Plot summary: High school senior Torrance is ecstatic to be named captain of her prestigious squad, the Toros, and eager to lead them to their sixth national cheerleading championship – until she finds that all of their routines were stolen from an inner-city squad, the Clovers.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of misogyny, homophobia (including some slurs) and racism.
In this entry, I discuss the representation of cheerleaders as athletes, verbal ass-kicking, race and gender in the 2000 cheerleading comedy Bring It On.
Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) lives and breathes cheerleading, and so is overjoyed when her departing squad captain names Torrance as her successor. It is a great deal of pressure, given that their squad, the Toros, have won the national cheerleading competition five times, but Torrance is eager to meet the challenge. Torrance’s teammates include privileged Darcy (Tsianina Joelson), winsome Kasey (Rini Bell), scheming Courtney (Clare Kramer) and devious Whitney (Nicole Bilderback). When overenthusiastic Carver (Bianca Kajlich) is injured during Torrance’s first practice, she is replaced by rebellious new recruit Missy (Eliza Dushku), who becomes Torrance’s best friend. Missy initially balks from becoming a cheerleader, firstly because she considers it a poor substitute for gymnastics, and later when she notices that the Toros’ routines are stolen verbatim from a working-class, predominantly Black inner-city squad called the Clovers. The Clovers also have a new captain, the steely, regal Isis (Gabrielle Union), who makes clear to Torrance that the “free cheer service” is over and that she is determined for her team to win Nationals. With Regionals and then Nationals approaching quickly, Torrance must learn to believe in herself as a captain and come up with an original routine.
It would be difficult to overemphasise the impact that Bring It On had on girls in my community in the early 2000s. For years after its release to theatres, girls at my school would reenact, riff on and endlessly refer to dozens of scenes and lines from the film, from the painfully funny cheerleading audition scene to the showdown at the football game to Sparky Polastri the fanatical choreographer. Many women I know can still perform the opening chant by heart. I myself may or may not have attempted to establish a Bring It On femslash fanfiction community on Livejournal back in the mid/late 2000s. I am not telling you what the name of the community was, but I will let you know that when I did attempt to create a new blog, I found that to my consternation, the name “dykeadelic” was already taken.
I first saw Bring It On at a friend’s sleepover birthday party in 2001. That the film appealed to me so much was remarkable, since I spent most of my late childhood and teen years up to my eyeballs in internalised misogyny, much of it directed at cheerleaders. In the time and place I grew up in, the primary avenue for protesting sexism that was made available to teen girls at that time was denigrating other girls. As a nerdy, quiet, poor and gay kid whose awkward stage started in the year 2000 and ended in 2007, the “other girls” I was dedicated to hating were girly pop stars like Britney Spears and “stupid girls” like Brittany from Daria. To whatever degree I was like them, I felt uncomfortable, since the media seemed to hate them. To whatever degree I wasn’t like them, I felt inadequate and resentful. Something, somewhere, told me that this is the way we ought to be, but that I would be pilloried for it despite it being my natural role in life. In other words…
In this environment, girls and women get angry with cheerleaders, pop stars, actresses and other women and girls who seem comfortable and natural in the roles we’re told we should occupy. We get angry with them for existing, for making this the way we have to be too. We partake in the “[e]xplicit sexual commentary and schadenfreude” which coalesce around the figures of beautiful, normatively feminine women who appear sexually confident (Jane, 2012, 9). We do as Gloria Steinem once did when confronted with the figure of Marilyn Monroe:
I disliked her and avoided her movies, as we avoid that which reflects our fears about ourselves. If there were jokes made on her name and image when I was around, I joined in. I contributed to the laughing, the ridicule, the put-downs, thus proving I was nothing like her. Nothing at all.
In this film, cheerleading is not a sign of towering stupidity or callousness, but simply a sport enjoyed by characters who are male, female, heterosexual, queer, clever, dim, poor, rich, White or of colour. Unlike many other popular cultural depictions of head cheerleaders, Torrance is not the queen bee of her high school. As head cheerleader, we don’t see her hazing younger or less popular kids, or holding court at rowdy teen parties – we see her practicing, and practicing, and practicing her sport. While Darcy seems to be a cheerleader because she loves being the best, Courtney and Whitney thrive on the drama and Missy views it as a “last resort” at a school without a gymnastics team, Torrance is utterly in love with the sport itself. She’s genuinely a massive dork, but about cheerleading.
I remember there being quite a lot of moral panic in the early to mid-2000s about the new wave of “ass-kicking” female characters in TV and films like Dark Angel, Alias, Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels. The female characters in these shows and films used their fighting skills to subdue their enemies and rivals, and there was a lot of concern that young girls would try to copy these characters, thus doing injury to themselves and others.
As I’ve mentioned in my entry on Girlfight, between 1998 and 2006, I attended a predominantly White, private Catholic school in the suburbs of Perth in Western Australia. Very few girls at my school tried to emulate the high-wire antics and mixed martial arts we saw in popular culture. As far as I remember, girls who got into physical fights were branded as deviant. Thus, I cannot speak to the experiences of people who may have grown up in places, times or communities where physical violence was more common among young people.
Girls at my school were, however, often enchanted by the verbal conflicts in films like Mean Girls and Bring It On. I think that a lot of the time, we were attracted by how soothingly ordered the fighting was. For example, the scene where the Clovers turn up to a game the Toros are cheering at, in order to trounce the Toros in a cheer battle, was one that girls at my school seemed desperate to somehow re-enact organically in real life. (That, and the scene where the Toros taunt an opposing squad with the cheer, “That’s all right! That’s okay! You’re gonna pump our gas someday!”) The idea of drawing battle lines and astounding onlookers with choreography and wordplay appealed deeply to us. Discussing the verbal insults game of “the dozens”, Abrahams proposes that it arises from young people’s “impulse to verbally best someone, when coupled with a growing awareness of sex and the complex of emotions that surround it” (1964, 49). This was, in retrospect, exactly what was happening for my classmates and I.
I remember girls trying to liven up deathly dull inter-school sports days by getting into cheer battles with the neighbouring schools. On one occasion, the school beside us in the stands drew ample attention by parading their cheer squad down the length of the bleachers we were all sitting on. My classmates muttered resentfully to one another about this distasteful display (secretly furious that we didn’t think to do it first). Then, several of the ballsiest girls in the year proceeded to start screaming out the chorus to the pop song Ooh Stick You by Daphne and Celeste, and the rest of the girls joined in gleefully (while the teachers ran around desperately trying to make us shut up). Both schools went home that day gloating that they were the ones who had won the cheer battle, and everyone felt vindicated.
In terms of the film’s representations of race, my personal standpoint on the treatment of characters of colour is that you should ideally be open to exploring how their race impacts their experience of the world, but if not, writers should at least steer clear of harmful stereotypes. That’s why I appreciate that Whitney’s representation isn’t steeped in “dragon lady” imagery – we don’t hear chimes or a gong whenever she says something particularly nasty, and the other characters don’t call her by racist slurs when she’s mean to them. The fact that Whitney is bitchy and manipulative is not implicitly ascribed to her race. While Jan makes a lewd comment about Whitney’s younger sister Jamie “giving tongue,” the delivery of the line doesn’t intimate that Jamie is precociously sexual because she’s Asian.
As a White person, I can’t speak to the experiences of people of colour, but I know that as a gay woman, it drives me bananas when women and queer people are expected to fawn in a frankly unbecoming manner over men and straight people who treat them with the slightest shred of dignity or consideration. That’s why I really like that Isis and the other Clovers do not instantly trust or forgive Torrance the moment she tells them that she was unaware that Big Red stole their routines. Of course Torrance should find cheating reprehensible! That doesn’t make her an exemplary person worthy of excessive praise, it makes her a baseline acceptable human being! I love that Torrance has to work to gain Isis’ respect. The two girls don’t become best friends, but they are able to see each other as honourable and talented athletes.
If the film were remade or rebooted in the future, I would love if the narrative were equally split between the Toros and the Clovers – or even if the Clovers were the primary protagonists. However, I do enjoy that the Clovers are depicted as more than worthy competitors. They are not the “evil opposing team,” they have a legitimate mistrust and dislike of the Toros for appropriating their culture and taking credit for their hard work. Nor are they scrappy underdogs who will have to work exceptionally hard to compete against the Toros. They have already put in the hard yards to become accomplished in their sport, they merely lack the material resources to compete at a national level (not to mention all their routines have been stolen by Big Red on behalf of the Toros, so they can’t use their prior material without looking like they are the ones who are cheating). At all times in the film, it is more than apparent that the Clovers are phenomenal cheerleaders, athletes and choreographers who by rights ought to be able to compete. Eventually, even the Toros themselves find that coming second to the Clovers is something they can be proud of.
In terms of the film’s treatment of gender, one of its interesting quirks is that all of the female Toros cheerleaders have vaguely boyish names. Darcy, Kasey, Carver, Courtney and Whitney were originally masculine names (as is Jamie, Whitney’s little sister), and Torrance is named after a town in Los Angeles County. Jan and Les, the two male cheerleaders, have more feminine names. Torrance’s boyfriend Aaron, a former cheerleader, has a name that sounds tonally similar to the girl’s name “Erin.” The only female Toro with an explicitly feminine name is Missy, who is othered for not being sufficiently girly.
In my late teens, Bring It On was included in my private canon of what teenage Emily called “gay-straight movies” – films which had little to no explicit queer content, but whose queer subtexts made them beloved to LGBT audiences. Gay male, bisexual, trans, asexual, genderqueer and other folks may cite other films as their versions of this, but as a teenage lesbian in the mid-2000s, my personal canon of gay-straight movies included millennial girl-power films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Blue Crush, Josie and the Pussycats and of course, Bring It On. Watching these films as a gay teenager, I felt like I was in a secret club, that these films had special messages intended just for people like me. These shiny, happy, feel-good movies about young women who were close to other girls in a very familiar way felt like a giant middle finger in the face of a world that seemed intent on telling me that I was disgusting, that women should always prioritise men no matter what. It seems I wasn’t alone in this. To this day, Bring It On has a thriving femslash fandom mostly comprising people who promptly had a lesbian awakening the moment Eliza Dushku appeared onscreen.
The dynamic between perky, determined Torrance and sarcastic, supercool Missy is screwball-comedy perfection, so much so that “the screenwriter just gave Missy a nearly identical twin brother (complete with matching smirk) to act as Torrance’s heterosexual love interest” (Ortberg 2014). Analysing the film, Roz Kaveney (2006) posits that all-American Torrance’s friendship with sarcastic rebel Missy reads “as romantic, even more so than the relationship between Torrance and Cliff” because the charged moments between the girls “would be taken as wooing if they were of different genders” (166, 169). Arguably, this would include moments such as Torrance overruling Courtney and Whitney after they declare that Missy should not be a cheerleader because she reads as an “uber-dyke,” Missy shyly stepping out of her house in her cheerleading uniform for the first time and blushing when Torrance yells, “Take it off, sexy mama!” and the moment in which Missy asks Torrance “Are you into my brother?” a little more tensely than most girls would to a platonic friend. This is the rationale behind most readings of films considered to have lesbian subtexts. This shows a refusal to accept the idea that if two characters are of the same gender, they cannot possibly be attracted to each other, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. Many queer audiences are attracted to these stories because characters like Missy embody our own experiences of not being able to speak our attractions aloud.
Missy never professes any interest in boys, even in the face of homophobic slurs. She also does not assume that Jan and Les are straight, and suspects that Whitney and Courtney are queer because of their closeness. I suspect that if Bring It On had been made in a different time (either later in the 2000s or earlier in the 1990s), Missy would have been given a heterosexual male love interest to kiss at the end of the film, just to make it 100% clear that the audience was not being asked to identify with a possibly queer girl. Instead, Missy teases Torrance good-naturedly, hugs her and then runs off to hug gay male cheerleader Les.
Bring It On has been beloved by audiences for its choreography and witty screenplay, but this sprightly comedy has depth in terms of its portrayal of cheerleaders as dedicated athletes. It doesn’t trip over itself to assure us that Missy is heterosexual, it portrays the characters’ growth rather than confining all of them to a bitchy cheerleader stereotype and it doesn’t excuse the White characters simply because of their good intentions.
- Abrahams, Roger D. 1964. Deep Down in the Jungle: Black American Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. New Brunswick: AldineTransaction.
- Jane, Emma. 2012. “Flip-skirt fatales: Cheerleading, Fetish and Hate.” PhD thesis. Sydney: University of New South Wales.
- Kaveney, Roz. 2006. “On Being Good At Things: Female Competence and Sexuality.” In Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars, 161-176. London: I.B. Tauris.
- Ortberg, Mallory. 2014. Femslash Friday: Bring It On. http://the-toast.net/2014/02/07/femslash-friday-bring-it-on/