Film Review: Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

The history of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad proves to encompass more than pom-poms and big hair in this engaging documentary that also touches on sexism, feminism and the role of corporate culture in football.
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Forget the “Love Boat” appearances (oh, wait, you already have), but there was a time when The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were the epitome of a certain kind of ’70s sexiness: leggy and curvy, wearing barely-there white shorts and white-vinyl go-go boots, but also wholesome and fresh-faced. They may not have been the most educated girls in the room: Cheerleading—like all fundamentally athletic pursuits, from gymnastics to classical dancing—favors the young. But they weren’t bimbos or tramps, as all the former cheerleaders interviewed for Dana Adam Shapiro’s documentary say quickly and steadfastly. And their most staunch supporter is Suzanne Mitchell, the troupe’s longtime director.

Though Daughters of the Sexual Revolution is ostensibly a documentary about the squad’s history, from their early and unmemorable days as an amateur cadre of local high-school students (both male and female) to iconic stardom that captivated football fans across the U.S., it’s also a sideways history of the American feminist movement of the ’70s and a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of tiger-mother Mitchell, who at first appears hard-nosed and thoroughly committed to making the cheerleaders the most famous Barbie dolls in America, whatever the cost to individual girls—and they were girls, many of them from small towns and deeply religious families.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were born out of a moment of inspiration in 1967, when ecdysiast Bubbles Cash took a stroll through the crowd, carrying giant puffs of cotton candy like pom-poms, and jumped onto the field. As old-time publicists used to say, you couldn’t buy publicity like that. And Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm took note—if one pretty girl could get that kind of attention, how about a how bunch of them? And not free agents—girls who were wedded to the team...professionally, not personally.

And so Schramm went to work. The result was a squad of wholesomely pretty girls comfortable doing high kicks and pom-pom shaking—all showbiz and sexiness, but nothing lewd or rude—in front of a crowd: The Cowboys Cheerleaders would be America’s cuties. Which was a terrific idea but, as Shapiro’s documentary makes clear, the woman who made it happen was Mitchell, equal parts confidante and taskmaster, a woman who considered “her girls” to be her children and both drove them hard and did her utmost to protect them from lechers and the kind of bad influences in which the ’70s abounded.

Mitchell isn’t immediately sympathetic—it’s much easier to warm up to the former cheerleaders who remember the good times and the not-so-good ones with the practiced grace of women who spent a good chunk of their formative years learning how to smile through everything life threw at them for $15 a game, with no pay for rehearsal time. Most of them held down day jobs that paid their rents, but they make it clear that their hearts are still with the squad. A couple of them even dare to say that Mitchell was a feminist, whether she wanted to say so or not—the closest she comes is to concede that she always knew what she wanted and pursued it, right up to taking on the Mafia when the Dallas Cheerleaders organization brought suit against the principals in the production of notorious porn movie Debbie Does Dallas. Mitchell was the face who appeared in court. The end is a sorry one, when Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, bringing with him a very different notion of what the cheerleaders were.

Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is a truly engrossing film, one that balances the big picture and the small one.