A month ago, only a relatively small community in the world had ever heard of Navarro College Cheer. Now, after the release of Netflix’s documentary series Cheer, it seems like everyone is talking about one of the top cheerleading colleges in the USA. The show advertises itself as part-fly-on-the-wall documentary following the team in the lead-up to a national competition, part-exposé, revealing the shockingly high injury rate and full-on practice schedules within the sport.
Cheer has been heralded as gripping TV. This is undeniably true – the last episode will have you on the edge of your seat – yet the series feels half finished in its exploration of the intense training regimes that the young cheerleading hopefuls take on. It’s not a surprise that extreme dedication and sporting ambition go hand in hand – our culture is full of stories of ultra dedicated athletes, dancers, gymnasts. Of course, this is not just applicable to physical activities; competitive industries tend to breed this sort of unhealthy motivation toward ‘being the best’. At one point during the series, flyer Mackenzie announces that she has been concussed over fourteen times, at another point a dropped squad member is asked to sit to the side instead of being rushed to A&E. More often than not, the squad is punished by way of push-ups when someone gets hurt. It seems coming first or winning means that unhealthy and potentially dangerous practices or teaching methodology is completely overlooked – all justified in the name of placing first.
The series itself focuses on a handful of young people selected for Navarro College Cheer – one of the premier cheerleading squads in the country. Based in Texas, the cheerleaders lucky enough to make the final cut of 40 (only 20 of whom will actually end up on mat) come from across the USA – excited at the prospect of cheering at the most prestigious institution within their sport. In each episode, Cheer introduces one of a handful of teenagers, all of whom have come from emotional (often traumatic) childhoods. Morgan, a tiny ‘top girl’, is revealed to have been abandoned by her parents at a young age, forced to fend for herself and her brother before going to live with their grandparents. Morgan consistently refers to Navarro as her family, and is consistently eager to put herself on the line to please coach Monica Aldama. In one episode, Morgan has severe rib inflammation, but she does the usual practice anyway knowing that the routine is only going to cause further extreme pain.
In other episodes, we are introduced to La Darius who has come to Navarro Cheer from a background of bullying and abuse, and who now struggles with his temper as a result. Despite being a phenomenal athlete, he often clashes with the other team members. There’s Gabi, famous within the cheerleading community before starting at Navarro, whose family appear to be mining her talent and look to create an empire for themselves. These traumatic backstories ensure that the series is highly watchable, naturally, but where is the duty of care for these young, vulnerable people who are spilling their hearts out on camera – essentially to raise the stakes of a sporting competition?
As mentioned before, Cheer’s final episode is amongst the most tense of factual TV (on a par with Iguanas vs Snakes from Planet Earth 2). A last minute setback (the camera crew being denied access to the competition grounds) actually becomes the series’ biggest accomplishment – the footage shot on mobile phones feels more personal and authentic than the more professional footage ever could. The result is that we feel the stakes here, the tension is rife, and is experienced minute-by-minute as if we are part of the team. A badly-timed injury only stretches out this tension, and when the results are awarded, the joy is palpable.
Yet, all of this is at the expense of the cheerleaders themselves. Cheer massively succeeds in building up exactly why the stakes are so high for those competing. Not only is there nowhere to progress career-wise from college level cheer (for many of the cheerleaders, this will be their last time competing), the prominent team members all have incredibly personal reasons for why Navarro Cheer means so much to them, and in turn why winning is (quite literally) the most important thing in their lives. Digging into the kids’ trauma before the final competition drives home just how much is riding on the Daytona competition. For some of them, this is quite literally the most valuable thing they’ve ever done in terms of their own self worth.
The series seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to interrogate this clearly unhealthy dependence on cheerleading and on the squad by Monica – a great example of this is Lexi, a cheerleader who leaves after the Daytona competition because she is found to have broken one of Monica’s rules surrounding drink and drugs. As we watch her at a rave, she seems lost; it’s unclear whether she would like to go back to Navarro, but it is abundantly obvious that Monica turfing her out has not been good for her emotionally. (As a side note, it has since been reported that Lexi has rejoined Navarro College Cheer since the documentary aired.)
A lot of these issues in the ethics of the series seem to fall back onto how coach Monica Aldama is portrayed. At the end of the second episode, there is a brief mention of Monica’s ‘alter-ego’ – a woman that you do not want to cross. The squad also consistently refers to Monica’s ‘rules’; break them and you are out. That doesn’t seem like the structure of a supportive family unit, but instead of interrogating this idea further (and challenging Monica on her rules or her concept of the team as her ‘kids’), the filmmakers brush past this as just a harmless quirk. In fact, with the unmitigated happiness in the last episode, it certainly seems that Monica is justified in treating her squad in the way that she does, as it no doubt leads to success. And isn’t that what matters in the end?
Cheer is a well-crafted series which takes apart myths surrounding cheerleading as a soft sport, as well as dismantling the idea that cheerleaders should exist only on the sidelines. Despite being an otherwise incredibly well put together series, as well as giving these young people a voice, this lack of care about their relationship with Monica and reliance on cheerleading as a crutch feels significantly misguided. However, perhaps this sort of exploration doesn’t sit so well with cheerleading’s squeaky clean image.
by Becky Kukla
Social content producer by day, critic and pop culture writer by night, Becky spends a lot of time watching, writing and tweeting about TV and film, alongside constant re-watches of The X Files to relax. She’s written for Film Stories Magazine, Picturehouse Recommends, Vague Visages and Film Inquiry, amongst others, and her favourite film (at the moment!) is Annihilation. You can find her tweeting about politics, film and national rail delays at @kuklamoo