Cheerleading, a sport conceived to be on the side lines, becomes the unfiltered main event in the newest of Netflix’s original series, Cheer. The six-part show depicts the highs, lows and in-betweens of the cheerleaders of Navarro College, Texas, a small college in a small place that houses one of the most dominant cheerleading teams in the country. The squad are hugely successful: Navarro has won fourteen national collegiate titles. It’s got the all the hallmarks of a rags to riches story: Navarro is a community college, and many students come from difficult backgrounds or “broken homes”, as one coach tells the camera. But instead of a cheer-tinged cliché, over six episodes we take a surreal glimpse into American life for young people.
Much of the series attempts to cast aside the long-standing perceptions of cheerleading that generally assume its purpose as half time entertainment. Here, it is brutal, exhausting, euphoric. The stunts are spectacular: the kind that seem to break bodily laws. In turn, the injuries are also spectacular. Rarely does a training pass without concussion or complication, and several team members divulge their multiple previous injuries. The team practices and performs under the strict eye of head coach Monica Aldama, a woman Texan to her core and credited with being imperative to the success of the team. A self-described “mother figure”, cheerleading is a way of living for Aldama. Her team is made up of students of the college, many of whom attend Navarro specifically to take part in her winning programme. One of them is Gabi Butler, minor cheer celebrity, whose inhuman flexibility made waves years ago when she crashed into the cheer scene. Butler’s prominence highlights the very real subculture of cheer; it has its own language and its own customs invisible to the naked eye.
Butler herself previously starred in Awesomeness TV’s YouTube series Cheerleaders, which followed the ups and downs of a California cheerleading group. She is a cheer chameleon, originally from Florida, who has flown and adapted to various teams over the years. Two episodes in, her mother recounts how Butler would fly between California and Arizona for two years to compete on different teams. There is a nonchalance to her tone, as it is evident that Butler’s sole life focus and default setting is cheerleading.
But for the likes of Butler, it seems that cheering competitively has a shelf life. You wonder what happens to athletes like her – so intrinsically talented and so heavily invested in cheerleading – after the time runs out. We are told, more than once, that there are no professional opportunities in cheerleading, and this seems to drive the team forward with a heightened furore. Cheerleading as they’ve known it ends after this; winning really is everything. All that work, the series emphasises, for two minutes once a year. It seems criminal to bottle up all that talent after turning twenty, but as one coach says, “it’s the way it is”.
There is a certain sadness in the brevity of the Navarro experience. The time on the team is intense, both physically and mentally, and students seem to be wrapped up in the small world of the gym. But after two years, it’s over, and a fresh crop of athletes become the new Navarro cheerleaders. Students are pushed to their limits for two years, enclosed in a cheer family, before leaving for the real world. It seems cruel. But maybe it’s the key to success – cheerleaders desperate for a win in their limited time to do so.
Time therefore seems the ultimate enemy at Navarro, and everything is against the clock. Whether that be the brief two years each athlete can be on the team, or the two-minute routine that they work to perfect all year, it all comes down to doing it against the odds. Teenagers are pushed to their limits in terrifying time pressures. Through this very specific, and frankly enlightening lens of American cheerleading, we are invited to see young people at their weakest – and their very best – in an encapsulating way.
Image: via The Official Website of the United States Marine Corps