Monday, August 26, 2013

Because Being Girly Doesn't Mean Being Weak (Bring It On)

I first saw Bring It On when I was still deep into my rebellious phase. You know the one. Lots of punk rock, plaid bellbottoms (they came back in style just in time for my middle school years), and an intense loathing for anything that smelled of “school spirit”. 

I prided myself on never attending a single football game in high school, and even though I was the captain of our soccer team for a hot minute (until a cleat to the knee took care of that), I deeply despised sports and all who played them.

I was a rebel. A grrrrl. And no cheerleader was going to get in my way or the way of feminism.

So imagine my surprise when partway into the movie I’d rented as a hatewatch I realized that I cared. A lot. I really, really wanted the Rancho Carne Toros to win that darn cheerleading competition. It made me deeply uncomfortable.

But looking back on it, I know exactly why I love that movie. It’s not “just” a cheerleading movie, it’s a cheerleading movie. A movie about female athletes in a feminine sport doing incredibly difficult things for the sheer love of the game. And doing those difficult, athletic things as a team.

More than that, this isn’t a movie about a ragtag group of misfits who somehow rise to success. It’s not about women trying to succeed in a man’s world. It’s got more interesting, diverse female characters than you can shake a spirit stick at, and the male characters are the ones who feel ancillary. The male characters are the ones getting flack for joining the sport, and the whole story revolves around a team of women in a female-dominated sport competing against other women at the top of their game.

Cheerleading.

I just dumped a lot on you right there, so let’s back up. Bring It On, released in 2001, stars Kirsten Dunst as Torrance Shipman, a peppy high school cheerleader in her senior year. Torrance has just made team captain of the Rancho Carne Toros, a team that’s just won their fifth National Championship in a row. She’s excited. She’s ambitious, and in the first five minutes of the movie she sends a girl to the hospital.

And injured player means they need a replacement, so bring on the recruits! Torrance and the team hold tryouts, eventually selecting Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku), a transfer student from LA and a gymnast looking for an athletic outlet. While Missy is leery of joining the cheerleaders at first, she eventually gives in, because they are athletes, and it sounds like fun.

Unfortunately, Missy gets pretty pissed when she realizes, and tells Torrance, that the Toros have stolen all their cheers, plagiarizing them from an inner-city squad in LA, the East Compton Clovers. She proves it too, and Torrance is horrified to learn that all their National Championships were the result of cheating. Worse, the Clovers know about it, as their captain, Isis (Gabrielle Union), makes very clear. The Toros won’t be getting away with it this year.

Torrance is devastated and has to figure out what to do. They try to carry on as usual, but the Clovers show up at a football game and humiliate them by showing that the cheers are stolen. They try hiring a choreographer, but that ends badly when another team hires the same choreographer, and they both bring the routine to Regionals.

Finally, they reach the end of their rope, and Torrance decides to do something drastic: make up their own entirely original routine, like they should have been doing all along.

From there to the end of the movie it’s a lot of training montages and inspirational speeches, but the ending is what really sticks the landing here. The Toros and Clovers both compete at Nationals. They’re both really good. And the Toros lose.

But they don’t care, because for once, they lost on their own merits. Besides, second place in a National Championship with a routine they made up in three weeks isn’t all that bad, and the Clovers were genuinely and indisputably better.

Now, there is a romance in the movie, with two guys vying for Torrance (Missy’s brother Cliff, the punk rocker, and her college boyfriend Aaron, the cheating jerk), but the romance is never the feature. It’s a nice side dish to the entrée that is competitive cheerleading. And the entrée is fantastic.

For all that it’s ridiculously sexualized by the media, cheerleading really is a sport. Not only that, but it’s also the single most dangerous high school and college sport, resulting in the most injuries and hospital visits. Cheerleading is terrifying, and it’s hard, and it’s really hard to do well.

The story in Bring It On is about women in a sport that’s totally hardcore trying to be the best. It doesn’t gloss over the sport’s sexualized history, with the football players, who have never won a game, taunting the male cheerleaders by calling them fags, and openly objectifying the women on the squad. No one respects the cheerleaders. But they don’t care.

Or rather, they do, but they don’t let it bring them down. Missy, the character who first disses cheerleading as “not a real sport”, comes around in a big way when she sees that it is physically challenging, and just, you know, fun. She sticks by the team, and even contributes to their ultimate routine. Her gymnastics expertise is sadly underused in the film, but it’s clear that she’s a consummate athlete, and her devotion to the team helps us as an audience get invested.

It’s funny too, because you don’t often think about it, but not only does the movie pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, it also passes the Race Bechdel Test, and contains a surprising lack of White Savior behavior. While Torrance does feel terrible about what her team has done to the Clovers and tries to make amends by raising the money for them to attend Nationals, the Clovers turn her down. They don’t need her help, and they manage to raise the money themselves.

The title of the movie itself is a sign of how seriously this movie takes the competition, not only wanting to win, but wanting to win because you are actually the best. When Torrance tries to use her white guilt to “make it right”, Isis tells her that all she should do is bring it.

“You want to make it right?” she says. “Then, when you go to Nationals, bring it. Don’t slack off because you feel sorry for us. That way, when we beat you, we’ll know it’s because we’re better.”

Ultimately, I’m pretty sure that’s the message of the movie. That the real pride in sports comes from doing your absolute best no matter what, and win or lose, being completely proud of what you did. The Toros don’t have a lot to be proud of for most of the movie, and you can see the damage it does them. So their final performance, and their second place win, is a moment of triumph. They fight long and hard and they get the score they deserve.

I’m not saying the movie is perfect, mind. There is an alarming amount of sexual objectification even with the caveat that it’s bad, and some of the characters are total stereotypes. Jan, the male cheerleader who just does it because he can finger girls, disgusts me, and the entire bikini car wash thing is sad. But no movie is perfect.

So back to little high school me sitting on the couch, jaw dropped that a movie about cheerleaders in sexy uniforms, that doesn’t skimp on the sex-talk or avoid the sexual issues surrounding the sport, actually made me care. And it made me kind of excited. I wasn’t about to go out and try for the squad, but I was still inspired.

I saw women at the peak of their skill competing in a sport that is for women, by women. A sport where men are the ones out of place, and where you try your absolute best because you refuse to go quietly. I fell in love.

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