I couldn’t stop watching Cheer, the six-part documentary series from Netflix about a cheer team in Navarro, Texas. But why? I’m used to seeing highly-skilled physical performers—onstage and off—and love all vernacular forms of dance and movement, subculture and art, especially as they spit in the eye of taste and value. But cheerleading has always seemed complicit with the status quo: a popularity contest written from the book of normativity. But the straight-up storytelling and extreme work ethic of the Cheer kids—caught up in brutal histories and economies yet still laboring towards a win on the mat—had me rooting for them, throwing High V’s in solidarity from the sofa.
Cheerleaders figure low in the hierarchies of art and culture, says historian Natalie Adams early in the series; they “are in the same category as beauty pageant contestants and Playboy Bunnies.” Part of the viewing pleasure, then, lies in seeing a dismissed form—and its stellar practitioners—taken seriously as the camera follows the team while it prepares for the national championships in Daytona Beach. While much of the history of embodied performance has leant toward masking effort, Cheer shows us the sweat behind the chin pop, the frown behind the fake smile, in what I took to be a stunning portrait of labor in the harsh economy of the twenty first century.
Lexi Brumback is a virtuoso tumbler, a role primarily reserved for the boys in the squad; she vapes, she hates school, she draws pictures of girls falling through galaxies and cats flying with JetPack boots. La’Darius Marshall is also a virtuoso tumbler—assisting with stunts, executing power tumbling sequences; he’s a dazzling performer, a master of shade and a fan of Bad Girls Club. Gabi is, wait—a “cheer-lebrity”?! An all-around talent with a giant fanbase, Gabi is under huge pressure from a dad who aims to help her “monetize herself” and a family operating a small industry around her. Morgan Simianer is more of a “no-fear-lebrity.” A top girl/flyer who steps up to replace an injured teammate, she is perhaps dangerously driven by a need to please but with a wry sense of cheerleading’s ontology—high-effort, low-return, at least by some measures. Jerry Harris is a stunter, irresistibly smart and sweet; striving to make first-string at the nationals, he is known for his positivity and high-energy mat talk—“Stay tight! You’re gorgeous! Ninety-Eight Pounds!” What brings them together? Hard-core determination, camp sensibility, and wisdom—all wrought through arduous life experiences of poverty, violence, loss, bullying, and alterity.
At the helm is head coach and dance mom Monica Aldama, who pushes them onwards, past exhaustion and injury, insecurity and conflicts. With her black boots, camera in hand and scrutinizing gaze, Aldama is a hard mother, tough as gel nails: “The way that we prepare is, you keep going until you get it right and then you keep going until you can’t get it wrong.” Calling to mind the queasier aspects of so much high-performance coaching, we see both her sadism—as she makes T.T. Baxter practice while injured as payback for disobeying her; and her compassion—as she helps Lexi file a police report about illicit images circulating on Twitter.
Predictably, under Greg Whiteley’s direction (Last Chance U 2016—and Mitt 2012), narratives of character and morality raise the value of the work at hand. Whiteley runs the show as a redemption narrative, where the work of cheer provides a pathway back from “broken homes” and “bad choices,” (culminating in an over-the-top beach scene that reads as baptism or purification ritual!) But I was struck by the portrayal of physical and intellectual work on view, as shown and told by the cheerleaders themselves: with few guarantees, without the carrot of money or the veneer of high art. High score at competition means simply nailing it: landing perfect performances of dexterity, precision, and affect. Whereas theatrical dance and the avant-garde have a long-held mistrust of virtuosity, cheerleading leans full-on into technical and performance skill. For instance, the “basket” involves two-to-three stunters launching a flyer into the air 10-30 feet to perform pikes, twists and other tricks and then catching them in a cradle formation on the way down. To get it right requires countless hours of sweat and practice, coordination and trust.
Dance scholars like Judith Hamera and Ariel Osterweis have challenged the easy use of the term “virtuosity,” tracking its relation to hidden labor, performances of excess, and the drama of desire in the performer/viewer encounter. Whereas virtuosity has felt tainted by its seductive power, its exploitative history, and its celebration of the lone hero, Cheer shows us the stunt, de-naturalized. This is skill as labor, neither gift nor talent, developed through effort over time with results that are fleeting, unpredictable, collectively made and agreed-upon. What drives them, in the end? The adrenalin of the moment, the communal thrill of nailing it, and the team as friend and family.
The show repeatedly makes the point that there is no future in cheerleading, a sentiment long familiar to dancers too. Apparently, body skills of this order are not transferable. When Morgan returns home to visit family in Wyoming, for example, her grandfather wonders if she could have a career “doing nails or braids.” It’s a gut-punch moment for viewers in light of her achievements on the mat and in academics at college. It’s also a bleak recognition of the ongoing ways in which we delimit and devalue so-called “physical” labor—at once material and immaterial—and more so in the contemporary context where digital economies and artificial intelligence subsume old-school capitalist forms of industry. (Next up on the watch list? American Factory 2019)
Paul Preciado has written elegantly of the status of a “beleaguered body” and the conflation of sex, war, and drugs as a triangulated model of late capitalist re/production; he writes of a contemporary regime in which “reproductive energy is funneled into productive channels and transformed into financial values.”1 His thinking haunted my viewing of Cheer, with its inspirational narratives sold to us as pleasure, situated alongside the grind of training; or else in the depiction of suicide as cinematic trope for conveying emotional depth; and always amid shameless close-ups of stomach, torso, and crotch. The future is unimaginable, but the routine is exhilarating.
And yet the performers in Cheer continue to resist. It’s work not as product, or fait accompli, but as total body struggle (psychic, social, physical, political): to perform, to overcome fear, to move past the pain, to feel the rush of adrenalin and the flow of embodied time, for the sake of the team, all the while risking catastrophic injury. Here’s a scene I can’t forget: Jerry sits through a college lesson about Texas, in which a teacher makes a series of bogus and racist claims. His face remains open, his brows furrow slightly, he dead-pans to the camera: “I like that we’re learning some facts.” Dumb world, shitty education, smart quip. The Cheer kids get it; they knew before I did. Nonetheless, they share a vision of virtuosity as work, and physical labor as knowledge, in the fierce moves they make together in spite of it all.
- Preciado, Paul. “Baroque Technopatriarchy: Reproduction.” Artforum. January 2018; 184-187.