In 2014, an Oakland Raiders cheerleader named Lacy T. filed a lawsuit against her team, claiming wage-theft. Her yearly salary was $1,250, just $5 an hour, and that’s not including all the out-of-pocket expenses she and other cheerleaders were responsible for, including hair and makeup that must follow handbook regulations perfectly, as well as traveling. For comparison, NFL players drafted in 2014 started at a minimum salary of $420,000.
Lacy T.’s case wasn’t an outlier. A cheerleader from the Buffalo Bills squad named Maria P. next filed a lawsuit for unfair wages; and criminally underpaid and mistreated cheerleaders from other teams began filing lawsuits as well. It’s the work of Lacy T., Maria P., and other cheerleaders fighting against wage-theft in a billion dollar industry that forms the basis for A Woman’s Work, a new documentary from director Yu Gu, premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. But rather than just focus on the devaluing of cheerleading in the NFL and culture at large, Gu’s documentary speaks to the ways in which all feminine labor is devalued in society, whether it be the expectation for many women to clean, cook, or care for the people in their lives without pay.
Jezebel talked to Gu about how she came to this story and the themes she wanted to explore in her film about women’s work. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What made you want to make this film and explore this issue of wage-theft among NFL cheerleaders?
YU GU: So many things! It’s just the perfect confluence of things in my own experience. I was born in China, a girl under the one child policy there, so from an early age I had this understanding of inequality and that women are not treated equally to men. Even when I immigrated to Canada and eventually to America I realized this problem persists in the West in different ways. When I first learned about football, because I had no idea what it was growing up, I was amazed at how this sport is able to bring millions of people together of all different ethnic, economic backgrounds, women, men, every Sunday to celebrate this game. It made me fall in love with it as an immigrant because it shows how if you work hard you can be a winner, you can be rewarded for your work that you do.
When I first found out about Lacy T.’s lawsuit in 2014 alleging she wasn’t even paid a minimum wage for being one of the only visible women on the field, I was completely shocked. Having lived in America for over five years, it was also a moment of disillusionment for me, like this is an opportunity to see beyond how America portrays itself to the world in this kind of propagandistic way. I wanted to find out more about her; why was this her dream, what made her stand up agains the only thing she’d known since childhood and say something in the 50-year history of this sport. She was such a warm person, and we both had this understanding of what it meant to grow up in a working class home where our mothers were working full-time and working inside the home. We knew what it meant to work hard for something that you love and that you had dreamed of since you were a little girl, and then having the courage to let that go in order to pursue something else.
The all-American cheerleader is such a loaded figure. Something your film does really well is it really illustrates how physically intensive and expensive cheerleading is, but you also include the voices of people who trivialize cheerleading, who say these women aren’t talented. In making this film, how much were you trying to subvert this idea of what a quintessential cheerleader is?
Before embarking on this journey, I was maybe a little naïve to think that it wasn’t so loaded. Growing up not in America, when you see the movies about cheerleaders and you see these beautiful women you think they’re icons. They are icons in their own right but I didn’t know people felt this way [about them.] There were a lot of weird, psychological paradoxes that came out and assumptions about these women that came out as we were researching them, as we were applying for funding, as we were talking to different interview subjects. It was definitely a goal of ours to see beyond that word “cheerleader” and to humanize these women as women who want to achieve their dreams and be rewarded in a fair way for that work.
At the same time, I don’t want to shy away from the plethora of stereotypes and biases out there. These mental boxes are also what these women are up against. It’s not just that they’re fighting the Goliath of the NFL, it’s also everybody who has these boxes and delineations of this is what a cheerleader is, this is what a feminist is, they’re not the same. Or, this is what a worker is, this is what a cheerleader is, they’re not the same. Whereas I’m like, let’s blow that all up.
In the movie, you interview some Raiderettes alumni and they are very hurt by the lawsuit. It was surprising to me because you think that they would want this younger generation to fight for this pay. Were you surprised by that?
I was, yes. When Lacy first filed her lawsuit, there were a lot of people who came up in the media speaking out for her, in her favor, and then surprisingly I found out that these former cheerleaders were saying they don’t agree with this and basically calling her a liar to some extent. They were saying she should be ashamed of herself. That took me aback, but I also wanted to find out more. I contacted these former Raiderettes and they were very open with me; they said come to Las Vegas where we’re having this reunion, and it was a very moving experience because there were 50 of them coming together to support one of their members who was getting an award. To them what they treasured so much about that job was to have that sisterhood and that friendship of over 30 years. They did take [the lawsuit] in a personal way, that this woman who was a Raiderette brought upon this negative light onto what they have loved and taken pride in.
They never saw themselves as women who were working for an entity. They only felt that they were serving a greater cause. In their mentality those things are separate: a job and getting paid for that job, and then this generosity and this caring for a bigger community. They didn’t think those two things were connected, but I think that in today’s day and age, they are connected. They didn’t see it as labor, but now we have the perspective to say no, that is labor. You can have both: this amazing network of women that supports each other and you can be respected, valued, and paid for what you do and what you’re good at.
I think as well about the way corporations tell employees that they’re like “a family,” which of course makes it easier to exploit them. There’s all this talk about sisterhood among the cheerleaders, that they’re in it for the sisterhood and not money, but then what about brotherhood? Because the players are getting paid for their work. Do you feel like the NFL sort of weaponized this idea of a “sisterhood” to exploit these cheerleaders?
Definitely, and it’s a very conscious choice. I think for women they see it coming from their cheer directors who are implementing this culture and this thought process of you should be grateful, you’re a privileged member of this sisterhood, but also we don’t really need you. You’re dispensable, but you should be grateful. I think they see that coming from their cheer director, but if we take a step back, you see they’re out there working for the team and then the team belongs to this bigger organization of 32 teams in the NFL and you see who’s at the top: white, male billionaires.
You said before starting this project you didn’t know a lot about football, you didn’t know a lot about cheerleading. In the process of making this movie what was the most surprising thing you learned about cheerleaders and the NFL?
I think it was slowly uncovering the layers of it and realizing that a lot of their labor is intangible in some ways. You think about the word cheerleader outside the context of football, where you’re seeing maybe your friend or your mentor is your cheerleader, they help you, they cheer you on. And that’s part of what the cheerleaders job is, to cheer on the team and maintain this positivity and enthusiasm even in the face of defeat. That mentality of positivity is something everybody actually needs in their life.
You mentioned the NFL weaponizing this idea of family, and I think it’s also a conscious, social norm to say you shouldn’t ask to be acknowledged for your work, you should just be silently grateful and that’s the most virtuous way to behave as a woman. Obviously, that’s gotten women nowhere and just maintains their status as second class citizens. Without that acknowledgment of women’s labor in the workplace, no matter what women do, there’s always going to be that lack of respect because it’s stigmatized that you’re a woman and you’re working.
That idea of cheerleading as being this sort of intangible labor of support and positivity, I think all women are expected to do that on some level for their male partners and in their daily lives.
And it’s not a bad thing! I don’t want to say women shouldn’t do that now. But if you’re good at that and you want to be generous to your community, I don’t think corporations should be able to take advantage of that and twist it around and exploit you for it. I think that natural inclination should be taken and celebrated and actually respected.
But you really extend this idea of women’s labor in the film. You show how cheerleading is devalued, but also you feature extended scenes of Lacy taking care of her children or Maria cooking for her husband. Lacy especially talks about all the work she does for her family in a day, and I think a lot of people still don’t necessarily think of all the work women do in the home as labor. Why did you include those scenes? What made you want to extend this idea of feminine labor and how it’s devalued beyond cheerleading?
I think it was one of the most important aspects when I started this film. When I first started it, I knew I wanted to follow Lacy or other women in the film on this longer journey. I wanted to examine the aftermath of losing your identity and trying to rebuild yourself after you’ve lost something, after you’ve fallen from grace from this community. This film has been called A Woman’s Work since I started it in 2014, because to me there shouldn’t be a separation in terms of, this is your legitimate job outside of the home and the other stuff is invisible. I see that with my mom, Lacy has seen that with her mom, and I wanted to honestly and authentically portray a woman’s experience, a woman’s daily struggle and daily labor.
I think sometimes as storytellers, we’re pressured to simplify our stories into one narrative arc. Like, okay what is your film about, it’s about this lawsuit. Okay, show me the lawsuit, the legal proceedings. But that’s not what I wanted to do. These are full human beings, these are women who have their own unique struggles. Women are plural; we’re not singular. We have so many layers and levels we want to be recognized for. I think the only way we can try and shift culture is to present something that is a different set of values. We don’t want to insert ourselves into the existing hierarchy, we don’t want to climb that hierarchy. That is fucked up, we want to do something else.
It took until 2015 for there to just be a law on the books in California that says cheerleading is a profession that at the very least includes a minimum wage. Why do you think it took so long?
I think the traditional view of women’s labor has held it back for so long. Back in the 1950s and the ’60s when football became bigger and the leagues began being established, in the beginning those women did volunteer. They did volunteer to go to these games and perform for their teams because they loved their teams, they loved their communities. You can see in the 1960s when the Buffalo Bills were just formed, their advertisement for their cheerleaders read “the Buffalo Jills are a volunteer organization.”
Beyond that, there’s the idea that women’s labor should be a given. You’re a mother, of course you should take care of this child; this is your job, nobody’s going to pay you to do it. But as the years went on, obviously a lot of those things started shifting. I know Lacy has talked to me a lot about how before she filed the lawsuit, she was talking to her entire team and everyone agreed with her that this was not right, they should actually be paid, but [there] was a fear of standing up and losing it all. I think all workers to some extent feel like that before joining a union or going on strike, there’s a fear of losing the only thing, but for them it wasn’t even their livelihood because they weren’t getting paid; it was the fear of losing the only thing you love in your life. For Lacy it was a moment of seeing everything so clearly and she knew that nobody else was going to do anything.