The Joy and Heartbreak of ‘Cheer’
Netflix’s addictive docuseries shows that in collegiate cheerleading, pride is temporary, pain is forever
Cheer, the six-part Netflix docuseries about an elite collegiate cheerleading squad, has a winning formula that’s made it TV’s first breakout hit of 2020: small-town athletics, Texas kitsch, and beautiful young girls in pain. In the three weeks since it premiered, coverage of the show has blanketed the internet and taken over social media — reviews, quizzes, essays, memes. It’s even gotten the Saturday Night Live treatment, a recent skit that reduces its appeal to thick Southern drawls and cringe-inducing injuries.
On SNL, the young women and men who make up the cheer team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, are drawn as brain-dead Barbie dolls. But Cheer takes pains to debunk the popular image of cheerleaders as dumb blondes waving pom-poms. Documenting Navarro’s journey to the national championship competition in Daytona Beach, Florida, which originated in 2000, it makes the drama of Bring It On look cartoonish. Bruised ribs, broken bones, rolled ankles, concussions — this is Cheerleading: The Gritty Reboot.
It’s true that today’s version of cheerleading is closer to Olympic-level gymnastics than the kind of dance routines the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders whip out to rally a crowd. It’s also true that the girls on the Navarro team are uniformly beautiful, and that prepping to play their sport involves two-plus hours of hair and makeup. Although Cheer profiles two men on the team, the series is predicated on the age-old allure of girls suffering gorgeously. It’s a tribute to their talent and ambition, but Cheer — created by Greg Whiteley, who also helmed the Netflix docuseries Last Chance U, about junior-college football players — hints at a damning truth about college sports in America: Some athletes, and their futures, are more disposable than others.
“Everything that we work for comes down to two minutes and 15 seconds,” coach Monica Aldama explains, and she means that literally: Unlike so many other collegiate sports, particularly men’s, there’s no professional cheer organization to aspire to. Presented as a cross between Friday Night Lights’ Eric and Tami Taylor, Aldama, who was born and raised in Corsicana, Texas, went to business school and originally wanted to work on Wall Street. But then she and her husband had kids, and decided to raise them near family. So, in place of a career in business, Aldama treats her team like one. She put the lessons she learned at school into cheer: Winning is good; losing is bad. Appearance matters. Push your team hard, and identify weak links. Don’t worry about hurting people’s feelings. It’s a system that rewards discomfort and glorifies pain.
On the one hand, it’s depressing to watch these brilliant young women and men mangle their bodies for a pursuit that has no career path; as one talking head points out, cheerleading leads to more injuries among female athletes than any other sport, and the injuries have become more serious as competition pushes coaches to choreograph more difficult and dangerous routines. The NCAA does not consider cheerleading a varsity sport, so its safety guidelines don’t cover cheer. The sport is almost completely governed by a private company called Varsity Brands, which oversees the competitions through an organization called National Cheerleaders Association. As the injuries pile up, it’s hard not to wonder if all this is worth it. They’re destroying themselves for two minutes and 15 seconds of triumph.
On the other hand, the Navarro routine is among the most incredible feats of athleticism you’ll see. Whiteley and his crew make the stunts look absolutely spellbinding, capturing the tumbling, spinning, and balancing from a wide variety of angles that emphasize the sport’s gravity-defying dynamism. When the camera gets right in the middle of the action, the viewer feels like the one who’s about to leap into the arms of a team member, or catch one. In some shots, girls vault up from below as if they’re weightless, swooping up and into formation on top of their teammates; in others, the routines are slowed down, making the athletes’ backbreaking work look as fluid and natural as a flock of birds taking flight.
They look indestructible, but, of course, they’re not. The girls regularly step on the scale, hoping for visible rib cages; one “flyer” (the ones who get tossed in the air), Morgan Simianer, weighs just 96 pounds. In one episode, afraid to tell Aldama she’s in pain, Simianer sneaks off to an emergency room between practices after sustaining multiple blows to her ribcage. She leaves the hospital without taking the recommended medication, which would preclude her from practice that afternoon. Other team members admit to multiple concussions, which they shrug off. There’s work to be done.
On top of the pressure of school and cheer, many of the athletes tend to outsize social media profiles. Gabi Butler, already well known in the cheer world before Netflix came along, had some 500,000 Instagram followers according to the doc; now, she has more than a million. Still, the show’s depiction of her post-graduate prospects don’t inspire much hope. She’s shown back home in Florida with her parents, who homeschooled their daughter after they started putting up YouTube videos of her stretching routine. She is the family business, and her parents brag that she doesn’t need to earn a four-year degree because she’s already making good money. (On top of cheerleading, Butler acts as the spokesmodel for her sister’s line of bikinis.) Where that leaves her in 10 or 15 years is anyone’s guess.
Cheer depicts a precarious moment in these girls’ lives: the end of adolescence and the beginning of something more complicated. Aldama’s evolution from cheerleader to business-school graduate to wife, mother, and cheer coach is both an inspiration and a warning. It’s a subtle demonstration of the narrowing of a woman’s path beyond that brief moment of post-adolescent, pre-adulthood glory. When Simianer returns home at the end of the school year, her grandfather suggests she work as a nail technician or hairstylist. If they’re lucky, some of the girls might end up coaching, although most cheer coaches are men.
It’s no wonder these kids kill themselves for two minutes and 15 seconds of perfection. There’s a kind of nobility in the idea of making such an effort simply for the rush of accomplishment and adrenaline. The appeal of Cheer lies in the tension between pity and awe, pain and beauty, strength and vulnerability. The series holds that tension in its title, which can be read as both a plain descriptive and a more sinister imperative: Don’t forget to smile!
Aldama’s instruction is good training for the world that awaits the women of Cheer, which for a select few appears to be the realm of Instagram influencers. In this light, her tough-love coaching feels like boot camp for the self-imposed surveillance state of contemporary life. Success, these kids are taught, means pushing yourself past the point of discomfort while outwardly displaying no pain. Aldama’s not training cheerleaders; she’s training soldiers.