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?