Being a performer is akin to having an addiction. You go through a lot of pain, money, and broken relationships for a few minutes of absolute ecstasy, regardless of the fiscal, physical, or mental cost. Of course, while an actual addiction is much, much different, some dancers, actors, singers—or in this particular case, cheerleaders—would tell you that the differences between an addict and performer just come down to the choice of drug. There’s an understanding from both parties that there likely won’t be a happy ending for them, as they’ll have to eventually be wrenched away from what gives them a reason to live. But that just makes the drive to get what they want that much stronger—that much more desperate.
Cheer, a Netflix docuseries following Navarro College’s cheer team on their way to the national championship in Daytona, Florida, gives us a window into the lives of 40 individuals who are simultaneously at the prime and eve of their careers. “If you’re lucky enough to cheer at the collegiate level, and you graduate, there is no professional team waiting for you,” notes Natalie Adams, the co-author of Cheerleader! An American Icon. “You’re done. You’re done as a cheerleader.”
No one seems to understand this pressure more than the teammates the series follows: Lexi Brumback, Jerry Harris, Morgan Simianer, La’Darius Marshall, Mackenzie “Sherbs” Sherburn, and Gabi Butler. Out of all of them, Butler has been one of the few to monetize her short cheer career, and she’s been a public figure since she first started posting videos of herself on YouTube when she was a kid. But even she seems to be aware that what she has won’t last forever—even though her parents-slash-managers have other ideas.
At the helm of the team is Monica Aldama, an icon in the cheer industry and the reason why 40 people decided to opt out of the four-year university track to hone their cheer skills in the small, conservative town of Corsicana, Texas. (Besides the Navarro cheer team, the only other thing the town is known for is their fruit cake production.) Aldama came to Navarro College in the 1990s, and turned the program from a small junior college team into one of the top performing schools—community college or otherwise—in the nation.
Under Aldama’s reign, the team has won 14 national titles and five grand national titles at the Daytona competition. It’s clear that everyone from the newbies on the team to the director of the National Cheerleader Association that Aldama isn’t to be messed with. She commands respect from her team, and she isn’t afraid to show people how easily replaceable they are. She’s harsh and brutally honest, and she demands perfection—otherwise, cheerleaders will be punished with running laps or doing push-ups. In any other industry, she’d be considered abusive. But in this world, she’s the queen.
Cheer stands out from other sports documentaries for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s a sports documentary that focuses on a sport that isn’t featured in the Olympics (something that might change this year!). The cast of the show is also quite diverse, focusing on the stories of the cheerleaders who grew up marginalized in some form or another, dispelling the common misconception that cheerleaders are the rich girls who date the hot guys on the football team, as seen frequently on TV. These cheerleaders are black, white, queer, poor, smart, anxious, driven, children of abuse and abandonment—and cheerleading is what kept all of them from darkness.
Of course, the series isn’t perfect. There isn’t a lot of focus on the women of color (or lack thereof) in the cheer world. The series glosses over the fetishization of children and young women. We don’t go deep into the connection between the religious South and the idolization of the perfect cheerleader. But it’s one of the first sports docuseries that Gen Z gets that speaks to more than just the cheerleaders in the audience.
We don’t get everything we want from this series, but I don’t think we should’ve expected it to be the “perfect documentary.” There aren’t a lot of films or series like Cheer out there, save for ones like First Position (which follows young ballet dancers) or At the Heart of Gold (which follows the recent Olympic gymnast scandal). Cheer shows us the gritty side of a sport that doesn’t get talked about very often, and it might just be the show that reminds everyone that young people aren’t to be fucked with.
As Almada points out, the stakes for the teams get higher and higher every year. Each season, teams are expected to outperform not only the other teams, but also their own past routines. Each year, they’re put to the test, and each year, they always bring it. But what happens when they can’t fly any higher or they can’t meet the nearly impossible expectations of the competition, their coach, or themselves? What happens when these kids realize that everything they’ve worked for might not have any effect on their lives once those two-minute-and-15-second routines end?
These cheerleaders give everything they have to a sport that forces them to retire at 22. What’s stopping them from thinking that their best years are behind them when they still have decades to go?
Cheer leaves us thinking about the ephemerality of youth and the unrealistic expectations we set for the generations that come after us. Any Gen Zer in the audience might see a bit of themselves in Lexi, Jerry, Gabi, La’Darius, Morgan, or Sherbs. If this story doesn’t have the power to transcend gender, race, and class, then at the very least there’s someone in this story that everyone can relate to.
Everyone says they want their 15 minutes of fame. But I think the cast of Cheer and the young people in the audience know that the reality of fame is closer to one minute, as that’s really all that Instagram allows.