that a few years later they would be using the same moves to advocate self-stimulation and transgender rights. You have to wonder what their parents think. Sue admits that her family, back in her native New Hampshire, are very conservative. "They know I do this, but I don't think they have a clue what it is really about."
The founder of the gang, and perhaps the most earnest, is Abigail Katz, 23, stage name Queefer Sutherland. With her costume of running shorts and green sparkly sideburns, she looks a little like a mini Elvis impersonator. "One day I was coming out of the coffee shop where I was working and, like every day, men starting shouting at me and making a noise. They try to get your attention, not because they necessarily fancy you, but because they want to get a rise out of you. I decided it was my turn to get a rise out of them and wanted to find a way to do that." Abigail, who had studied theatre in college, had read about radical cheerleading on the web and decided it might be the right outlet for her anger. Rather than borrowing the lines she found on the websites, she decided to write her own. And she has been composing them fast and furious ever since. One of her most recent ridiculed Americans boycotting French products, because of France's opposition to the war. "Entendez/ S'il vous plait/ Nous adorons les Français. J'aime les crêpes/ J'aime fondue/ J'aime les discoteques/ Et vous?"
She says she hates George Bush, "down to the very recesses of my heart". She was never a cheerleader at school, but she loves the central joke in radical cheerleading - that it first of all satirises the very institution of American cheerleading, which she likens to organised pornography that happens to be displayed on a football field rather than on the pages of a magazine. "It is designed to make women feel that they have to be a man's fantasy. And we want to tear that down." And Eric's presence in the group has been important for her too, because in the same way, gay men are expected to live up similar fantasies of physical perfection, she says. And that should not be.
Eric himself, returning with the new supplies of beer, agrees. But before long, he is offering a lengthy and mostly unprintable rationale for his stage name, The Inserter. Suffice it to say, he believes that his chosen role in gay sex allows his partners to experience what it is to be a woman, vulnerable to rape and sexual exploitation. Being a Lickity Splitter has meaning for him in other ways also, he says. The humour and sense of fun in their act helps him combat the especially negative stereotypes that black gay men face, including the notion that they, more than white gay men, are irresponsible about Aids. And, he argues, it demonstrates that gay men can be in the company of women. "There is this whole thing out there that gay men can't love women. My being part of this group, I am showing that we can."
No one in this room dares presume that what they do is going to change the world. But there is agreement among them that, as a form of protest, radical cheerleading can be effective as well as a good laugh. "It works because we look like freaks. Plus, we're hot so we get a lot of attention, and it makes you feel you want to watch us and see what we have to say." There may be something of a contradiction here, of course. Abigail, especially, wants to voice her disgust as being seen as a sexual object. Yet here they are conceding that their raunchy dress, their bare flesh and their saucy cheers are partly what make people listen and watch. The difference, maybe, is that they are talking about sex on their own terms, not as defined by lusty men on a construction site.
Only once has anyone reacted badlyto their faces, and that was when a man ambushed them after they had performed on the street just to let them know that, in his opinion, they stank. He spent 40 minutes saying that their message hadn't got across to him. But then someone with that much to say must have listened just a bit.
Finally, empty bottles strewn on the rug, it's time for the troupe to depart for tonight's concert in a cavernous former theatre that is now a crummy concert venue called The Metro, a few miles north of Chicago's downtown. On arrival, it's clear that little is going to plan. Just minutes before 11, a small line of people, mostly women dressed to give any fashion designer an instant heart attack, is snaking down the street outside, with no sign that the doors will open soon. Someone whispers that the Estrojam festival, which has been going on for three days, has been a complete flop. Eric is cross too because the organisers had promised all five of them headsets to wear. The idea had been that they would be among the audience before the show started and the order would come from the control booth for them to take to the stage. But there are no headsets. Spirits rise, however, when a friend pushes through to wish them good luck and gives each of them a single red rose.
Finally, we are all inside. The audience, irritated by the 30-minute delay, stands disconsolately before the stage, waiting for something to happen. First comes a self-confessed former rock groupie who claims that she once took a plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix's erect penis. She proceeds to reach in a bag and to fish it out. But tedium threatens when she next flourishes the plaster breasts of a rather less well-known female guitarist. These punters have paid $20 a head to hear hard rock and I wonder if they are ready for Margaret's whimsy. But out the Lickity Splitters come, all smiles and gush, and twirling around the place while bashing Bush, celebrating gay sex and lecturing Texas for banning sex toys. We are not many in there, but we cheer back as loudly as we can. The Splitters are a hit. There is just one pregnant silence, however. Eric breaks into one of their numbers to extol the audience to give its own cheer to a visiting journalist from a paper called The Independent. Clearly not many Independent readers in the Metro tonight.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd