From Eye Rolls to Empowerment: Inside Starz's Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Doc
"Let's see where this story takes us," was director Dana Adam Shapiro's approach to creating 'Daughters of the Sexual Revolution.'
Daughters of the Sexual Revolution director Dana Adam Shapiro considers himself a proponent of female empowerment. But, until he dove into his documentary about the origins of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, he didn't see what professional cheerleading had to do with it.
He remembers watching the Super Bowl with his son and thinking: "They still have cheerleaders?"
He's not the only one to initially scoff. When he took the documentary onto the festival circuit, he'd ask other festgoers what movies they were most excited to see. Were they interested in that one about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? The question garnered more eye rolls than enthusiasm.
"That happened so often," he tells THR. "There were so many eye rolls, just on the topic alone. Like, 'I don't want to see that.' "
He got it. He, too, had made some unwarranted judgments about the world of cheerleading. But as Shapiro soon discovered as he researched his documentary, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were far more than mere athletic eye candy. The squad grew to prominence during a period of powerful cultural and political churn: Dallas was recovering from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The city was just beginning to desegregate. And the women's movement was changing the country as Roe v. Wade (the named defendant in the original case, which eventually rose to the Supreme Court, was Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade) became the law of the land.
"What an interesting place to tell this story about this very controversial pop culture phenomenon that came around that was really loved and loathed in equal measure," says Shapiro. "It felt like there was a very culturally rich story to tell here."
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders couldn't be untangled from the politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, they found themselves often at the center of one of the biggest debates to stem from this era: sexual liberation.
Daughters of the Sexual Revolution explores this theme heavily. Were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders symbols of sexual empowerment or exploitation? Did they represent the same values as the decision made in Roe v. Wade — made in the same city, around the same time — or the exact opposite?
"[There's] this contrast of these sexed-up cheerleaders on the sidelines, and then around the corner at the Dallas County Courthouse you have this [case leading to a] landmark Supreme Court decision giving women power over their own bodies for the first time," Shapiro says of the primary conflict of the film.
Of course, he left the answer up to the women themselves.
"It was an exploration process for me," he explains. "I didn't really know where I was going. It was like, 'Let's see where the story takes us.' "
Shapiro had several questions he planned to ask everyone: How did you feel? Did you feel exploited? He knew he wanted to ask about pivotal moments — like the wink seen round the world, when a cheerleader in 1976 flirtatiously batted her eyes for a TV camera (broadcasting to 76 million viewers) and transformed what had been a local phenomenon to a nationwide sensation.
But the director found his best moments in the questions he never expected to ask.
"I think for me, oftentimes you go in, like, hyper prepared with this list of questions you feel flows perfectly from topic to topic," he says. "But then the truth is you ask that one question and then they say something and all of a sudden, that list of questions or that script is thrown out almost immediately, almost all the time."
Shapiro remembers his conversation with Suzanne Mitchell, the director of the DCC, when she told him she'd been raped twice.
"That certainly wasn't a response to a question like, 'Have you ever been raped?' " he says.
Instead, he tried to let his subjects tell the stories that they felt were most important.
He didn't ask them to divulge their experiences with sexual assault, eating disorders or stalkers. But the negatives were entwined with the positives, and Shapiro knew that he needed to tell the whole story.
"These are complicated times. These are complicated lives," he says. "And I just think it would have been a disservice to the women [not to tell the whole story]."
The documentary (which premiered on Starz on Jan. 14) doesn't end with a definitive answer to any of the questions it poses about these women and their legacy, but Shapiro said he hopes that viewers see that the story is about more than just a group of women dancing and waving pompoms.
"You think something is silly, but you realize that's just your own judgmentalism or your own bias taking over," he says. "If people would take the time to get to know those people who you have a knee-jerk assumption about, [the world] would be a better place."
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This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.