You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Film Review: ‘Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’

A likable doc captures the reign of the '70s icons of midriff-baring moxie, but its portrayal of them as empowered feminists is overly simplistic.

Dana Adam Shapiro
Suzanne Mitchell, Toni Washington, Shannon Baker, Tami Barber, Dana Presley Killmer, Kim Bateman, Carrie O’Brien-Sibley, Sherrie McCorkle-Worthington, Joe Nick Patoski, Candy Evans.
Release Date:
Mar 11, 2018

Official Site: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2018/films/125050

In the ’60s and (especially) the ’70s, it became a cliché to say “sex sells.” But the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were one of the prime examples of how sex didn’t just sell luxury cars or shampoo or entertainment — it sold itself. “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” is an engaging, once-over-lightly documentary that takes you back to the moment when women, in a public way, were throwing off the last shackles of having to behave themselves. Sure, the counterculture kicked open the door, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, in their bait-and-switch, girls-next-door-gone-wild way, pretended to be “wholesomely” all-American.

The joke of their appeal, though — and the whole charge of their act — is that they came on as grinning erotic hellions, like Rockettes for the age of porn. They made their debut (during the Cowboys’ 13th season) in the fall of 1972, just a few months after the premiere of “Deep Throat,” and their brand, while major (the poster! the calendar! the “Love Boat” appearance! the USO tours! their very own ABC Sunday Night Movie!), became larger than the Cheerleaders themselves. Those uniforms smashed a boundary: the skimpy white short shorts and blue-starred fringe vests and knotted half-shirts — and, at the center of it all, what become the world’s most iconic bare midriffs. (They turned the Cheerleaders into the missing link between Barbarella and Madonna.) In a weird way, those rockin’ midriffs were part of the uniform. They said to America: On any given Sunday, you can now be not just a sports fan but a voyeur. Scantily clad, fresh-faced sin was now a mass-market product.

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” showcases interviews with many of the former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, all from the group’s trend-setting heyday, and if they have any lingering regrets, we don’t hear about it. A number of them were beauty queens from the Bible Belt, and to hear them tell it they never stopped cherishing the bawdy exhibitionistic hip-swiveling joy of it all. They were showgirls grooving on the fun and the fame. For their second season, there were 4,000 applicants, but the Cheerleaders didn’t kick into the national stratosphere until Super Bowl X (January 18, 1976), when the Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers. From that moment, the frenzied competition to join the squad made auditioning for the Cheerleaders into the “American Idol” of its day: an irresistible if slightly cheesy fast track to celebrity.

According to “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution,” being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader was no cakewalk. The Cheerleaders increased sports revenues by millions, but each one of them was paid a salary of — wait for it! — $15 per game. (And that didn’t account for the time they spent rehearsing.) It’s no wonder most of them held onto their day jobs.

Then there were the rules, which treated them like damsels under lock and key. They weren’t allowed to date, or even talk to, a Dallas Cowboys football player. They couldn’t swear, smoke, or chew gum. They couldn’t wear blue jeans in public. And on and on, as if they were contestants in a Miss America pageant that never ended.

All of this was enforced by the Cheerleaders’ director, Suzanne Mitchell, who acted as the group’s den mother, mentor, drill sergeant, and protector. (When a Cheerleader walked in with bruises “once too often,” Suzanne ordered her abusive husband hauled out to the desert, where he was “persuaded” never to hit her again.) Mitchell, who is treated as the film’s single most important figure, suggests Dr. Joyce Brothers with a touch of Allison Janney’s LaVona from “I, Tonya.” She remains the Cheerleaders’ eternal stage mom, and their supreme advocate — in fact, she’s almost too much of one. She talks about them as if they were go-go versions of the Sisters of Mercy.

The director, Dana Adam Shapiro, making his first documentary since “Murderball” (2005), opens “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” with clips from the cusp of the feminist era — we see Kirk Douglas and Jack Palance making outrageous caveman comments on TV — which leads into a clever montage accompanied by “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” But through all of this (and the entire movie), a question lingers: Were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, in some rollicking sex-positive way, an intrinsic part of the feminist revolution? Or did they represent one step forward and one high kick back? You could make the case either way, but the film pushes the clean and forceful — if highly ironic — argument that the Cheerleaders were nothing more or less than empowered entertainers who seized control of their sexuality and, in doing so, advanced the liberation of women.

In theory, I have no problem with that. Yet for a movie that wants to celebrate the Cheerleaders for being who they were, “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” never totally confronts the nature of how the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders interfaced with America. The only time the movie raises the issue of pornography is when the legendary triple-X film “Debbie Does Dallas” arrives, in 1978, and the Cowboys successfully sue the film’s distributor for trademark infringement. (It’s barred from playing in a theater in New York, though a year later it’s released on VHS and sells 50,000 copies, becoming the most successful adult video of its time.) “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” infuses this legal victory with moral righteousness. Yet 40 years later, a more honest analysis might have acknowledged that “Debbie Does Dallas” wasn’t just a tawdry violation of the dream the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders promised. In many ways, it may have been the fulfillment of it.

SXSW Film Review: 'Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 11, 2018. Running time: 78 MIN.

Production: An IMG Films, Spindletop production. Producers: Carra Greenberg, Stacey Reiss, Dana Adam Shapiro. Executive producers: Will Staeger, Gregory Stern, Michael Antinoro, Randy Manis.

Crew: Director: Dana Adam Shapiro. Camera (color, widescreen): Doug Emmett, Drew Xanthopoulis. Editor: Miranda Yousef. Music: Michael James.

With: Suzanne Mitchell, Toni Washington, Shannon Baker, Tami Barber, Dana Presley Killmer, Kim Bateman, Carrie O’Brien-Sibley, Sherrie McCorkle-Worthington, Joe Nick Patoski, Candy Evans.

More Film

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Makes Concession on Film Financing in Agent Talks

    The Writers Guild of America has made a concession in film financing in its negotiations with Hollywood talent agents — the second in six weeks of talks. WGA West executive director David Young said Wednesday that it had made a “significant move” toward reaching a deal with the Association of Talent Agents for a revamped [...]

  • Noah Centineo He-Man

    Noah Centineo to Play He-Man in 'Masters of the Universe' Reboot

    From a boy (who’s loved) to He-Man. Noah Centineo is in talks to take on the superhero in Sony Pictures and Mattel Films’ “Masters of the Universe.” More Reviews Sara Bareilles Premieres New Songs, Declares Love for Obama at Intimate L.A. Show TV Review: 'Hanna' Brothers Adam and Aaron Nee are directing the reboot. Mattel [...]

  • Disney Fox Takeover Placeholder

    Disney, Fox Employees Grapple With Day One Transition on Two Hollywood Lots

    What kind of a boss will Disney be? That’s a question facing employees at 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, National Geographic Partners, FX Networks, and other assorted parts of Rupert Murdoch’s former media empire. Wednesday was their first full day as staffers of the Walt Disney Co. and the initial moves have done little to [...]

  • Derek Tsang Hong Kong actor Derek

    'Better Days' Director Derek Tsang Lands in World Cinema Spotlight

    Hong Kong actor-director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang has recently found himself in the spotlight of the world of cinema, but for the wrong reason. Tsang will be joining a Hong Kong filmmakers panel at FilMart on Thursday with Sunny Chan (“Man on the Dragon”) and Pang Ho-cheung (“Love in a Puff”). The 39-year-old filmmaker was expecting [...]

  • Jen Hollingsworth Lionsgate

    Lionsgate Promotes Jen Hollingsworth to Chief Operating Officer of Motion Picture Group

    Lionsgate veteran executive Jen Hollingsworth has been promoted to the newly created post of chief operating officer of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. She will work closely with Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Drake to ensure the film division’s strategic initiatives and corporate priorities encourage filmmakers’ artistic visions to thrive. More Reviews Sara Bareilles Premieres New [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Solstice Studios Boards Thriller 'Unhinged' From 'Disturbia' Writer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Solstice Studios has acquired “Unhinged,” a psychological thriller from “Disturbia” screenwriter Carl Ellsworth and “Warrior” producer Lisa Ellzey. The studio is currently out to directors. The script revolves around an extreme case of “road rage.” It’s the story of a mother whose decision to hit her horn upsets the wrong guy and leads to some [...]

  • No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No

    'Bill & Ted 3' Sets 2020 Summer Release Date

    Excellent! “Bill & Ted 3” has a release date. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter will return to the big screen in “Bill & Ted Face the Music” on Aug. 21, 2020. The duo made the announcement in a short video shot at the Hollywood Bowl, where they’ll “never play.” Production began on Wednesday. More Reviews [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content