Cheer February 5, 2020
orsicana, a Texas town with a population of about 24,000 people, is best known for fruitcake and cheerleading. Fruitcake, aboundingly sold at the renowned Collin Street Bakery since 1896, is a more quirky than genuinely interesting commercial touchstone. How many towns, though, are specifically celebrated for their cheerleading, which is pretty much all of the time considered a garnish topping a different
competitive sport? Why is cheerleading, in particular, so big at this drive-through city just south of Dallas? In Cheer, a six-episode documentary series that recently debuted on Netflix, we not only find out, but get invested in why.
At Navarro, Corsicana’s community college, most of its 9,000 students are chiefly there to get their associate’s degree. But a select few have traveled to Navarro not really for its educational prospects and more so for the potential to find success on its cheer team. Before skeptics can balk at the idea of cheerleading being so serious a venture that 18-year-olds make a point to seek it out in a Texas town venerated for fruitcake, know that at Navarro, specialized in is the kind of cheerleading decidedly not like its conventional college and high-school variants. Think of it as a particular manic mirror image of the typical tumbling, basketing, and throwing stuff, with a sprinkle of Cirque du Soleil. It’s steroided, spectacular.
Navarro’s team, the Bulldogs, are nationally esteemed. It has gone to 14 National Cheerleading Association (NCA) competitions and has collected five notoriously elusive Grand National titles. For the last couple of decades, the Bulldogs have been helmed by the equal parts stringent and motherly Monica Aldama, who before signing on for the role didn't think she'd wind up doing it in the long-term and who didn't realize her work would come to be recognized as quasi-Olympic.
Cheer, created and directed by Greg Whiteley (famous for his four-season documentary series Last Chance U, about community college football), charts the come-up for a typical year in the program, and climaxes with a national competition. A rich text unravels. The show’s creators, who tend to bleed into the background, spin a fascinating, multi-pronged story about the often self-sacrificial lengths to which particularly thirsty athletes will go, and, less pointedly, the raveled ethics of coaching. It also functions as a sharp riposte to the taken-for-grantedness with which cheerleading has historically been
treated. Especially in recent years, the sport has been reborn as a legitimate competitive endeavor but continues to go unrecognized as such by the mainstream. It’s more popularly an accessory, an ornament. Could Cheer, which has proven itself popular with critics and the public, alter the dominant narrative?
Navarro’s team encompasses about 40 athletes, but only a handful of them are seriously spotlit on the show. Connecting several of them are their neuroses and bents toward self-endangerment. Many members are shown as having turned to cheerleading because, without it in their lives, they might get in trouble. They’re also more than willing to put themselves at risk because they’re so attached, both personally and competitively; we see several of them, like top-girl Morgan and base T.T., power through grave injuries.
Before getting on Aldama’s team, newcomer Lexi, who can do so many flips in a row without breaking a sweat that we almost expect her to spontaneously combust, has otherwise proven herself prone to hard-partying and violence. La’Darius, the “extra” base whose honesty and outspokenness tend to blur the line between refreshing candor and outright mean-spiritedness, had, we learn, been abused growing up; he ventures to guess that without cheerleading driving his life, at least for now, his present might have been a lot darker. Ambitious Gabi, who has found nothing-to-blink-at success as a social-media star, loves what she does. But she’s also burdened by the fact that her vampiric parents are indubiously exploiting her. (At the end of the series, her father merrily announces that Gabi will soon be embarking on a national tour he's organized, but that in order to attend, a ticket-buyer must first fundraise $100.) Lovable Jerry lost his mom to cancer a few years ago; so much of what he does is in her honor. I unexpectedly got very attached to these people.
Southern-drawled Aldama is a fastidious leader. The camera often cuts to her black-boot-clad toes tapping mats with rhythmic impatience. She never makes compromises, in part because she knows that at a two-year university with limited resources, you can’t. It doesn’t matter if her athletes think it might be a good idea to suggest an alternative to a for-now set plan. Aldama knows, for instance, that the pyramid stunt coming at the end of the competition routine her team has been practicing all year is so complex that it could non-hyperbolically kill. (Many of her athletes are injured in the course of the season because of it.) That’s part of the reason why she supports it — because she knows that to onlookers it will appear too good to be true and rake in points if it’s perfectly executed.
Aldama is, most of the time, aloof. But when she does show her cheerleaders affection, it’s savored by them. Her delicate balance of maternity and borderline-draconianism has hit such a sweet spot for her competitive, oft-struggling athletes that myriad of them tell us that to them, she has become a mother figure. The off-the-mats dedication isn’t one-sided. The politically conservative Aldama tells us at one point that she’s butted heads with her pastor on many an occasion for her adoration of the many gay male cheerleaders on her team. When Lexi finds herself inside a nightmare in which an old acquaintance has begun to spread nude photographs of her online, Aldama helps her file a police report.
Aldama is a riveting figure; it isn’t unreasonable to have a fondness for her akin to the kind we might reserve for, say, the affable and dedicated Coach Taylor from the drama series Friday Night Lights (2006-’11). But Cheer also makes plain, without much starting a conversation around it, how symptomatic Aldama’s methods, at least as they’re portrayed on screen, are of the way stern and abusive coaching are oftentimes made synonymous in the sports world. There’s one scene where T.T. is dealing with a back injury but is forced to practice anyway. (He’s on the floor crying and writhing in pain by its end.) The ongoing unseriousness with which Morgan’s life-threatening rib injury is treated is a bit jarring. One athlete nonchalantly tells us that she’s had five concussions.
Aldama’s sometimes-abusive tacks were more thoroughly examined in a recent essay in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull, which invokes a larger sports-world issue that is incorrectly often deemed as just a part of the tough experience of being an athlete. (Aldama, in a recent interview with The Cut, briefly tried to correct some of what was on the record.) Her being welcomed by celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Ellen DeGeneres as an uncritizable beacon of inspiration and empowerment makes me a bit uneasy. Idolatry should not smudge out Aldama’s queasier characteristics, even if she makes a largely positive impression.
Still, we’ve become so enmeshed in Cheer, really by the end of its first episode, that come the season finale, the (spoiler alert) seen-through victory had the power to make me enthusiastically and inadvertently gasp. I also felt some despair as some of the subjects, who inevitably have to move on by their second year, find themselves at a loss on what to do with themselves. Will a sequel compare the non-cheer-centric lives of first-season subjects with a new year’s crop? Will some more marked criticism be injected in? If Whiteley and company want to prolong their involvement, I will probably be cheering them on — with caution. A-