When Football And Feminism Collide

Edited by: Amber J. Adams, Strategic Communications Manager

Director Yu Gu and Co-Producer/ Impact Producer Jin Yoo-Kim, the guiding forces behind “A Woman’s Work” reflect on the journey of making this film about professional cheerleaders fighting for gender equality in America’ favorite pastime — NFL football. They are now in post-production.

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Photo by: Hannah Bernall

Yu Gu: When I read Robin Abcarian’s article in the LA Times about Lacy T’s lawsuit, which alleged that she wasn’t paid a bare minimum wage as a professional cheerleader, I was blown away. It was 2014, a couple of years after I’d graduated from USC film school, where I first learned about the fanatic world of American football by tutoring USC football players in English literature.

At the time, I had just been kicked out of China for trying to make a short film based on my childhood during the student democracy movement. And it had taken me a year to apply for a work visa in the United States. I was brought up on the ideals of freedom and justice, but I was starting to feel like they didn’t exist and I found some escape in football.

More than a sport, it became a metaphor for the American dream to me — that you can come from nothing, work hard, and become a champion, embraced by your community and the nation.

The American cheerleader was also an icon to me — smiling, exuberant, glamorous, sexy. Women have been used as symbols of the social good everywhere, but where in this world are we actually treated fairly? I contacted Lacy’s lawyers, they agreed to set up a meeting. As I drove up to Oakland, I was curious to meet Lacy, a white woman who ticked all the right boxes and possessed that social power people dream of, but she had decided to turn against her community. She was a whistleblower but also a traitor, an outsider, and that’s something I knew plenty about. Lacy agreed to do this documentary with me and before I knew it, four other wage theft lawsuits sprang up across the country. I then convinced Elizabeth Ai to produce this film, and with her help, the scope and depth of the story grew.

Jin Yoo-Kim: That’s when I met Elizabeth and she pitched this film to me. As soon as she said that cheerleaders were not getting paid for their training and hard work, it just really pissed me off. I was so angry about it. How could someone train their entire life, achieve a spot on the most public platform to use her skills, and then not get paid a fair wage? I also thought it was awesome that you and Elizabeth, two Asian American women filmmakers, were taking on this story.

“A Woman’s Work” Director, Yu Gu

YG: We’ve definitely had to overcome some hurdles over the past four years. When I found out that I was accepted into the Firelight Media Documentary Lab fellowship, Elizabeth and I had been working on the film and pitching it to funders for a year already. I felt like people in this industry were judging me — what gives you the right to make this film? Why aren’t you making a film about Asians? Do you know anything about football? And the subject of this film always produces extreme reactions, either people feel angry about the injustice like you and me, or they look down on cheerleaders, dismissed them, believe that they deserve to be exploited. A lot of women felt this way!

Unconsciously, I internalized all this. And then I went to a Firelight retreat and as a group exercise, we had to frame our own filmmaking journey as a hero’s journey, I am the protagonist of this story — who are my antagonists and who are my partners? I read what I wrote out loud and for the first time, no one balked when I used the word “patriarchy”. There was a palpable empathy in the room. And that was a massively cathartic moment for me. I realized, not only do I have the right to interrogate this powerful, white patriarchal institution, I have a responsibility to do so.

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“A Woman’s Work” Impact Producer, Jin Yoo-Kim

JYK: That’s what I felt when you asked me, “Hey, Firelight is starting up an Impact Producing Fellowship. Are you interested?” I applied to the fellowship to learn the right tools to make this film create the change we want to see in the world.

I saw the potential for our film to impact people because it’s so indicative of the broader attitude towards women and women’s labor. I want things to be different — for myself, and for the generations of girls growing up in resistance to this version of America.

Our film is going to push forward the discussion in a meaningful way, it’s going to adjust people’s frameworks, the way people from all backgrounds think about these issues.

And we’re in the home stretch now, and I think it speaks to our perseverance, resilience, our belief in ourselves, this project and this story. I feel like sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Just being here and choosing to do this every day is a very powerful choice we get to make every day.

YG: Just like our characters who are fighting for recognition and value, we’re fighting too.

JYK: And it’s not just us, it’s all women who are fighting for recognition for their work, whatever that may be. And if we’re able to achieve a higher degree of recognition, I think it will get easier. Our lives will get easier because it’s one less pressure, one less obstacle, one step closer to living our fullest potential.

A Woman’s Work” is launching a Kickstarter campaign on November 5 until December 7 to raise finishing funds. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to get involved and empowered.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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