Netflix’s new docuseries “Cheer,” which follows Navarro College’s cheerleading team and its bruising pursuit of yet another national championship, delves into the athletes’ lives and how they’re shaped by sexuality, class, race and gender. In doing so, the series illuminates the complex role that cheerleading can play in helping young people learn about themselves and how they fit into the world around them.
Indeed, “Cheer” is an invitation to complicate a lifetime’s worth of social messaging about a sport and the athletes who love it.
Perhaps no member of Navarro’s squad better embodies the positive power of cheerleading than La’Darius Marshall. Described as “extra” and “over the top,” he reveals early on in “Cheer” that when he was a child, his family and classmates bullied him for being “fruity” – for preferring back handsprings to touchdowns. For La’Darius, cheerleading offers comfort from a hostile environment and subverts the rigid ideals of masculinity that plague him at home.
“There are so many people that said I would never be anything and that I will never do anything good. That’s what really made me set out to be a great cheerleader,” the elite tumbler says.
Or as Billy Smith, a cheerleading competition organizer, describes the sport’s ability to nurture the nonnormative: “Cheerleading is an outlet for every type of boy that didn’t feel like they had a sport, but now they have a place to be who they are.” (Which is a fascinating statement, given that Navarro is located in socially and politically conservative Corsicana, Texas.)
There’s also Lexi Brumback, whose blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tumbling makes her a standout. At a moment of yawning income inequality in America, Lexi, who doesn’t come from money, shines a light on how the struggle between the haves and the have-nots afflicts cheerleaders, too.
“Most of these big-name gyms, they charge a lot of money for, you know, monthly tuition or competitions and uniforms,” she says. “I’ve been in cheer for 12 years, and I’ve never paid a single dime. I’ve always just, I guess, had that tumbling that they just want you to go to the gym. You don’t have to pay to go there.”
In time, Lexi – who as a teenager once ran away from home – cobbles together a chosen family at Navarro, whose diverse cheerleading roster includes lots of students who, in their own way, are misfits.
“I was saved by cheer,” she says. Later on, she recalls: “When I first came here, I felt like I was an outsider, almost. But we spend so much time around each other that we pretty much become like brothers and sisters, fight like brothers and sisters, are there for each other like brothers and sisters.”
Over the course of six hourlong episodes, the series reexamines a sport that’s long been viewed in terms of exhausting stereotypes – the clichés that cheerleaders, typically ultrathin women, are straight, white, fairly wealthy space cadets who float, prettily and problem-free, atop the school hierarchy.
Read more from Brandon Tensley:
What also makes the series so refreshing is that it layers peppy empowerment with explorations of the dark side of cheerleading – of how the sport can shatter prevailing cultural expectations as much as it can congeal them.
Case in point: Morgan Simianer. Abandoned by her parents, Morgan, too, has an intense devotion to cheerleading, particularly to the kinship bonds it can forge. Of the team’s imperious head coach, Monica Aldama, Morgan says: “(She) saw potential in me, and it felt like it was just the first time someone noticed me. It was like, ‘I’m not just nobody.’ “
But on top of so much else, “Cheer” is interested in power: what it looks like, what it can do. And the grip that Aldama has on Morgan can be unsettling.
During practice, Aldama, whom the squad reveres as The Queen, remarks that one reason Morgan is valuable to the team is because she has “the look.”
“Hopefully, I’ll be skinny enough so in our uniforms, you’ll be able to, like, see my ribs,” Morgan says, as she and a few other women on the team nervously weigh themselves. By the end of the series, her injured ribs have her writhing in pain, yet she refuses medical treatment that could keep her from practicing – from pleasing Aldama.
While many people have elevated the no-nonsense Aldama as the kind of leader America needs right now – when the men running the country are largely varying degrees of incompetent – “Cheer” seems warier of her queendom. The series leaves viewers to grapple with how, as with any sport, cheerleading is capable of both changing lives for the better and being undermined by its own hierarchies.
The thrill of “Cheer” is that it’s more than entertainment – it’s yet another reflection of the messiness of life.