By Tim Lima
Andover Townsman, Mass.
It’s a tradition some feel is outdated, unjust and inappropriate.
Others, however, see it as a harmless gesture meant to build school spirit and unity.
The high school cheerleaders having been making cupcakes and other baked goods for members of the football team for years, if not generations.
But recently, a controversy was stirred up — like batter in a mixing bowl — that has led to people in town, including some cheerleaders themselves — to challenge the tradition as sexist and chauvinistic.
Earlier this month, a letter appeared in the Andover Townsman from the older sister of two cheerleaders challenging the custom.
Maggie Kobelski, a senior at Phillips Academy, denounced the cupcake baking done by her sisters, who are both varsity cheerleaders.
“The reason for my annoyance is that the practice perpetuates chauvinistic principles that declare that a woman’s role is to bake for and nourish a man while he does the physical work,” she wrote. “I understand the need for tradition, but some traditions are dangerous; they provide an excuse to continue practices that someone would likely shut down if one attempted to start them today.”
The letter has prompted a debate in town on social media and the Townsman website where 308 votes were cast to an online poll, showing 81 percent were against the tradition.
An expert in gender studies says the practice makes girls and women feel inferior to men. The coach of the cheerleading team says the tradition should continue as it promotes team spirit.
Many parents seem to feel otherwise. One mother said she ends up doing the baking while her daughters do their homework.
Maggie Kobelski’s mother, Jamie Kobelski, said that she and her two Andover High School varsity cheerleading daughters, Abby and Lizzie, all agree with Maggie that the practice is antiquated.
“We didn’t know Maggie was writing the article,” Kobelski said. “She did it on her own. We saw it later and all agree with her. Abby went up to her and said she was proud that she used her voice in a nice way and said what she thought without being horrible about it.”
Kobelski said other parents have sided with her daughter as well.
“I’ve gotten texts and have talked to parents in CVS or at AJFL (Andover Junior Football League) football games,” she said. “They all said how proud they all were of Maggie and side with her.”
She added that “a lot of the parents of cheerleaders I’ve talked to think the baking is unnecessary. Cheerleaders make banners for the football team to run through and they decorate the locker room. That promotes spirit.”
Kristi Artford, a professor at Northern Essex Community College who teaches Sex and Gender in a Global World, said that men are associated with the “public” sphere, such as social, political and economic, while women are associated with the “private” sphere — such as domestic and child care.
“This persists to the current day in such traditions as girls baking cupcakes for football players,” she said. “Now, there’s nothing inherently inferior in the activity of baking in itself, nor is there anything inherently superior about sports. But, the association of these particular activities with gender expectations is problematic.”
Kobelski said that her daughter Lizzie, one of the cheerleaders, believes that the football players and cheerleaders should be viewed as equals. While Lizzie is against the tradition, she doesn’t want to talk about it because “she wouldn’t want to cause any problems with the coach or the team.”
According to Artford, conformity is often a strong social pressure.
“At this age, in particular, conformity is often crucial to social acceptance — to be an outlier and a non-conformist is often to open oneself up to public ridicule,” she said. “I do suspect that this may play a big role in the reason some girls would choose to continue the tradition, despite the objection raised.”
Making matters worse, said Kobelski, is that the football team doesn’t reciprocate the effort in any way.
She said that for years, cheerleaders haven’t received any gift in return from the football players. She said she has been told of players even throwing the baked goods at each other instead of enjoying them as intended
Andover High School football head coach E.J. Perry said the cheerleaders do receive “something at the end of the year banquet,” which they have together, and said that his players don’t throw cupcakes at each other.
“They don’t throw cupcakes,” he said. “They’re not allowed to throw cupcakes. (The cheerleaders) bake cupcakes before a couple of games and leave them in the locker room. If they don’t want to do it anymore, they don’t have to do it. That’s not our tradition. It’s their tradition. They make that decision.”
He said that he views cheerleaders as “highly trained athletes who practice as much as the football players, work on their routines with vigor and perform highly.”
Andover High varsity cheerleading coach Ashley Baldwin said the tradition is meant to promote school spirit and unity between the football players and cheerleaders.
“Baking for our football players is not a way of putting these athletes on pedestals,” she said. “I can reassure everyone that my team is not hindered by their act of kindness. Baking is a way for our cheerleaders and football players to bond, share school spirit and carry on tradition.”
According to Baldwin, the girls want to continue on with the tradition.
“I respect the thoughts and concerns that have been voiced thus far, and taking a stand for what you believe in is admirable,” she said. “I, myself, will stand by my cheerleaders and their wish to continue on with this tradition.”
According to a press release written by senior varsity cheerleader Taylor Burns at the request of Baldwin, “This tradition has been around for a long time and works to bond the football players and cheerleaders together. Fostering school spirit and initiating positivity, the cheerleaders feel this practice does not degrade their sport or deflate their personal accomplishments.”
Baldwin said she was “disappointed in hearing that a long-time tradition has been portrayed to our community as both chauvinistic and belittling.”
Abby Campion, a junior at Andover High School and member of the school’s Youth Council, a group meant to empower young people to create positive change in Andover, according to its website, sees nothing wrong with the tradition.
“To me, it’s not sexist at all,” she said. “The ice hockey cheerleaders do it as well, and I’ve never heard anything negative from anyone. From the outside looking in, I think it would be fun to bake for one specific player each week. It’s a nice, good-luck gesture that is really cool to me.”
Efforts to reach Superintendent Marinel McGrath for comment were unsuccessful.