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.