If you do a job, you should be fairly compensated for it. That’s a straightforward and uncontroversial statement, and yet as proven by “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” the National Football League believes it doesn’t hold true for team dancers, who have toiled for decades as de facto volunteers. Director Yu Gu’s documentary concerns two of the women who, beginning in 2014, filed class-action suits to challenge this situation which, especially in the age of #MeToo, stands out as egregiously nasty and discriminatory. Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s a tale of injustice that should speak to many.
Yu’s prime subjects are former Oakland Raiderette Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields and Buffalo Jills member Maria Pinzone, both of whom achieved their sports-dancing dreams, only to discover that they were expected to work countless hours, up to 9 months at a time, without earning a dime. This, despite being prominently touted on team websites and at official functions, where they acted as emissaries and performers. Worse, as “independent contractors,” they had to pay for many of their work costs themselves. It was a cut-and-dry case of a business, and a league, taking advantage of women, who were supposed to be grateful for the “privilege” and “honor” of their public positions.
Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone don’t agree with that opinion, and while their lawsuits engendered support from some of their colleagues, there was disapproval from various corners, including male talk-radio blowhards and former Raiderettes who chastise the two dancers for not appreciating what they have. Through a deft editorial combination of interviews, dramatic recreations and graphics, “A Woman’s Work” demonstrates that the NFL should be ashamed of its policy, considering that annual league revenues are in the billions of dollars and its dance squad members are toiling for peanuts. The circumstances are insulting, and they’re compounded by commissioner Roger Goodell feigning feminist concerns by hosting “women’s summits” and promoting his product with ad campaigns that tout Football Is Family — to which NFL Players Assn. executive director DeMaurice Smith responds: “You’re not in the will. You’re not part of a family. You’re part of a job.”
The central question raised by “A Woman’s Work” is articulated, simply, by Pinzone: “Why would a billion-dollar industry do this?” The callous answer, per Yu’s persuasive film: because it can. Such treatment (replete with cheerleader handbooks that patronizingly mansplain how to use cutlery and tampons) is the byproduct of the league’s greed, arrogance and sexism, since there’s clearly an underlying sense that cheerleaders are devalued because they’re viewed as bimbos who should look pretty, keep their mouths shut, and do whatever they’re told. As the Yu also suggests — albeit in a cursory manner that would have benefited from more detail — the NFL’s behavior is consistent with the general insensitivity toward women of those in charge, be it Buffalo Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon, forced to step down due to allegations of misconduct with female employees, or Goodell’s mishandling of numerous domestic abuse cases by players.
“A Woman’s Work” doesn’t waste time discussing the merits of Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone’s cheerleading aspirations; instead, its story is about social and economic inequity, and the brave fight waged by some — in the face of tremendously powerful opposition — to level the playing field for current and future generations of NFL dancers. That its message so naturally dovetails with the #MeToo movement only further underlines its timeliness.