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SXSW: The Rise Of The Cowboys Cheerleaders 17

AUSTIN – Leave it to Dale Hansen to have the best line in a documentary about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Talking about the team’s girl-next-door image, the Channel 8 sports anchor said, “I don’t know where that next door would be. None of them ever lived next door to me!”

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” made its world premiere here on Sunday. And that idea is the paradox that the film spends maybe half of its 86 minutes considering. The public has been told since the 1970s that the young women stalking the sidelines at the Cotton Bowl, Texas Stadium and now AT&T Stadium are the wholesome sweethearts of the heartland. And yet plenty of fans have had less-than wholesome thoughts while watching them strut their stuff in those knee-high boots. Were the cheerleaders a blow to feminism or feminism in action?

The film and the dozen or so former cheerleaders from the 1970s and early ’80s featured in it come down on the side of it all being good, clean fun. Yes, they were leaning into their sexuality. But it was a choice they made, and one that they would make again.

The real star of “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” is Suzanne Mitchell, the woman who directed the squad from 1975-89 and forever changed the football-watching experience. For the young women she directed, she was part mother, part dictator. The way she ran her rehearsals wasn’t unlike former Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant’s well-documented training camp with his Junction Boys. They were five hours a day, five days a week – all for a measly $15 per game. And if Mitchell thought one of the members of the squad wasn’t quite fitting into those hot pants, she let her and everyone else know about it.

“I think from their perspective, I was too hard,” Mitchell says in the film. “I think from my perspective, it was necessary.”

Some of the women in the film say the experience lead them to body issues and bouts with anorexia. Yet you get the sense listening to them that they consider that a price of admission to the defining experience of their lives.

And if Mitchell could overstep in some areas, she was also their champion and defender to the outside world. She’s the one who took on the producers of “Debbie Does Dallas” when the skin flick used the Cowboys Cheerleaders’ uniform. She’s the one who called up a few “associates” to send a message to a team member’s abusive boyfriend. And she’s the one who envisioned the cheerleaders as a service organization, sending the team to countless fundraisers, hospital visits and – most famously – USO tours. From Korea to the Middle East, Mitchell traveled with the squad to Army bases and aircraft carriers. Once, while riding in a Marine jeep in Lebanon, she narrowly missed being shot in the head by a sniper. All because she wanted to make sure that service members felt like someone from home cared about them.

Director Dana Adam Shapiro got the idea to make the film in 2016 and began calling up former cheerleaders. All of them – in some cases 40 years after putting down their pom-poms – said they needed Mitchell’s permission first. So he called her up – a call she was of course expecting.

“The first thing she said was, ‘If you’re serious, you should come down here, because I’m dying’,” Shapiro said after Sunday’s screening. “She gave us the story – she’s the one who opened the doors to us. She said that people had been hounding her for this story for decades and she always said no – she didn’t want to give it out, she wanted to control the message. As you can see, she was pretty vigilant. I don’t know why it was, but she said OK to us.”

Shapiro started filming in early 2016, and Mitchell died in September of that year.

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” screens again today and Saturday. There are no plans just yet for a North Texas screening, though it seems like a no-brainer for this year’s Dallas International Film Festival, which rolls in May. That lineup should be out sometime next month.