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A ra ra rotten example for girls

UK Sports Minister Helen Grant must be rueing the day she uttered the word "cheerleading".

If she hadn't listed it among the sports she thinks should be made available to women, there wouldn't have been big headlines mocking her words, saying, as the Daily Telegraph did last week: "Get more women into sport through cheerleading - it's feminine, says sports minister." Or, the Daily Mail: "Women should try CHEERLEADING so they can still look 'gorgeous', says the sports and equalities minister."

Grant later complained that her quote had been taken out of context. She hadn't after all been solely prescribing cheerleading, but rather suggesting that women be provided with the range of sports they want. But the gaffe had been made. And now she will forever be seen as the sports minister who wanted the girls to shake their pompoms for the guys.

I agree with her critics. Cheerleading was a dire choice of example, even if it does involve skill and is not for the faint-hearted - sometimes resulting, according to one participant, in "legs popping out of sockets" and "people passing out through stress". But it also concerns me when people mock cheerleading. It looks too much like femininity-bashing, a rather ugly strand in our culture.

The problem with cheerleading, however, is its history. Even if it is now a sport in its own right, it comes with a past. It's a glamorous reminder that really, women are meant to be the decorative support squad for the real sportsmen. Grant would have been better off leaving it out of her list, which also included ballet, gymnastics and roller-skating.

For me, the real problem wasn't the cheerleading, it was the way she split the sports into the feminine and the unfeminine. "Women don't have to feel unfeminine," she said, effectively writing off a whole swathe of traditional team and field and track sports as exactly that.

Hadn't she noticed that in almost every sport, from tennis to athletics, there are women already out there working their looks? However, Grant sounded vaguely entranced by the idea that girls in these "feminine" sports tended to look like they had stepped out of a pageant. She recalled a rollerblading event she had witnessed: "Those girls arrived and they looked absolutely gorgeous. They were wearing their socks pulled up, beautiful socks with sequins and their hair was done."

It is exasperating to be hearing this in the aftermath of Lizzy Yarnold's gold medal win at the skeleton, Jenny Jones's slopestyle bronze and Eve Muirhead's team's bronze for curling in the Winter Olympics. Grant couldn't have been listening when Yarnold said she was going to use her win to encourage girls "not to worry about the media image of the perfect woman", and talked of her desire to be a strong role model, about "being athletic and being proud of who you are".

Of course, who you are might be someone who likes to wear lots of makeup and bounce around with (or without) pompoms - and this is partly what Grant is acknowledging. But cheerleading is closely tied to that "perfect woman" media image that enslaves us, and to recommend it is to further the stereotype.

One of the things I've loved about this Winter Olympics is watching my two young sons witness the British women excelling. These particular games have been, for me, as a watcher, about women - about witnessing their skill and daring, and actually not thinking too much about what their body shape is, since mostly they are wrapped in layers of insulating suit.

I'm looking forward to our own big set of games happening here in the summer and hoping the boys will see women excel there too - and that we won't hear much discussion about how feminine or unfeminine they are.

Grant's statements were made out of a desire to draw more women into sport. But comments like these reduce the range of possibilities for women rather than increase it. Of course, if women want cheerleading and Zumba (another activity she mentions), these should be made available. But is there a Zumba shortage? Are parents of girls staging mass protests to get their local leisure centres to provide gymnastic sessions? Girls already have these things available to them. What they lack is the singular sports monoculture that boys have, one that shapes their lives from an early age, and which dominates our media - and that is football.

So, Grant shouldn't have mentioned cheerleading, or femininity, or sequined socks. What she should have focused on was simply urging, as she did, broadcasters to show more women's sport and saying that a "behavioural change" was needed.

That change, I believe, is already happening. The 4000 extra tickets for the female-only sport of netball at the Commonwealth Games sold out within hours last week. "I think we need to get to the point where women's sport is looked on and regarded as equal to the men's game," said Grant.

I'll cheer for that. But somehow I don't think we're going to get there through cheerleading.

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