The False Cheerocracy: The Unexamined Subversiveness of ‘Bring It On’, 20 Years On

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Celebrating the 20th anniversary of its release, Bring It On begs to be rewatched by children of the 80s and 90s, drunk in a pile with friends while indulging in the campiness as how the film brands itself. Yet these same children deign to critique it as the cheesy, hyperbolic teen sports film it is because there’s just something about it. It’s a high school film that, after initially being called banal, has developed into a cult film that holds up under scrutiny when it comes to being “not just another teen comedy.” For many, the film has floated out of the public consciousness, replaced by less blatantly teen-oriented — and more universally acclaimed — classics like Juno and Superbad. But now, it’s time to treat the film like a piece of critical early 2000s media rather than a set of cute takes wrapped up into a cheerleading comedy: there’s another underlying level of unexplored satirical commentary that can be interpreted and pulled out from the film. 

The film’s first-glance finger-pointing is that the viewer shouldn’t be laughing at cheerleaders — cheer is a valid, competitive sport that deserves to be recognized. The next level of interpretation that viewers and culture critics over the last 20 years have obsessively pored over is that the usage of cheerleaders as the subjects of the Bring It On takes aim at issues like misogyny, emasculation, homophobia, and racism. This is quickly and basically achieved through the successful male cheerleaders juxtaposed with the failing football players and the commentary on cultural appropriation when Tor discovers the ugly truth behind the (predominantly white) Toros routines stolen from the (predominantly Black and Latinx) Clovers. However, if you’re willing to see the flick as a complete satire, under the film’s spry surface and Kirsten Dunst’s sunny smile, there’s a brutal critique of the sports meritocracy (and, more broadly, meritocracy as a supposed system that justly rewards hard workers) that both cheerleading captains Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) — henceforth “Tor” — and Isis (Gabrielle Union) buy into that simply doesn’t track.

Universal Pictures

From the many sequences of the crowd unrealistically bopping in unison to Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts) existing entirely to deliver the tagline of “SPIRIT FINGERS!!!”, the moment when the viewer realizes something is off is the moment when the satire works. Unlike the oft-unrecognized satire of Fight Club leading unwitting dudebros to emulate the film’s contents rather than condemn the violence-as-a-product-of-capitalism it portrays, Bring It On prefers to smack viewers in the face just like American Psycho is recognized as satire through its extreme violence and hyperbolic portrayal of corporate America. The more one rewatches Bring It On, the more one realizes that the film is brimming with absurdist quips and moments that it would be impossible to list them all. The religious cheerleading squad praying, the cheerleading mom arguing with the ref — “Our next defeat is scheduled for next Friday at 8 o’clock!” — “I know you don’t think a white girl made that shit up!” — “That mother didn’t kill anyone! She hired a hitman!”

The satire of Bring It On functions on three primary levels: style, dialogue, and story. Select characters, like popular cheerleaders Courtney (Clare Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback) operate on all three levels. Acting as secondary antagonists on the story level, they deliver gutting and often absurd dialogue (“Where is this girl from, Romania?”) that play into the mean popular girl trope while their over-the-top behavior adds a final layer of satire. Other characters like Tor’s brother Justin (Cody McMains) and Darcy (Tsianina Joelson) are simply there to reemphasize the satirical nature, which they accomplish through style and hifalutin dialogue that would otherwise feel completely out of place in this high school film. Her brother’s quick quips and language arguably beyond his years are evident of the film’s attempt to satirize the sibling character in teen comedies as well as simply imbuing an extra dose of laughs just like Darcy’s standardized testing vocabulary that she loves to burst out (“Bring on the tyros, the neophytes, and the dilettanti!”) fills the role of the nerd with a spin.

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The film’s ultra-famous opening sequence (“I’m sexy, I’m cute! I’m popular to boot! I’m bitchin’! Great hair! The boys all love to stare!) best encapsulates a satirical style (and, transitively, tone) to which the rest of the film aspires. As the girls dance in a stereotypically salacious way (in stark contrast with the film’s acrobatically-advanced and gymnastics-dominated cheer sequences), the film presents itself as self-aware — it understands that it’s a film about cheerleaders, so it isn’t expecting audiences to take it particularly seriously even though it leverages complex issues. Screenwriter Jessica Bedinger notes having to fight for this scene in the film in order to recontextualize cheerleaders and bringing this self-awareness to the viewers from the start. And although it is a dream sequence, it uplifts Tor’s foolish, privileged vision of herself as this goddess above the rest, until, of course, her untimely dream self loses her shirt, and she gleefully bares her chest before screaming in horror and embarrassment when she realizes what has happened. When read in light of the girls stuck in an athletic institution that pushes them to objectify themselves and sell out as they fight tooth and nail for a trophy (and, most notably, a check), the film takes on a decidedly more harrowing feel.

As the protagonist, Tor herself naturally plays on all three levels, but the effort placed on the style plane is surprisingly large. Slightly off-kilter from the satirical approach of a straight man operating in a nonsensical world, Tor herself is a naïve one navigating a complex world that she very clearly doesn’t understand. Our hero Tor is endowed with a satirical bent, featuring her intense transitions from her regular continence to being extraordinarily over excited when cheering — popping up in the middle of the frame, bug-eyed, smack in front of the camera, grinning like we’ve never seen here before.

Tor is placed in contrast with Missy (Eliza Dushku), who frequently acts as her foil. The queer-coded Missy — strolling confidently into the gym for cheer tryouts, keys carabinered to her cargo pants, driving a snazzy blue VW bug — is actually the straight man (or woman) in this narrative, the level-headed one that pokes holes in Tor’s bright and perfect cheer captain life. Unlike Tor, Missy holds her morals close — she’s ready to quit the team when she realizes that the cheers were stolen. Conversely, Tor is flabbergasted, nearly in tears — she doesn’t understand how the former cheer captain Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), someone she admired, could have hurt her so badly.

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Bring It On’s satire is easily read from the characters’ exaggerated behaviors relative to each other, weaving between taking the characters’ words at face value and deciding whether they are just servicing a larger comedic meaning. The relative normality of Missy’s skeptical approach to the team compared to Tor’s fanaticism thus forms a large satirical basis of the film. However, Tor also seems rational most of the time when compared to Courtney and Whitney, putting her in the position of the straight man. The film cleverly shifts from making the viewer believe in Tor’s honest pursuits (in contrast with Courtney and Whitney’s selfish power grabs coupled with dramatic quips) to subverting her validity through Isis’ and Missy’s matter-of-fact assertions of the harmful Toros cheer-stealing in which she’s very much complicit. In doing so, the two different contexts initially use satire to drive Tor’s innocent discovery of the real world, then they use satire to reveal how she’s lost in a greater system of injustice far beyond her grasp, understanding, or ability to change it.

At first, Tor doesn’t realize that the world doesn’t function like she thinks it does. But when it does work in her favor, like getting a free pass to nationals while still using a “purchased” routine because for their previous year’s win, she thinks the system is fair. She still doesn’t realize that Big Red’s bad judgments — and like those of countless captains before her — have been hurting the Clovers for years, and when Tor learns about the real world, she panics. In making fun of Tor, the film thus grants our naïve Tor the ability to change because she’s genuinely sorry. She has a satisfyingly robust arc, in part because she starts out so ignorant. Her innocence acts as a strength, and the enlightened Tor comes out on top at the end even when the Toros don’t win first place at nationals. Ironically, it’s Courtney who has to buck up the whole squad after winning second place. The team has been lulled into such a sense of security and necessity to win in an unfair system that it takes a massive mental reset for them to realize getting this far is something to celebrate. If not for the labor of the Clovers, they may never have made it to nationals — ever.

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In all her naïvety, Tor gets to the point when she describes cheerleading — it’s something she loves and something she’s good at. (“We’re the shit. We’re the best. We have fun, we work hard, and we win national championships.”) In response to Missy claiming that “It’s only cheerleading,” she even emphatically exclaims: “I am only cheerleading!” However, Tor has a nearly undiscussed scene in the film when she’s with her love interest, Cliff (Jesse Bradford), at his house’s swings, and he asks her why she cheers if the whole process is such an uphill battle for her. In a moment of seeming clarity and self-awareness, she simply states, “I don’t know.” Naturally, she snaps out of it quickly, and it’s never spoken of again in the film, but it deserves a huge mention that there is something gnawing at her inside. 

Like the opening sequence, when this scene is read within the framework of the film as a complete satire, Tor’s statement takes on the aforementioned darker tone. In recognizing the system she’s stuck in, it’s a sort of Matrix moment for her that she loses as quickly as it comes. As a cheerleader, she’s fueled by the promise of achievement and success, which she has obtained; nothing stops viewers from reading Bring It On as Tor’s own arc of discovery and self-fulfillment through cheering. Yet a wrench is thrown in when acknowledging that this activity she’s involved in has so many greater forces at work, and she finally sees that her easily-earned success of years past has more complex implications. So many characters point out Tor’s ignorance, leading to her overly shocked responses, including telling Missy in a fit of half-confusion, half-indignation that she’s going to “kick [her] ass!” If Tor is on her own journey of self-discovery in preparing her team and competing at nationals, she’s also on a journey of futilely confronting these systemic forces and promptly ignoring them. If characters point out any facts, they often quickly denounce their own awareness of the fraudulence, rendering themselves blameless — and thus sucking Tor back into this loop of naivety and belief in the idea that hard work will instate them as winners.

Bring It On can really be read as any institutional system that abides by a pre-established set of norms determined by a governing party that has placed itself either formally or informally in power, like the cheer association who seems to make absolutely no effort to help inner-city teams go to the competitions as well as the helicopter cheer moms and rich white girls’ fathers who fund their children’s teams. Those in the system end up seeing it as fair and condition themselves to succeed within it. Tor’s slimy, toxic boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman) tries to gaslight her into resigning as captain, encouraging to give into this system to “let [Courtney and Whitney] deal with the politics” under the guise of wanting to see her happy. Aaron relegates Tor to the back because he knows that she wants to do the right thing, while he has given up caring about her because he has no repercussions for doing so and gains all the benefits of taking advantage of her. When those with influence, like Aaron, perpetuate the harmful system by suppressing those who rise against it, it continues and grows. (As Tor hysterically puts it without any sort of self-awareness, “They just reject the unfamiliar!”) Bizarrely, even Courtney and Whitney want to forfeit nationals rather than play fairly. Despite their extreme competitiveness, they’re in a position to only play by the institutional rules, and they see no other alternative. (Work hard and leverage the talent they claim to have? Impossible!) Big Red’s proclamation that she was a real leader only cements this and openly chastises Tor for not adhering to “what worked best”; even the team is so stuck in this way that they would either agree to forfeiting (or in the former case, simply agreeing to the stolen routines) rather than go to nationals because of their conditioning to play by the system’s rules.

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Egged on by the team, Tor engages in a struggle to “do the right thing” while effectively failing to acknowledge the greater forces at place. It becomes almost disastrously laughable as she tries again and again to play fair while the entire team except for Les (Huntley Ritter) and Missy are eager to go back to the stolen routines. However misguided it is, Tor is the first one to offer the Clovers the money to attend nationals — and she takes it upon herself to literally “even the playing field.” While she so shockingly learns that much of her past cheer career has built on the backs of the labor, dedication, and appropriation of the work of Black women, it all seems well by the end — the Clovers have “rightfully” proven their cheer supremacy as Tor and Isis acknowledge their mutual leadership and now-friendly rivalry. But as the film launches into an overly cheery/cheer-y pre-credits sequence of the actors smiling, dancing, and waving to the camera as “Hey Mickey” plays, it’s only natural to wonder: Has Tor really learned anything? Has she changed anything? Has she changed?

Tor ultimately faces up against an increasingly absurd world out of her control and bends to many of the whims of the environment, ultimately revealing some self-awareness but still conforming to this space she’s conditioned to despite this discovery of how the world “really works.” She still fails to critically engage, even in passing, with her own position and privilege as an upper-middle class white woman, instead turning to strange arguments to defend a supposedly meritocratic sphere for upholding values that, in many ways, aren’t there. The cheerleading association gives free passes to activities (like paying external coaches to teach routines) that are “frowned upon” rather than prohibited, literally uplifting wealth as a valid way to advance. It’s a complex, distorted system that continues to reward competitors who have money, time, and enough baseline talent to be trained and coached. Like so many false meritocracies of today, Tor and Isis are in pursuit of success in a system that rewards them and the rest of the cheerleaders for unfair competition against each other, conditioned to fight each other for a trophy that isn’t even given out on the basis of talent alone as they believe it to be.

So maybe Tor is right in telling Courtney, “This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” But as much as Tor thinks she is — she’s not the one in charge.

by Olivia Popp

Olivia Popp is a culture and entertainment writer with a love for speculative fiction and techno-thriller film and TV. You may also find her devouring mac and cheese with a similar passion. Find her on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.

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