One of my favorite moments from season one of the Serial Podcast is a small digression from the central whodunit mystery. I can’t remember exactly what episode it happens during (it is directly mentioned in this post) but it involves the host (Sarah Koenig) trying to run down public library internet logs from January 1999. As part of her investigation into whether Adnan Syed was correctly convicted of the murder of a classmate in 1999 Koenig follows up on an alibi that wasn’t used by Adnan’s defense during his trial. A witness states that he was on a library computer checking his Hotmail account during the time the crime is supposed to have happened. Koenig checks if there is a local record from the library or activity log on the Hotmail servers that would corroborate. But any record of him logging onto the library computer or logging into a Hotmail account doesn’t exist. Our collective archive of human digital knowledge and interaction (the internet) does not contain evidence of Adnan’s presence on that January afternoon. It’s a lead that goes nowhere but provides an opportunity to reflect on what the internet does and doesn’t remember. Koenig doesn’t allow the moment to pass without thinking about how this runs counter to how we think about the internet. That all those ones and zeros are recorded somewhere, but they aren’t and they never could be. You can find anything on the internet, but not everything. This is tangential at best to the core story Koenig and her team are telling but it is also emblematic of the way many moments in Serial are used to expand the story and reflect on the larger world.
Serial blew up when it came out in 2014 in part because of its true crime focus, but people who came for the murder mystery something more. They got a show that was as interested in investigating how we got to this point in our criminal justice system as they are in ‘solving’ the case. Serial was created by the same people who make This American Life (TAL), a show that uses the most mundane moments to reflect on the way people and systems work. The show is more interested in describing the way the world is now and thinking deeply about how it got that way than being prescriptive about what needs to change. These are the types of moments I love to find in podcasts and the potential for that got me excited to listen to America’s Girls, the new podcast and journalism project from Texas Monthly. It’s probably unfair to compare every well-reported show that has a knowledgable host with a great voice to TAL, but it’s also not not unfair and is very much audio aesthetic America’s Girls is working in. It is an eight-episode show that digs into the origins of the modern version of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders beginning in 1972. The show moves forward from their formation into the present and examines how the job of a Cheerleader has or hasn’t changed. The first episode begins with the host Sarah Helopa talking to the first Cowboy Cheerleader to wear the iconic uniform at the site of what used to be Texas Stadium, and tells the contradictory story of how they formed in the early seventies. Despite the cultural and moral values that gripped Dallas, (and really the whole bible belt) that is the moment when they emerged. In Dallas after the signing of the Civil Rights Act but still clinging to the legacy of Jim Crow, and after the assassination of President Kennedy.
The mechanics of how the group was formed is the focus of episode one, and the strength of that episode (and the series as a whole) is the conversations Hepola had with the cheerleaders who were there when it happened. Hepola has her own personal connection and a lot of scholarship that she can draw on, but these interviews with the Cowboy Cheerleaders (the ones who would/could talk to her) lend a warm yet authoritative voice to the podcast as former cheerleaders speak soberly about what they went through. The cheerleaders exist in a particular way in the cultural imagination. They are maybe the ultimate intertwining of sport and sex appeal creating an opportunity to see what we are told is the ‘idealized’ male and female form on display at the same time. But it’s so important to hear from the actual cheerleaders because they present an entirely different conception of themselves. They discuss what they created with pride and talk about the work, fitness, and toughness required to endure in a job that cheered them on Sundays and diminished them the rest of the week. Whether it was the meager pay, patronizing morality rules, or the massively unfair double standard they were subject to within the Cowboys organization (players and cheerleaders are not allowed to date but only cheerleaders are punished for not following this rule) and the culture at large. The show treats its subject with respect and admiration by letting former cheerleaders talk uninterrupted about why they loved the time they spent as a Cowboy Cheerleader and all of the many things that frustrated them. It is a needed foil to the sanitized and corporate-approved vision that is present on the long-running reality show about the cheerleaders. An opportunity for the women who went through this to say what their experience was. For that reason alone this is a necessary and valuable podcast, but the recent actions of our elected leaders and their continued insistence that women in the U.S. cannot be trusted to make decisions about what to do with their own bodies only further drives home the previously mentioned discussion of what cheerleaders are actually subject to. That they are celebrated for the job they do and then punished for actually doing it. The people making the show did not know that it would have to exist in our post-Roe world, but it does, and it serves, for those willing to see it, as an almost too perfect metaphor for how women can be/are treated in the U.S.
I left my experience listening to this show with a better understanding of the Cheerleaders and a lot to think about with regards to how their story is both unique and (sadly) familiar. There were also a lot of questions. One specific moment that I would’ve loved Hepola to go more in-depth on is the discussion of the cultural background that the cheerleaders came out of in Dallas in the early seventies. She mentions the contrast of a city full of churches and strip clubs, but that doesn’t tell the audience anything about what it was like to be in Dallas. What influence did religious institutions have on people’s lives? How did that interact with a changing culture that had a less rigid relationship with sex and sexuality and insisted on bodily autonomy (which led to Roe vs Wade in 1973)? In the same breath, Hepola also mentions the effect that the assassination of President Kennedy had on the city of Dallas. Assuming that most of her audience was born after 1963 (probably true), what were those effects? What does an event like that do to a place, and in what ways are the Cheerleaders a third, fourth, or fifth order response to that as the host implies? These and other tangents (like why professional cheerleading attached to sports teams/events has such cultural significance) go unremarked on. In the same way that the moment from Serial podcast discussed at the beginning of this piece expanded what that story could be about, there was space for America’s Girls to broaden out the roots and scope of this story. To further interrogate the ways the Cowboys Cheerleaders are unique to a place, time, and culture. The questions I was left with did not in any way affect my enjoyment of the podcast and its significance but are instead proof of that enjoyment. This is a fascinating story that was well told and I wanted to spend more time with it.