Filmmaker Yu Gu was born in Chongqing, China, raised in Vancouver, Canada, and found her way to the University of Southern California film program. Her films, like the feature documentary that she co-directed Who is Arthur Chu?, which won two festival grand jury awards and was broadcast on WORLD Channel in 2018, explore intersections between different cultural worlds and people on the margins. Her documentary A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem sheds light on women at the margins and on the sidelines, exploring the continued fight to end the gender pay gap prevalent throughout the National Football League. Through the stories of two women in particular the film paints a vivid picture of gender inequality at the heart of America’s favorite pastime. 

“The central question raised by A Woman’s Work,” wrote Nick Schager in Variety, “is articulated, simply, by [cheerleader Maria] Pinzone: ‘Why would a billion-dollar industry do this?’ The callous answer, per Yu’s persuasive film: because it can.”

Yu spoke to us about how she bonded with the women featured in the film, how they are doing this year given the challenges of trying to work through the pandemic, and how she first came to view American sports as an “outsider.”

How did you get the woman at the center of your film to trust you? Since this story is so intimate and at times painful for them.

I met Lacy, Maria and the other women in the film at a time when they were marginalized by the only community they’d known. As an Asian American woman, I’ve always felt like an outsider, so that mode of existence was very familiar to me. This created a kind of common humanity between us, but deepening that trust would take much more time. I first started filming with Maria in the spring of 2015. A year later, her mom Carol was experiencing a recurrence of breast cancer that would eventually take her life a month before Maria’s wedding. 

Yu Gu, A Woman's Work director
Yu Gu, filmmaker

I didn’t quite know how to handle the filmmaker-participant relationship at that moment. I knew Maria was devastated, they were very close and often the only source of support for one another. On the one hand, there was a pressure to document this loss, to allow viewers a closer bond, but I also felt as a human being, I needed to give her privacy and space to grieve. After talking it over with Elizabeth, I asked Maria if I could film her wedding. Joan Churchill said something about filming verité as a “friend in the room” and that’s how I approached it. 

The emotional and physical labor of planning and executing a wedding, of grappling with loss while needing to be present, that became the creative lens around this part of her journey. I think that difficult experience became something we shared and it was a turning point in our relationship.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making A Woman’s Work?

One of the biggest obstacles we had to navigate was something powerful yet intangible—people’s preconceptions and biases toward our film participants and the story. Our approach of making a film at the intersection of football, labor rights and gender from the perspective of former cheerleaders, was difficult for the industry to grasp. 

At one pitch session, a potential industry partner asked us point-blank, why does it matter if these women are not paid when they can just go pose for Sports Illustrated or Playboy? Some felt it was too commercial by the fact that the main participants were sexy, glamorous cheerleaders, some felt like we should be focusing on the cheerleaders’ attorneys instead who were doing the “real” work.

In 2014 when we started this film, former LA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks had just been revealed and yet many people still felt that sports and social issues or social justice should not mix–that it should be a pure consumerist space of no-strings-attached escapism. 

We were confronted with dismissive attitudes, victim-blaming, many people questioned if my producing partner Elizabeth and I – both Asian American women – had the skills to “tackle” this story. Did we know anything about football? Between my frustration and anger, I secretly cherished making people uncomfortable and triggering their fear response. Eventually, we made it part of the work, to build connections between seemingly disparate people, ideas, and histories. 

We dove into research on women and the labor movement, the various waves of feminism in the United States, the structures of the NFL, and the genesis of professional cheerleading. My editor Victoria Chalk and I talked extensively about placing the stories of these women within a larger context and a lineage. 

Too often people dismiss abusive and dehumanizing behavior against women by minimizing it to one space, oh that’s just locker room talk. We wanted to deny people’s ability to do that by showing that we’re all complicit. With the help of our archival researchers, we amassed a large collection of visual materials which included home videos from our film participants as young dancers, historical footage of women’s movements, and footage generated by the massive NFL media empire. 

The challenge was to uncover and repurpose the mechanics of harmful dominant narratives, and to weave that with the intimate perspectives of our main characters. In the early days, we pitched the film as a David and Goliath battle. But as we continued to edit, we realized this wasn’t about one individual versus one villain, it was about taking on a system of institutionalized misogyny.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

We followed a third character, Krystal Cruz, who cheered for the New York Jets and filed a lawsuit for wage theft right after Lacy. Krystal brought a passion for dance as a form of artistic expression. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include her full story in the film. 

Lacy with girl in dance class, in a Woman's Work

We also filmed with Alyssa Ursin, Maria’s co-plaintiff in the [Buffalo] Jills case, but wasn’t able to include as much as we’d hoped. There were so many women who bravely spoke up and all of their stories are part of this movement for change, but we could only do so much in a limited amount of screen time. In the end, we structured the film around two main characters, one woman who was the first and another who continued the work. The idea was to show this one segment of a relay effort, that there were others before them and others who would take up the mantle.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

“Too often people dismiss abusive and dehumanizing behavior against women by minimizing it to one space, oh that’s just locker room talk.”One of my favorite scenes is what my editor and I affectionately titled “The Look.” It starts with home video footage from Maria’s childhood and slowly incorporates NFL-produced footage of cheerleaders as she recalls her earliest memories of meeting the Jills cheerleaders in her local mall. It’s one of the dream-like scenes of the film and composer Allyson Newman did a great job with the score. You start by seeing this little girl, hamming it up for the camera, then you see her playing with friends and stuffing water balloons in the front of her bathing suit. 

Maybe you’ve filmed your daughter doing these same things. Then you’re bombarded with sexy images of fully grown women dancing in sequins wielding dazzling pom poms. The scene ends with Maria reading misogynistic internet backlash against her and other women who’ve filed lawsuits for wage theft. 

When is it okay to objectify this girl? When does she change from human to object? When does the desire to embody a socially-promoted beauty standard get twisted into slut-shaming and a way to devalue women?

Do you have any updates on the women featured in A Woman’s Work? I’m sure our audience would love to know. Including how they’re able to get by during this pandemic year without crowds and without many work opportunities?

Lacy has been homeschooling her three kids and taking care of her grandma who needs help. She had to stop teaching dance. 

Maria is a tax accountant who has been able to keep working and she gave birth to a daughter last year. They both have not pursued trying out for other teams after they filed a lawsuit. 

In general, in this 2020 [NFL] season, most of the teams with cheerleaders have selected squads, some are now performing in the stadium again, but not on the sidelines. With so many outbreaks of COVID-19 among the players and staff, it’s uncertain whether or not the cheerleaders are working in a safe environment, and they’re treated differently by different teams so there’s no consistency across the league.

Your prior film Who Is Arthur Chu is a fascinating look at a different sort of celebrity using his platform to bring social change. What did you learn from your experience on that film that you brought to this one and how do you see those two films connecting to each other?

In 2014, I began filming A Woman’s Work a few months before co-directing “Who Is Arthur Chu?” but finished it first in 2017. I think my interest in both stories came out of the same fascination of people misbehaving, people at the margins trying to take on the mainstream. Both films also deal with hypermasculinity and misogyny but from opposite ends of a spectrum. Arthur Chu, a controversial Jeopardy! champion turned writer, penned an article “Your Princess is in Another Castle” where he uses his own life experience as a bitter male nerd angry at women to examine misogyny. 

He discusses Elliot Rodger, the “incel” who murdered in the name of revenge for rejection by women. Rape culture teaches men that they deserve to be loved by women, are entitled to it. In the same vein, there’s the attitude that cheerleaders don’t deserve a minimum wage because people are entitled to their beauty and athleticism. In American popular culture, the Asian male nerd trope is the antithesis of the glamorous cheerleader, but they’re part of the same narrative ecosystem. Think Long Duk Dong and Molly Ringwald’s character in The Breakfast Club. I wanted to blow open both stereotypes.

Arthur is in many ways an antihero in the documentary. He’s hyper-intelligent and passionate, but cagey and angry. Lacy and Maria are unlikely protagonists in a feminist documentary where a big part of their journey is learning what feminism truly means to them. Making Who Is Arthur Chu? taught me to fight for my main characters, to honor them without judgment or putting them on a pedestal.

Were you able to screen this film to audiences before the COVID pandemic hit? And if so what interesting reactions did you get from people?

Throughout our film festival run, we had the opportunity to hear from audiences across the country. There were some reactions that I keep turning over in my mind. Some former cheerleaders, in defense of the organizations they worked for, posted on social media that they loved their experience and wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money. They feel that they can’t get paid a fair wage and also love their job, or maybe somehow the money they would be paid in exchange for the work would taint the experience. I think that the women who stood up are simply saying, you can and should have both. 

In Boston, we screened the film across the street from Harvard University. An audience member said to me, “I know a New England Patriots cheerleader who is a professor at Harvard, so she doesn’t need to get paid as a cheerleader.” At the time I really didn’t know what to say. Sometimes these things catch me off guard, because something so obvious to me is not at all apparent to others. I also got the sense the film made this person uncomfortable and my hope is that it chipped away even a little at the walls in their mind.

Marie in front of Buffalo's football stadium

Were you a sports fan growing up, and what was your reaction the first time you saw American football cheerleaders?  I know you went to USC where sports and football are really huge—what kind of impact did that have on you as you started to explore the story of A Woman’s Work?

My dad played basketball in China during the Cultural Revolution, it was how my parents met. But he was barred from playing in the district finals because of my grandfather’s undesirable political background. As a result of this story being passed down to me, my fascination with sports was always colored with political and cultural significance. 

We didn’t have cheerleaders in any of the schools I went to in Canada, so the first time I saw American cheerleaders was in movies and TV shows like Bring It On and Friday Night Lights. They were larger-than-life stereotypes, little more than their hyper-sexualized uniforms, only second behind the schoolgirl uniform. Their sexuality was part of their social power and yet that power was resented and hated. To me, these female characters reflected more on the hypocrisy of their creators and the society that consumed them. “Football is a sport but the NFL’s business is entertainment.”

As an international student at the University of Southern California, I tutored football players, all African American, who were recruited from the surrounding neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. Every hour of their day was managed by a system that only valued them if they continued to perform on the field. They loved the game, but only a handful of them would make it to the NFL where the chance of injury is almost 100%, the average career lasts 3.3 years, 70% of players are African American, and the higher you look on the hierarchy the more it’s dominated by white men. Commissioner Goodell actually put it best when he said the league is a microcosm of society. 

When it came time to make A Woman’s Work, I knew early on that this was not going to be a straight football documentary, or even just about cheerleading, it would be a study of pervasive inequality.

What do you think cheerleading represents about America? And do you think there’s still a place for sports cheerleading in an evolving society? 

Part of the job of a cheerleader is the emotional labor of emanating endless optimism from head to toe, unyielding loyalty, big glamor, and big confidence. In high school and college, the cheer teams are called spirit teams, literally bringing the energy in order to win. Professional cheerleading and its devil’s bargain is a metaphor for the role that women have played in American society. 

The monumental economic engine of America, its stature as a global power, and the influence of its cultural industries could not be what they are today without the undervalued labor of women, especially Black women and women of color. And yet their labor has been taken for granted, expected for free, and exploited for others’ gain. 

Marie in cheerleader gear

Football is a sport but the NFL’s business is entertainment. Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys have not won a Super Bowl since 1996 and yet they are the most valued sports franchise in the world. Until the day all 30 of the multibillion-dollar NFL stadiums are demolished, there will be a place for game day entertainment, for performance and spectacle, for fan and community engagement. At the same time, there will be thousands of women, and now men, who have trained since they were children as dancers and cheerleaders, who crave the chance to perform in front of 80 thousand fans. 

If the league gives room for cheerleading to evolve, if they allow these workers the power to influence their own industry, the culture of their workplace, their creative identity, then professional cheerleading has a bright future. The divide between college stunt-style cheer and the dance-focused styles of professional leagues is arbitrary. 

If we, as fans and society-at-large, can rid ourselves of outdated stereotypes and internalized misogyny, if we can enjoy the beauty and athleticism of cheerleaders without denigrating them, then yes, professional cheerleading has a bright future.

From left to right, Co-producer Jin Yoo-Kim, Producer Elizabeth Ai, dancers Megan Tallon, Micaela DePauli, Anna Mischio, Abbey Moody, Laura Chen, Arista Williams, and Director Yu Gu in a constructed tunnel on the set of our stylized shoot in Simi Valley, CA.
From left to right, Co-producer Jin Yoo-Kim, Producer Elizabeth Ai, dancers Megan Tallon, Micaela DePauli, Anna Mischio, Abbey Moody, Laura Chen, Arista Williams, and director Yu Gu during a shoot in Simi Valley, CA.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

  • Yi Yi, by Edward Yang. This movie inspired me to become a filmmaker. It follows three generations of a Taiwanese family at a turning point.
  • Sans Soleil, by Chris Marker. I love the camera as a wandering eye.
  • Strong Island, by Yance Ford. One of my favorite personal documentaries for its portrayal of absence and private time.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

After completing two feature documentaries and taking them through the distribution process in the past five years, I’ve developed a need to experiment with form. I’m clearing my eyes so I can see the world again, differently, tapping into that simple instinct when I first learned how to use a camera. I’m finishing up an experimental documentary that’s adapted from a three-channel installation on the memories of migrant farmworkers. I’m also in the early stages of developing a personal project.