“This began in 2015. I was watching the Super Bowl with my son and they panned over to the cheerleaders, and it occurred to me that I wanted to know how this started. How did dancing showgirls wind up on the sidelines of sporting events? [I] wondered, was there a story there?” director Dana Adam Shapiro remembers, speaking to the genesis of his SXSW doc, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Thinking back on his childhood, the only cheer squad that he could recall in detail was the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who would become the subjects of his documentary. “We started doing some research and called a bunch of the women who were former cheerleaders, and all of them said, ‘Well, have you spoken to Suzanne [Mitchell]?’” Shapiro recalled, appearing at Deadline’s SXSW Studio. Meeting with the DCC den mother in Fredericksburg, Texas, the director showed her his previous films and convinced her to participate in his documentary, the factor on which the fate of the project hinged.
Making Daughters of the Sexual Revolution, Shapiro was happy to have his ideas of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders thrown into question. “I had only seen them as the iconography of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. They were symbols—they were blonde, they were dancing girls—but then when you started to speak to them, a lot of those stereotypes started to shatter,” the director said. “For me, that’s the most exciting part of telling any stories, that you start to feel a little foolish in your assumptions.”
Joining Shapiro in studio were former DCC cheerleaders Toni Washington, Shannon Baker Werthmann and Dana Presley Killmer, who reflected on the reasons they joined up with the Dallas Cowboys in the first place, and what they got out of the experience.
“I auditioned in 1981 because I loved to dance, even though I’m not very good at it. I loved football and I thought it’d fun, but it became a happy coincidence that really, cheerleading with the Dallas Cowboys was more about service,” Killmer explained. “It was about the USO tours, about going to see veterans, and children in children’s orphanages. I wanted to tell that part of the story, and that’s the part of the story [Shapiro] was interested in, talking about everything the girls do behind the scenes that most of America doesn’t know about.”
“You were expressing a personal service beyond yourself, and Suzanne’s big message is, it’s not what happens to you, but what happens through you,” Washington added. “We have all carried that for so long. In everything I do, it’s just the message that we carry.”
Speaking with Deadline, Werthmann was quick to dispute one popular notion—that cheerleading of that era was an exploitative endeavor. “We would not have stayed in those positions had we felt exploited in any means,” she said. “We felt empowered to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do if we hadn’t been with the organization.”
To hear more from Deadline’s conversation with the Daughters director and his documentary subjects, click above.
The Deadline Studio at SXSW 2018 is presented by MoviePass.