Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Yu Gu's film, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, tackles feminism and football head-on.
Born in China and raised in Canada, Yu Gu first became a football fan while studying film production at USC. But after being immersed in sport’s culture, she later found herself directing a documentary about NFL cheerleaders’ fight for fair pay and workplace respect.
“It’s hard not to get caught up in the narratives of football,” she says. Yes, some of the games are boring, she learned, but she was enthralled by comebacks. She got Sunday Ticket, and shocked her husband by firing up the service’s multi-game view to catch all of the action. “I was definitely caught up in it and I still am,” she says, “But at the same time, I can separate that with a critical eye.”
“You’re also taking advantage of my fandom and my loyalty and getting away with things that actually are not right,” she says. “We’re not saying you can’t love your team or you can’t love your sport. No, you can. We just need to make it better.”
Gu’s film—titled, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, which premieres at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival—centers on a former Raiders cheerleader, Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, and a former Bills cheerleader, Maria Pinzone, who sued their employers for wage theft in 2014. Gu says she struggled to fund the project early on, as fans scoffed at the dancers’ fight and some didn’t see how the scantily clad performers fit into modern feminism. “They were kind of baffled I was even paying attention to this,” she says.
Others wondered how Gu would craft a clear narrative given the various antagonists in play. Beyond fans’ antipathy, there were cheerleaders who found the movement misguided, and the NFL, which did its best to avoid the issue entirely. Gu and her female-led production team wanted to keep the story complex. That was authentic. “For us as women living today … It’s not like we can identify that one person who’s the reason we’re not being treated equally,” she says. “It’s everyone.”
Ultimately, A Woman’s Work becomes a story of its two protagonists’ maturation as they discover their place in a larger battle—as well as the hardships of womanhood. And as much as Gu hopes the film changes the role women play on Sundays, she also wants the work to resonate beyond the sport.
“You know as an immigrant to this country, before coming here you buy into the American dream…. My parents always told me you have to work hard. You have to work ten times harder than other people in order to succeed and you believe in that and that's what you do,” Gu says, “but you can see on so many levels in so many ways that that is not true. The American dream is broken.”