Julia Aldrich | Contributing Officer
Bella and the Bulldogs is a Nickelodeon show featuring a former head cheerleader gone star quarterback. Each episode chronicles Bella’s trials as a girl playing football, but while the show parades itself as progressive for ostensibly “flipping gender roles,” it retains and enforces many of the gendered standards it seems to outwardly reject.
In the particular episode I happened upon, Bella’s ability to play ball with the boys is called into question due to district rules barring girls for “safety reasons.” In the end, Bella’s team – clearly disadvantaged without her participation – valiantly forfeits to the opposing team, but goes on to face them in an unofficial match. This time, Bella emerges in football gear, hair perfectly curled under her helmet, tossing the ball and beaming. Seeing a girl playing and succeeding in a sport that’s dominated by men seems praiseworthy. It disputes the widely held conception of women’s atheltic inferiority. But the show’s overarching storyline does the opposite of what it apparently aims to do.
Bella’s achieves the path to happiness and popularity by abandoning cheerleading for the football team. Though this is not inherently a bad thing, the show’s methods of portrayal enforce the idea that activities that are traditionally dominated by men are intrinsically better. The vibe of the show would be much different had Bella been star of the girl’s basketball team, or even a co-ed football team, but because Bella was able to make the cut on an all boys football team, she earns praise for “overcoming” her femininity and making it anyway. That is, of course, if she can maintain her femininity in the meantime.
This trope of feminine women characters who excel at traditionally masculine roles (like a football player) is common. The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is the best hunter and archer in her district, but her beauty is still emphasized. The only female superhero from the Avenger’s movie, the Black Widow, was played by Scarlett Johansson wearing a curve-hugging bodysuit. Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones dominates lands that were ruled by men for centuries, but must look immaculately beautiful, even as a prisoner. Bella and the Bulldogs utilizes this same ideology, but manages to shame femininity while also capitalizing off of it.
The emphasis on Bella’s transition from the feminine cheerleading team to the masculine football team both highlights her original femininity and underscores the notion that the cheerleading team wasn’t good enough. Because of how often women’s sports teams, including cheerleading, are overshadowed by the teams of their male counterparts, a show that uses the cheerleading team to leverage the appeal of the football team is problematic. It reintroduces the age old idea that cheerleading is unathletic and even weak, despite the sheer amount of skill and training that accompanies the sport.
Beyond that, the show ensures that Bella always looks nice, on and off the field. When Bella was in school and hanging out with friends, she was dressed perfectly, hair nicely styled, face in full makeup. The same look transitions seamlessly onto the football field, without a hair out of place – the only visible change is her uniform, which is embellished with a pink shirt underneath her jersey. By doing this, the show makes sure to remind the viewers that even though she’s playing football, she also needs to look nice, despite how unrealistic this is.
Bella and the Bulldogs is about a middle schooler, and that’s the demographic of viewers it’s meant to resonate with. Nickelodeon tauts the show as progressive due to the nature of its content, but instead of defying gender, if enforces the idea that it is absolute. If a girl wants to play sports, then she needs to be beautiful and feminine. The fact that this is a children’s show is especially dangerous, since children internalize these ideas without necessarily realizing it. With Bella and the Bulldogs, they learn that “girly” things, like cheerleading, are bad. But they also learn that if a girl is “good enough” to play with the boys, then she had better make sure she’s pretty, too.
In order to focus our efforts on crafting an incredible print edition, this article is The Fourth Wave‘s final post for Spring 2017. Keep an eye out for distribution on Pitt’s campus, and we’ll be back with more in the Fall!