I only watched Bring It On for the first time earlier this year after watching some compelling video criticism arguing that the film was the first time that the trope of the cheerleader is built upon in any meaningful way in popular culture. I was certainly aware of its existence for over a decade: this was a result, bizarrely, of buying a DVD collection of Superbad, Dude, Where’s My Car?, and Bring It On 2 as a teenager. I bought it specifically for Superbad which I watched multiple times. I gave up on Dude, Where’s My Car? after ten minutes and never bothered with Bring It On 2. Oh well. For what reason, Bring It On just never seemed like something that would appeal to me.
As with every other belief I’ve ever had, boy was I wrong.
With hindsight it’s a no-brainer that, considering my love for Drop-Dead Gorgeous, I would hugely enjoy another Kirsten Dunst vehicle from the end of the millenium. One which is concerned with Dunst’s talented character entering a big stakes high school competition. Oh, and ending up coming second but it sort of works out better as a result. Huh.
And while Bring It On ostensibly looks like a typical high school movie, it does indeed do a lot to rehabilitate the figure of the cheerleader. It recognises cheerleading as a serious sport requiring a huge amount of dedication and skill: enter Eliza Dushku’s Missy as the gymnast who joins the Toros as a last resort because Rancho Carne High School doesn’t have a gymnastics team. Similarly, Dunst’s Torrence Shipman is unquestionably a serious and talented athlete whose drive is no different than her male counterparts. Indeed, Bring It On cleverly highlights the injustice that, while the Rancho Carne football team is bottom of the league and nowhere fast, their cheerleading team would be getting bombarded with offers of scholarships to leading universities if women’s sports were treated anywhere near as seriously as men’s are.
There is of course Torrence’s mandatory love story with Cliff Pantone (Jesse Bradford), brother Missy. Ultimately it’s pleasantly detatched from the main storyline, which might not make for great writing but means it can be all but ignored if one wishes. On the other hand, their will-they-won’t-they vibe led to some scene which have stuck around favourably in cultural memory, particularly the teeth brushing scene. There’s also a scene in which Torrence walks in on her Cliff playing his guitar unbeknownst to her presence. Is there a euphemism at play here? Considering how pleased he is when he realises she has been watching him… I dearly hope not On the other other hand, I wonder if it was the film’s way of redirecting Torrence and Missy’s attraction towards each other into a more socially acceptable configuration. If only Bring It On could have been as brave as the previous year’s satirical romcom, But I’m a Cheerleader.
Looking back on Bring It On twenty years later, however, what I found most fascinating is how this light-hearted highschool romp is also one of the most sustained examinations of cultural appropriation I have seen in popular culture. Torrance spends most of the film grappling with the realisation that the success and fame of her majority white team is based off the hard graft and creativity of a Black team, the Clovers, led by Gabrielle Union’s Isis. This, for me, is the biggest reason why Bring It On is still more than worth a watch twenty years on. It’s refreshing to see an acknowledgment of how much US culture is (and always has been) a rehashing of Black culture that is subsumed into the mainstream without any acknowledgment of its origins.
However, the fact that Bring It On acknowledges this does not mean the film handles this storyline well. For one, we learn that the previous head cheerleader, Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), was alone responsible for stealing the Clovers’ cheers. This gives Torrance a sheen of innocence that strains credulity. Torrance seems to have done her homework and is dedicated to her craft: the idea that she didn’t know where the Torros’ cheers come from comes across as blissful ignorance at best.
Which leads to a much wider problem. Bring It On suggests that cultural appropriation (or, should I say, blatant stealing from a minority group) is a problem of a few bad apples when it is, in fact, a systemic issue. On the Bechdel Cast, presenters Caitlin Durante, Jamie Loftus, and their special guest Maggie Maye, argued convincingly that the Clovers should have been the protagonists of the film, exploring their frustration with rivals that are constantly stealing their material. The focus could then be their drive and determination to overcome that obstacle. As it stands, Bring It On is a film in which Torrance’s major obstacle is… well, her own white guilt. And when looked at that way, we can see how much it fails to live up to its possibilities.
That is quite a harsh way to look at a film that is a whole lot of fun. And one that was challenging in even what it accomplished: screenwriter Jessica Bendinger has discussed how every major studio passed on the scipt until Beacon Pictures agreed to make it. Meanwhile the reason Gabrielle Union auditioned for Bring It On in the first place was because another cheerleading movie being made at the same time, Sugar and Spice wouldn’t even consider casting Black actors. Ultimately, my takeaway is it’s about time we get more films like Bring It On where cultural appropriation is challenged. (Did we get that in any of the direct-to-video sequels? Time to dig out that old box set and find out, I guess.)
Oh – and whether or not I now want to be a cheerleader is simply none of your business.