The Curious Case of the Science Cheerleader

via iStock Photo/Paul Hill

At first glance, Darlene Cavalier is the type of woman many feminists view as a role model for their daughters.

Darlene  is a senior adviser and contributor to Discover Magazine.  She earned a master’s degree from an Ivy League school.  She’s the principal investigator on a project from the National Science Foundation. She has been published in the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine. She also built a business called Science For Citizens that, true to its name, tries to foster citizen participation in scientific research.   She  was also one of the people behind the NSF/NBC Sports “Science of Football” series.

Darlene is a passionate advocate for science literacy, and especially for helping women and girls overcome cultural barriers to pursuing careers in science.  The problem, say some, is how she does it:

You see, Darlene is a cheerleader. A science cheerleader.

As an undergrad, Darlene scored a gig as a cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers to help her pay for school.  She leverages that background to promote literacy and engagement to people who may not otherwise be searching for the latest developments in, say, molecular biology.  Despite hearing more than her share of “dumb blonde” jokes, she keeps a positive attitude and constantly works to make science as “cool” for young people as, say, cheerleading.

And on her website, she features a lot of perky babes in shiny, tight outfits swinging pom poms (and, for full disclosure, the occasional link post from me).

This makes some feminist scientists more than a bit dismissive of Darlene’s efforts. Take scientist/engineer Susanne Franks, who shares her thoughts on Thus Spake Zuska:

Science Cheerleaders is, at the very best, an outreach program for already-privileged girls who are already interested in science/engineering but who are afraid it will make them look like fat lesbians.


While she may be one of Darlene’s more colorful critics, Suzanne isn’t alone.  I’ve heard from other scientists, and other feminists, expressing “concern for the message this sends” and so on.  Some say we’re telling girls it’s not enough to be smart and curious, now you have to be pretty.  Others say we are trivializing or insulting women who have worked – indeed, fought – their whole lives to be accepted in a male-dominated field.  Still others say we are ignoring the diligent outreach efforts that academic organizations have conducted for decades, and their approach is the way to go. Finally, there are those who say that cheerleading is so sexualized it has no place in our society.

I’ve heard Darlene’s response to this criticism, and to be honest, I agree with it.  Interestingly, it’s not a stirring defense of cheerleading, though it’s clear she thinks it does more good than harm.  To the scientists/feminists who are turned off by her approach she says simply, “You’re not the people I’m trying to reach.”

Love it or hate it, cheerleading isn’t going away anytime soon.  Kids flock to it. If you want to get kids interested in something, you go to where they are.  You have their idols talk about it.   That’s pretty basic PR.

Darlene also talks about the emails she gets from moms saying “my daughter has only been interested in cheerleading and now you’ve shown her that she can do this too.”   That’s sorta the point, isn’t it?



  • Shank

    In the interest of fairness, I must disclose that I know Darlene personally and am completely behind what she is trying to do. Spend 10 minutes in a room with her and some charismatic Nobel winners and she’ll be the one who has you passionate and excited about science. (I know this from personal experience, I’ve actually been in that situation)
    The folks who question the cheerleader approach are the same ones who smack their foreheads in despair when they see major-party presidential candidates being applauded for their intentional ignorance of and disgust for science. ‘How can people be so hostile to science?’, they plead into their keyboards as they blog and comment on the latest outrage.
    Well, folks, if PBS specials and university outreach projects were enough, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. We do a great job preaching to the choir and extra-excellent job of making people think that science is something that belongs to a select group of special people, preferably ones with PhD after their names. Got your foot square in the crosshairs? Great! Pull that trigger…
    We need people like Darlene because frankly, we need people who read, well, People as much as those who sit in bed on a Sunday morning and thumb through Nature Nano. (which, BTW, comes out on Sunday mornings. curious.) We need them all to understand the importance of science in their life and open them (and their children) up to the possibilities of a life dedicated to its inquiry. I personally find cheerleading a bit vapid (sorry, Darlene…) but boy, it sure does seem popular. If you could tap 1/1000th of the intensity put into cheering into expanding the role of science in society, we’d all have second homes on Mars by now.
    As for the “fat lesbian” bit, well, all I can say is, project much?

  • JT Lewis

    Anyone who’d seen the children clamoring around the Science Cheerleaders at the Philadelphia Science Festival would get the point. Go Science!!

  • My feeling? No person is one-sided. We all have an aggregate of interests, science, art, music, sports, and yes, even cheerleading. She is only pointing out that one person does not have to have science as their one and only interest. We are multi-dimensional and she is highlighting that. More power to her for bringing science to many more kids!

  • Wait, how is this a problem? The funny thing about some types of feminists is that they claim to want to expand choices for women and girls to make them limitless and able to be their authentic selves and pursue whatever passions they want. Then, when they take a stereotypical feminine role they attack them for not being masculine enough. Just because we become more expansive as women and we break down barriers doesn’t mean we have to completely reject who we were before the Women’s Revolution, because there are a lot of good things about cheerleading: learning to compromise and get along with other females is a huge one they will benefit from their entire lives. There are a lot of good things about knowing how to sew: I have made nearly every curtain in my house, blankets for my babies and Christmas stockings, because I didn’t want to be limited to the ones on the market. There are a lot of good things about being a support to one’s husband and family, it creates a loving bond.

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