AUSTIN, Texas — Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is really the untold story of Suzanne Mitchell, the now-deceased former director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders who led the squad through over a decade of TV appearances, USO tours, scantily-clad photoshoots and—of course—Dallas Cowboys football games. While the film goes deep on the cheerleaders’ origin story— how a squad of high schoolers was upgraded to a roster of beautiful women in hot pants and go-go boots—it becomes quickly apparent Mitchell is the true star of the film.
Director Dana Adam Shapiro told The Daily Beast about the genesis of the film, explaining, “You have a concept, which is the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and then you have a character. If you don’t have a character then you don’t have a movie. ‘Where did the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders come from?’ might have been a really good magazine article. But when we found Suzanne, it became a movie.”
The only female executive in the Cowboys’ organization at the time, Mitchell was appointed to usher in a new age of NFL cheerleading in 1976. Up until her resignation in 1989, she acted as the chief authority and visionary for her historic squad.
Mitchell was the one who decided who made up the team, adhering to archetypes (the redhead, the girl in pigtails) while simultaneously putting an emphasis on diversity and representation. She acted as judge and jury, dictating strict rules (no gum, no blue jeans in public, no talking to the players) and brutally enforcing them. While Mitchell was, according to many of the people interviewed for the documentary, a formidable or downright terrifying figure, she also showed fierce love for and dedication to the cheerleaders. At one point in the film, Mitchell recalls the measures she took to reprimand a husband who was physically abusing a Cowboys cheerleader, joking, “It’s nice when you have contacts.”
She was tasked with overseeing both the individual cheerleaders and their collective image, which was designed to flirt with sex appeal while retaining an aura of All-American charm and class. In one stunning anecdote, Mitchell describes a mobster holding a knife up to her throat in the midst of a legal battle over Debbie Does Dallas, a porno that Mitchell perceived as sullying both the reputation and, more specifically, the iconic uniform of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Shapiro told The Daily Beast that, “This is a woman who took on the mafia because she felt that they disrespected her uniform. You look up Carmine Galante, he’s a motherfucker. He’s a boss. A lot of people would have just let that go, but she was like, they disrespected my girls! Finding a person who lives with that type of integrity is hard to find.”
It’s also documentary gold. Dana Presley Killmer and Toni Washington, who were both Cowboys Cheerleaders in the ‘80s, told The Daily Beast that Shapiro wasn’t the first person who tried to get Mitchell to share her story.
According to Washington, “Lots of people have approached Suzanne, even some within our organization, about writing her story.” Killmer recalled, “Some would send scripts and Suzanne would send the scripts to Toni and me and ask, what do you think of this? And we would send them back and say, you’d hate it. And then one day she called us and said, ‘I want you to talk to someone, his name is Dana and he wants to do a story about me and the cheerleaders.’ And I said, ‘Do you trust him?’ And she said, ‘I trust him. So when he calls, take his phone call.’ And I knew she was serious, so I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ Because 35 years later, that’s still what you said: ‘Yes ma’am’”.
Killmer, meanwhile, says Mitchell “was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, even when she was dying.”
“She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of 2013—she survived for three years and four months with pancreatic cancer, which is unheard of. I think what kept her going were her women, her girls, and Dana and Carra making this movie.”
Recalling the film’s premiere at SXSW on Sunday, Shapiro said, “I know she was watching, and all of her lieutenants were watching—this was someone who they held so dear to them, and they trusted me and our team, so it was very scary to sit there and wait, wondering, ‘What if we got her wrong?’”
He continued, “People were chasing this story for years. She told us she just didn’t give it up. And then at the end of her life she gave it to us. So it was a tremendous responsibility...It was very nerve-wracking for me to sit there in that theater.”
But according to Killmer and Washington, Sexual Revolution did Mitchell justice. “Did I like the film?” Washington joked. “I cried through the whole thing.”
In addition to domestic abuse, Sexual Revolution touches on gritty topics like sexual assault and stalkers, complicating the mythology of the “most famous group of cheerleaders in the world.” That might sound surprisingly hardcore if you’re expecting a film about southern belles in short-shorts, but the contextualization of the Cowboys Cheerleaders amidst larger themes like women’s liberation and the sexual revolution is thoroughly justified.
Killmer explained that, until the protests, she had never really considered her cheerleading through the framework of female empowerment. “I was just having fun and doing what I wanted to do,” she began. “The years I was there we did a lot of state fairs and halftime shows for universities. And we would raise money for different organizations, and we went to Fresno State University out in California to raise money for the women’s athletic department. And I don’t know for sure but I remember Suzanne saying that we raised something like $200,000 dollars performing for them at halftime. And we got to town, and outside the women’s dorms there were signs that said hearts and minds not bumps and grinds. Female athletes were screaming at us to go home and throwing things at our bus. And that was not the normal reaction that we received! And we were there for them. We were women helping women. That’s what we thought! And they wanted us to go home.”
She continued, “Suzanne asked me to go on and do an interview that night with the coaches and some of the female athletes, and they asked me why I was doing this, because they said we were setting women back a decade. And I said no, I’m doing what I want to do, I’m a PR director during the day and a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader on nights and weekends, I’m a woman doing what I want to do. That’s what you stand for! How can you tell me that my choice is wrong? Shouldn’t women be able to do whatever they want to do? I didn’t audition to be a part of that conversation, but we were faced with it from time to time.”
Washington added, “I think the organization stood for and showed what you can do for other women. No color. I didn’t see color. I didn’t feel any different from Dana. That’s not what it was about. I was my own woman, doing what I wanted to do. I think for me the takeaway was we’re stronger together. Cause guess what, it’s not Toni Washington going out there and doing a kick line by herself. All 36 girls have to get it up. We have to do it together.”
For Shapiro, the larger themes of the documentary, from diversity and inclusion to women’s liberation, occurred naturally. “I would ask everybody, you were celebrated obviously, you guys were larger than life, so who didn’t like you? What was the criticism,” he recalled. “And they said, well we got a lot of criticism for sending women back. And so you go where the interviewees take you. I remember [Dana] talking about her experience at Fresno State. So we started looking this stuff up, and found articles that were very condescending, they were disparaging. In terms of the women’s movement, it was essential, it was revolutionary, it changed things for the better—but maybe this one aspect of it, like the women are saying, maybe it goes against this idea of sisterhood.”
The filmmaker admitted that it was “tough” to talk about the gendered aspects of the film, joking about a “no comment” before proposing, “I guess I’m just going to say it was never supposed to be a ‘feminist’ movie, it was like a humanist film. Suzanne was a humanist; she didn’t consider herself a feminist. We always were trying to make a movie that was a more secular, spiritual, humanist movie. And an inclusive movie that was deeply patriotic without being partisan, which I think is very hard to do. We made a movie about the military and about loving America that doesn’t speak to left, right, blue, red. And that was something that Suzanne put out there—this universality, this love that didn’t have barriers, whether it was race or class or any of these things. So I didn’t see myself so much as like a ‘man director.’ It was more that I was telling this story, and I was going to go wherever the story took me.”
At the height of their fame, the cheerleaders traveled internationally for appearances, inspired two made-for-TV movies, and guest-starred on The Love Boat, all while stealing scenes from the sidelines. For revolutionizing the sport and updating it for the television era, the cheerleaders earned a paycheck of 15 dollars a game—a sum that, as one cheerleader put it in the film, “didn’t even pay for the pantyhose.”
“The 15 dollars a day, we joked about it,” Killmer recalled. “In fact my final performance was the friends and family performances, and Mr. Texas Schramm [the Cowboys’ former president and general manager] was in the audience, and I sang the song ‘She Works Hard For the Money,’ the Donna Summer song, and at the end I said Mr. Schramm, how about 15.50 a game? And then the lights went down! He wasn’t happy about that. He didn’t want to give up that 50 cents a game. But it was never about the money for me, because I had a job, and this was something that I did for fun and for service and for sisterhood.”
She went on to explain that, “I did make about $10,000 a year as a cheerleader, between the USO tours and then if you got four or five of those appearances a year…but it was extra income. They paid us very little for the games but we got paid handsomely to sit and smile and do autographs for two hours. And Suzanne would not let us go anywhere unless they provided us with a limo, two security guards, and if we flew, we flew first class. So we were treated very nicely. It was a good place to be.”
Killmer and Washington recalled singing to soldiers in the belly of ships and performing on stages flanked by tanks. Killmer remembered, “It felt very surreal to be singing and dancing with a war—I mean, they called it a conflict, but there was a war going on. It was a dangerous time. The Marines didn’t know we were coming until the day before because they didn’t want anyone to kidnap us.”
While the Cowboys’ cheerleading squad may be better known for its uniform than for its service, this commitment to entertaining the troops was just one of the revelations that made Shapiro and his team consider these women in a new light. At the beginning of the process, Shapiro recalled, “I thought cheerleading was a little bit frivolous, silly, retro or kitsch, because I didn’t know any of the human beings who did it. I just had this idea of what it was…but then you’re talking to the cheerleaders and you’re talking about politics, you’re talking about gender, you’re talking about service—it was mind-blowing that this was going to get us into that.”
Producer Carra Greenberg agreed that the experience had been eye-opening, saying, “I thought of myself as a person who had a well-formed perspective on this, and I didn’t.” She added, speaking to Killmer and Washington, “You guys all taught me a lot about being a woman, about making your way in the world, and about how to do it in your own way.”