By Niamh Rowe / 19 February 2020


‘La’Darius, if you wanna stay on mat, save the attitude. You’re only hurting yourself!’, I screamed (in my head) at my laptop.

It was a Friday night and I was sacrificing the real world for my teammates. Daytona is weeks away and there’s still so much - quite literally - up in the air. Was Morgan going to point her toes? Was Gabi going to get out of her head? Would Aly stop crying? But, most importantly, would this be Jerry’s year on mat?

I tumbled across Netflix’s Cheer arbitrarily, in the midst of a homepage inundated by sensationalist docuseries: serial killers, psychopaths, detectives et al. Cheer struck gold by finding readymade heroes that tell captivating stories just by being. Rather than looking to the darkest territories in society and human nature for moreish entertainment, Cheer immerses us in the hopeful world of competitive cheerleading, revealing that it is so much louder than a chant from the side lines.

The series follows the Navarro College cheer squad, the reigning national champions, on their road to Daytona, the Olympic Games of cheerleading.

To be accepted into Navarro is to make cheer history. From episode one I began to wonder if this small Texan town might be something of a Bermuda Triangle for the rules of physics, as gravitational pull seems to be paused for practices. The floor has springs and flyers are effortlessly chucked 15 feet high like ragdolls. But, amidst the anatomically-defying stunts we are quickly reminded that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; what goes up must come down. A hand out of line means a crash to the floor and a sobering return to human fragility. I was in awe of the beauty of these routines, but I was forced to reflect on why the risks are disregarded in favour of fame and legacy.

The protagonists we meet come from lower socio-economic backgrounds in the southern states. They’ve fled upbringings of drug abuse, homelessness, bereavement, homophobia and sexual abuse. Cheer for them was a lifeline; a path to something bigger and glitzier. Navarro’s paid scholarship has given them an identity and community within a society that failed them. Losing a limb or one’s sanity on the way to make mat (which denotes the half of the team that will be competing, as opposed to acting as understudies), and win Daytona, is a worthy sacrifice. To win is to override one’s history of struggle, and to be immortalised as a ‘somebody’. There’s an omniscient threat that hangs over each of them: one fall, one drop in morale, and you’re out. Their expendable position on mat cultivates a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture. Between the four walls of a gym plastered with former trophies, they’re constantly reminded that there is no second place. ‘It was the first time somebody noticed me. I’m not just nobody. She remembered my name.’ Morgan recalls from her audition. Nixon told us ‘The American Dream does not come to those who fall asleep.’

The weirdest part of the series is that winning Daytona doesn’t mean huge cash payouts. Once the trophy is won, well, that’s about it. The sport’s lack of recognition means there is no career as a cheerleader past college. Winning Daytona or coming second place by a decimal place has no real economic consequence. What Cheer captures is the intrinsic power of winning for winning’s sake. It’s the confirmation that coming from a childhood of abuse, drugs or abandonment can be redefined with that trophy. The beauty of Cheer is the American Dream it portrays without scepticism, giving an optimistic look into the lives of the lucky ones who have changed their lives through pure talent.

Nevertheless it also turns this microcosm on its head. Whilst each cheerleader is fighting tooth and nail for a place on mat, climbing on one another to top that pyramid, there is also huge comradery. Whilst all team sports require mutual respect and trust, the unity amongst the Navarro team is unparalleled. The act of building a pyramid – the potentially deal-breaking cornerstone of the routine – demands physical contact between twenty people all at once. One shoulder out of place or a leg too high, and the whole system quite literally comes crashing down. So whilst the fervent drive to ‘be a somebody’ demonstrates an extreme individualism reflecting increasingly neoliberal American society outside the gymnasium walls, paradoxically there’s something egalitarian, even socialist, at the heart of the sport. You’re not a somebody, you are a supporter; you do your bit in the hopes everyone else will too, in some bizarre, sparkly manifestation of Rousseau’s Social Contract. When there’s an injury, everyone must drop and do twenty; accountability is a communal act. If you fall, someone catches you, and vice versa. The duality of individualism on steroids and the humility of your role as a cog in the pyramid, or a motivational chanter on the side, is inspiring. To achieve our own goals we must trust and support one another. In a hierarchical country of delineated class, Navarro’s pyramid is the antithesis; the hair-flicking stars at the top are acutely aware they have the furthest to fall.

Once the trophy has been secured, the series’ end feels sombre.

Both the team and the audience know this victory means so much more than parading a trophy in the blue Floridian waters. It’s a rebellion against a broken system, and a shimmer of meritocratic social mobility. But I couldn’t help but ask: what now? As cheerleading stops after collegiate level, these astonishing athletes can find another college to do it one last time, become coaches, or just return to normality. The heroes of Navarro live for the process. The glistening trophy is the endless pursuit of something bigger and better. In the words of Nick Carrway, the narrator of dreams, ‘tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.’ The hope and drive we see in the faces of these cheerleaders, risking their lives to perform evermore dangerous stunts for an intangible legacy, forces us to readdress our own hierarchies: do we favour the prize or the pursuit of it? I believe the latter. So we beat on, cheerleaders against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the memory of past trophies.

Words by
Niamh rowe

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