She's had enough, and she's not going to fake it any more

The fixed smile of the cheerleader has cracked. In a suburb of Washington, girls have cast down their pompons and are refusing to cheer on (or `entertain') their high-school sports stars. From the sidelines, America looks on aghast

`No, absolutely not. They are in class; they're preparing for exams, and I'm not getting them out of class." This was the adamant response from Kenneth Culbert, headmaster of Loudoun Valley High School, to my tentative request to talk to a few of his senior pupils.

In other circumstances, perhaps, the headmaster might have been more tractable. But he had just found his school at the centre of a local media storm that touched on the subject of the moment in the United States: the often tense and ever-evolving relations between the sexes. And although there was not the slightest suggestion of impropriety in this case, and the scandal - such as it was - was all attitude and no action, you could understand his point of view.

Local baseball enthusiasts, it had been reported, were encountering unprecedented and quite unexpected difficulties in recruiting just a few dozen girls to be "hostesses" for a major national event to be held in their county this summer. Worse than the recruitment problem itself, though, was the charge levelled by a number of Loudoun Valley High girls that the very notion of "hostesses" for the event - the finals of the youth baseball tournament, the Babe Ruth "World Series" - was outdated and sexist. The teams, you see, are all male, and the hostesses, obviously, are to be female.

One of the "refuseniks", 16-year-old Brooke Hoeltzel, said: "You can't consider me a feminist, but when they told me about that, I said: Nope." She said she played basketball and tennis herself, and insisted many of her athlete friends shared her view: "They don't want to be cheerleaders." Jennifer Potts, a 17-year-old from the same school, said she was not volunteering because: "The way the hostesses are portrayed is a wimpy, girly image."

In the safe suburban world of Loudoun County, with its manicured lawns, two- parent families and Saturday sports, their words had the ring of rebellion. Were the girls finally questioning the seemingly indestructible order of junior sports, according to which the boys play and a select band of girls - chosen for their conventional American "cuteness" - chant, cheer and cavort along the sidelines?

Loudoun County in northern Virginia, a bare half hour by car to the west of Washington DC, is typical of the overwhelmingly white country-turned- suburbs that ring so many big American cities, providing good schools, spacious houses and a sanitised haven from urban evils for those who can afford it. The very model of comfortable, conformist, complacent suburbia, this is one of those places where you may not mow the lawn on a Sunday morning without attracting censure, where too frequent an absence from church will be remarked upon, and where hospitality is returned promptly and with point-for-point exactitude.

It is also a world where women are seen overwhelmingly as wives and mothers, even if they work full-time; where there is real social pressure (still) for every woman to be as elaborately clad and coiffed as her neighbour and entertain in the manner of hospitality guru Martha Stewart, and where girls are protected and prettified into womanhood.

But these small towns turned suburbs also breed contradictions. Loudoun County used to be lush farmland and prosperous horse-country; now, its population is one of the fastest-growing of any county in the whole of the United States. Green fields and clapboard farm-buildings are vanishing by the week, replaced by the new "executive" estates, high-tech business parks and shopping malls that all prosper in the aura of Washington's Dulles airport. The county town of Purcellville, which will host the junior "World Series" tournament that has so suddenly sprung to notice, has a gracious heart of white, 19th century mansions in the southern style familiar from Gone With the Wind, but also concrete shopping malls and multiplying circles of pastel terraced townhouses.

For suburban girls who have the city nearby, computers on their desks, perhaps their own car in the multi-car garage, and the liberal Washington Post or New York Times on their breakfast tables, these are confusing times. There is pressure to behave like cheerleaders - pretty little consorts, modest and flirtatious by turns. But there is pressure, also, to toughen themselves for college in pursuit of that other model of today's all-American girl: the budding city career woman, who strides out with confidence to worst the men in the world of work.

Hard though this may be to credit in the land where modern feminism began, these contradictions are still new and unfamiliar in America's sheltered suburbs. One working mother penned an opinion article for a US newspaper, lamenting the likely break-up of the Spice Girls, because in her view this British group had provided a welcome model of female assertiveness and self-reliance - "girl power" - for her sub-teenage daughter. The dearth of such models in Barbie-doll America is why the reluctance of Loudoun Valley High School girls to be hostesses made news.

Soon afterwards, though, Loudoun County's defensive barriers were firmly in place. Well yes, there had been some initial difficulty in recruiting hostesses, said Jaima Brown, who is responsible for finding and training 33 girls before the tournament starts in mid-August. But that may have been because the organisers did not know how best to go about it. Advertisements in local newspapers, she said, had been confusing because they made it sound as though the hostesses were to be like host families. Once they presented the openings at local schools, and explained the hostesses' duties, she said, interest had picked up. Now there were almost enough.

Eric Zimmerman, a local lawyer who is also a leading light of the organising committee, was also carefully upbeat. But while insisting that the whole affair had been overblown, he ventured that it might have been better to call the girls "goodwill ambassadors", rather than hostesses. "Obviously, we're not running a dating service," he said. The girls' duties are to make the visiting teams feel welcome (three will be allotted to each visiting team), attend all "their" team's matches, and encourage them. Would they be cheerleaders? "We're all cheerleaders," he said quickly - clearly mindful of the objections voiced by some of the girls. "But if you're talking about short skirts and pompons - no, that's not what's going on."

Both Ms Brown and Mr Zimmerman suggested at least some of the recruiting problems may have stemmed from the fact that there were so many other things for girls to do in the Washington region besides hostessing.

Girls' sports, for instance, are proliferating in the wake of legislation that requires schools and colleges to spend as much on them as on boys'. So girls do not have to be cheerleaders to participate in sport. The job market this summer, with unemployment running at less than 4 per cent nationwide and a shortage of workers in the burgeoning suburbs, may also be part of the explanation. Girls of good education, with mothers prepared to ferry them around or with their own driving licences and cars, will have no difficulty earning a good deal more than pocket money through the summer. Hostessing for the Babe Ruth League junior baseball may be an honour, but it won't help pay college fees or dress bills.

For the girls who have volunteered to help out, it is the excitement and sense of involvement that are the draw. Amanda Emich, whose father is active in local baseball and who lives in Leesburg, said she saw the hostessing as a good opportunity to meet new people - "after all, there's not that much else to do" - and a "once in a lifetime thing" to be involved in a national event on this scale. She thought it was "silly" to call hostessing sexist: "After all, it would be kind of funny to have guys hosting other guys."

Emich has a point. The Babe Ruth "World Series" is a national event, bringing teams from across the US for two weeks of matches, fairs and socialising. Loudoun County has raised $250,000 of private money to refurbish its baseball stadium, and the whole organising effort, from start to finish, has been the responsibility of volunteers in the best tradition of America. The Babe Ruth League has only 12 staff workers on its books.

Yet the fact that this year, for the first time in 20 years, it was hard to find girls to be hostesses, surely says something, too. Not only about Loudoun County, but about changing America. Before the defensive wall went up, Eric Zimmerman let slip that one reason for the difficulty in recruitment might be the greater number of professional women in the Washington area who provided alternative role models for girls. Washington, he mused, was perhaps different from the other places - all further south - where the tournament had been held before.

His caginess about a phenomenon as all-American as cheerleading also signalled a change. It was only five years ago that the small town of Hempstead in Texas made national news after four of its high school cheerleaders revealed they were pregnant - by members of the football team. The ensuing outcry dwelt not on the nature of the boy-girl relationship fostered by the all-male sports culture in schools, but on whether the girl who had an abortion should have been allowed back on the team. Now, the discussion would probably range more widely.

There have been other incipient stirrings of "girl power" from America's mostly co-educational high schools, too. This is the season of the high school prom - the school-leaving dances that are such a rite of passage for American teenagers, especially girls. The girls are still dressing up in satin and frills as though they were going to a Viennese opera ball, rather than the school gym, still comparing notes on who did their nails and their hair and their make-up. But they are also teaming up to go in girl-only groups, if no boys have plucked up the courage to invite them, and for a girl to ask a boy is no longer (quite) the leap of courage that it would have been a decade ago. The girls' forwardness was still sufficiently novel, though, to make the headlines of Washington-area newspapers last month.

The prom invitations, the Spice Girls, the decline of the cheerleader as the acme of American girlhood and the reluctant hostesses of Loudoun County may be no more than straws in the wind. But there is a wind. It is starting to ruffle the cosy conservatism of suburban America, and could eventually blow away the lingering ideal of the Fifties-era family that has made growing up so hard for American girls of the Nineties.

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