In film and television shows alike, cheerleaders are rarely taken seriously as complex characters and competitive athletes. But the new Netflix show Cheer, set in Texas, finally shows cheerleaders to be exactly that. (Disclaimer: Texas Monthly associate editor Leif Reigstad was interviewed for the documentary.)
The six-part docuseries follows the cheer team at Navarro College, a junior college of about 10,000 students in Corsicana, in the months leading up to the 2019 NCAA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championships in Daytona Beach. For years, cheerleaders from all over the country have traveled to Corsicana for a chance to compete on the Navarro cheer team, known for consistently earning top spots at the NCAA National and Grand National Championships since 2000. “The way we prepare, you keep going until you get it right, and then you keep going until you can’t get it wrong,” Monica Aldama, who heads Navarro’s team, says in the documentary. A Corsicana native, previous cheerleader, and now coach, Aldama had, up to 2019, brought home thirteen national championship titles to Navarro in the past two decades—her feats are so widely recognized within the cheer community that she’s nicknamed “The Queen.”
Part gymnastics, part dance routine, and part Cirque du Soleil, competitive cheer belongs in its own category of sports. “They are the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed,” Greg Whiteley, Cheer’s director, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think that was something I would have thought would be true before I started exploring this world.” Anyone in the cheer world is familiar with the intensity that’s required to excel in this excruciating sport, yet Cheer shows that it can be a fairly insular world—even Corsicana residents interviewed for the documentary are unaware of Navarro’s cheer prestige.
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Cheer offers a corrective to that. As the Navarro team works to develop their two and a half minute routine throughout the docuseries, they flex their tumbling skills and impressive stunts, such as a pyramid formation that involves multiple cheerleaders flying through the air and landing on other members’ shoulders. But the documentary also places their falls and missteps—as well as the injuries stemming from them—on full display. As a viewer, it’s brutal to watch as squad members get tossed into the air, and you find yourself crossing your fingers in hopes that they’re caught. Boys groan as their backs give out while holding up teammates, girls wince from bruised ribs; trips to the ER aren’t uncommon. But the Navarro College cheerleaders are willing to endure long hours and risky routines for the chance to keep training. “If Monica believes in me enough to put me in, then I should be able to trust myself,” Morgan Simianer, a flyer, says in Cheer. “I’d do anything for that woman.”
Throughout its six episodes, Cheer follows five main characters (Simianer included) and the struggles they face amidst training. The stories include that of Gabi Butler, a “cheerfluencer” who’s gained an impressive following on social media and faces an overwhelming pressure from herself, her parents, and the cheer community to be perfect; Simianer, who was abandoned by her parents as a teenager and who was left to live with her brother in a trailer; and La’Darius Marshall, an openly gay male cheerleader who felt rejected by his family in Florida. Each squad member sees Aldama as their champion, sometimes even as a second mother. Although they are bound by cheerleading, their ties typically extend outside of the sport, too—for instance, after one squad member has old nude photos of her leaked by someone she fought with in the past, Aldama helps her go to the police and report it.
While Aldama seems to have their best interests at heart, she’s also tough about disciplining her cheerleaders on the mat and off. Students have a team tutor, and Aldama enforces punishments in practice for tardies and absences in classes outside of cheer. Whenever someone isn’t caught or a move isn’t completed, Aldama makes the entire team do push-ups. And in one instance, Aldama chastises a cheerleader who gets injured while competing outside of Navarro (some cheerleaders take on extra cheerleading outside of their extracurricular at school) by making him run through a routine while limping—and toward the end of it, he’s on his knees crying from the pain. While a regimen is certainly needed to groom national champions, her methods are sometimes questionable.
At its core, Cheer homes in on the idea of trust, as much as the trust that squad members have in each other, in themselves, and what it takes to develop it. While dealing with their own personal traumas, the characters tackle both the physical extremities and emotional barriers of the sport—which, in turn, is a critical part of cheerleading. If one person is off either physically or mentally, it could affect the whole team or send a pyramid tumbling down. Although the characters’ challenges are personal, they’re often solved with the help of their teammates: one character, Lexi Brumback, comes off as a loner in the beginning of the series (when she’s instead trying to avoid drama, because of her past of getting into violent fights). As she begins to open up to her teammates, and sees that they accept her, she gains confidence in herself as both an athlete and a young woman.
Instead of capitalizing on tired cheerleading stereotypes, Cheer presents the sport’s harsh realities, from the physical brutality involved to the fact that there’s no professional career to follow. (Unlike football, basketball, or soccer, college cheerleading is the end of the line for competitive cheer athletes.) By the time the team finally reaches Daytona, viewers find themselves not just rooting for Navarro athletes to win a national championship. They’re also cheering on people who are trying their best to lift one another up.