Friday, February 26, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Isis (Bring It On)

Already this month for our special Black History edition of Strong Female Character Fridays, we've talked about Garnet from Steven Universe and the importance of black-representation in science fiction, Michaela from How to Get Away With Murder and the pitfalls of respectability politics, and Indra from The 100 and the issues inherent in stereotypes about the "strong black woman". And that's just what we've done for the ladies! Today, then, I want to talk about some less depressing subject matter and look at a character who demonstrates an often under-represented view of black women and girls as people striving for excellence in every corner of their lives.

I've noticed something: when I bring up Bring It On and my absolute abiding love for this film, I get one of two reactions. If the person I'm talking to hasn't seen the movie, they invariably think that this is hilarious because why would I like such a stupid movie? If they have seen the movie, they agree wholeheartedly.

That's weird, right? I find it fascinating that Bring It On is so universally reviled by people who haven't seen it and has such a bad reputation, when I can't actually find anyone who has seen it and doesn't like it. I mean, sure, there are outliers in any group, but still. We're all so convinced that Bring It On is a bad movie and not worth our time when really it's one of the best sports movies ever made. Seriously. Really really.

I have a more in depth look at the movie as a whole, but today I want to focus our attentions on a character from this film who deserves a whole hell of a lot of credit for changing the way I understood race relations and who manages to take an easily stereotypical role and turn it into a really compelling person. In other words, today is all about Isis (Gabrielle Union), the technical antagonist in Bring It On, but arguably the most sympathetic character, and definitely the one with the most moral high ground.

So if you're not familiar, the story in Bring It On goes like this. There's this prestigious, preppy high school in SoCal where the most successful sports team is their cheerleading squad. Said squad isn't just successful, it's legendary, having won three back-to-back national championships in the past years. Our story starts at the beginning of a new year with the previous team captain reluctantly handing the reigns over to her ambitious but less cunning protege, Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst). 

Torrance is all about helping the Toros win another national championship, but when a transfer student, Missy (Eliza Dushku), tells Torrance that the Toros only won those championships because they stole their cheers - as in they stole the words and routines - from an inner-city school in Compton, LA, Torrance is horrified and has no idea what to do. What can they do? All the cheers they've done for three years are absolutely ripped from this black school but they don't have the time or talent to come up with new ones.

The film is about the Toros, and most specifically Torrance, figuring out how to handle this ethical dilemma. First they try denial, just carrying on as they have and pretending that nothing is wrong. Only this doesn't work because the girls they've been stealing from, the Clovers, confront them and refuse to be quiet about the white girls stealing their cheers. So the Toros try hiring a choreographer, and that goes horribly too. Eventually all they're left with is an attempt to actually come up with their own routine and take that to nationals. The result? Well, not to spoil a movie that came out sixteen years ago or anything, but the end result is actually the most interesting part of the movie.

See, in the end, the Toros rally and come together and make the best routine they could possibly have come up with and...they lose. I mean, they get second place which is certainly not bad on a national stage, but they don't win. And that's a really big deal. The Clovers win because ultimately they were the better team, and our band of ragtag misfits couldn't actually beat them. 

Isis, as played by Gabrielle Union, fits into all of this as the captain of the East Compton Clovers. 

For years she's watched white girls coming to her school from their nice little suburbs and filming her team's cheers to take back and strip of all cultural identity and pass off as their own. In other words, Isis has spent years watching white girls do to her cheers what white people have kind of done to all black artistic products of the past hundred years. You know, like jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop, and a variety of famous dance moves?

As the captain, Isis refuses to be the one to let her team get taken advantage of like that, and so even though our POV is pointed squarely at the Toros and their struggles, you sympathize a lot with Isis. She's the one in the right here. She has morality on her side and the audience knows it. So when she stands up for herself and her team, you kind of want to cheer a little.

If this were her only role in the film, though, she'd be a good character, but not great. As it is, her further appearances in the story solidify Isis into the kind of character I want to point young girls at and say, "Grow up like her, okay? Promise me." 

Instead of taking this appropriation lying down - because this is very literal cultural appropriation, chickadees - Isis is the one who takes the fight to the Toros. She and a few of her teammates actually appear at one of the Toros' football games and do the cheers alongside their rival team. In so doing, they make it completely clear to the audience and to the Toros themselves that they know these cheers. These cheers are not original. They actively shame the Toros on their own field and that takes serious guts.

Later on, when Torrance finds out that the Clovers didn't raise enough money to qualify for nationals, her white guilt kicks in and she brings them a check from her father's company, a charitable donation that's more than enough to cover their expenses. What does Isis do? She tears it up and says they don't want Torrance's blood money. That takes guts too. Isis isn't interested in a privileged white girl handing her a check because she feels bad. 

She wants her team to make it to nationals because they made it to nationals. Because they were good enough and smart enough and they made it happen. Isis doesn't want anyone else to be able to take credit for her team and their success.

And, to their credit, they didn't need the money after all. Isis organizes a plan to appeal to a talk-show host, sort of like a take-off on Oprah, and ask her to sponsor their team. Said host does, and it's a really interesting moment seeing these girls from a predominantly black inner city school appeal to a black talk-show host with a predominantly black audience so that they can go win a competition and show the value of their (black) creative products. In other words, a big subplot in this movie is about the black community working together to help this team.

Anyway. Isis doesn't need Torrance's help to get the Clovers to nationals. And she doesn't want Torrance's guilt money. What does she want, then? What is a good recompense for the years when the Clovers were disqualified from competing because some white team had already trademarked the Clovers' own cheers? Isis has one request for Torrance: Bring it.

Actually, I'm going to put the whole quote in here, because it's basically the best: "You wanna make it right? 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." 

Let's just take a minute and let that sink in. The reason I love Isis as a character is because she values herself and her abilities this much. She knows her team is good and she knows her team can win. She has no interest in someone else making it happen for her. She wants the Toros to play fair, definitely, but she also wants to make sure that when her team wins, and they do win, they do so because they were actually the best. I think that is eminently admirable.

What makes Isis such a compelling person in this film is that she is both the antagonist and easily the most morally upright character. She doesn't resort to cheating or sabotage to get back at the Toros, and she doesn't even badmouth them that much. She just tells them to stop, makes sure that they do, and then ensures that her team will do the best they can.

Even better, this movie never tries to make Isis into the bad guy. She's the antagonist, sure, because she's the one opposing our protagonist, but she's definitely not the villain. 

Isis' goal is a good goal and Torrance respects the hell out of her. It's no accident that there's even a deleted scene on the DVD where the two of them end up at the same college on the same cheer team and we get a hint that they're going to be best friends. Bring It On isn't afraid of letting Isis be relatable and excellent and right. They don't tear her down to make Torrance look better. Instead, they have us watch Torrance pull herself up to Isis' level.

There's just so much goodness in this character that it's hard to unpack it all. Not only is Isis a fantastic athlete and an inspiring leader, she's also a creative enough thinker to find the way to fund her team and a brilliant choreographer to boot. She's a rounded, interesting, inspiring character, where any other movie would just paste in a paper thin cliche.

I guess that's the real kicker for me: Isis, in any lesser film, would not be this awesome. Sure, she might get the moral highground and even a few good lines, but a lesser movie would make her kind of a bitch too. Or really superior about it all. Or, worse, a stereotype of what white people think black people sound like.

It's worth noting here that the only reason that Isis and her friends don't sound super alarmingly like a white person's idea of inner city slang is because the writers wisely let Union and her castmates rewrite their own dialogue. Good choice, guys. Probably served you a lot better in the long run.

In a worse movie, Isis is a cheap stereotype of a "hood" character, an inner city girl who wants to fight Torrance for stealing their cheers or who plays dirty or whatever. Or she's a snotty girl on her high horse insisting that Torrance pay for what she did. In a worse version of this movie, Isis isn't a person, she's a caricature. Here, she's a compelling figure who makes sense as a person. 

The movie doesn't have time to make her super complex and flawed, but she's interesting. And she's admirable. She's the kind of woman you can respect even if you disagree with. That's really important.

I'm not going to lie and say that when I was thirteen I saw this movie and immediately wanted to be just like Isis. I was thirteen and deep in my punk phase so all I wanted in the world was to be Missy. But as I've gotten older, Isis has grown on me, and now when I see this film, I look at her and see the kind of woman I aim to be.

There aren't a lot of black girls in high school comedies to begin with, and those who are there frequently find themselves trapped by tired racist stereotypes. Isis is a new kind of character, a woman who wants to be the best and encourages others to be their best too. She's a black woman who owns her skin and who doesn't apologize for herself, instead demanding that she and her friends be taken seriously. I can't think of many people I would rather grow up to be.

Alarmingly true story.


  1. In a worse movie, Isis is a cheap stereotype of a "hood" character, an inner city girl who wants to fight Torrance for stealing their cheers or who plays dirty or whatever. Or she's a snotty girl on her high horse insisting that Torrance pay for what she did.

    Or who loses, sort of validating the theft. Or learns a valuable lesson about acknowledging Torrence's good heart - which she does here, I suppose, but only because Torrence first learns the valuable lesson of acknowledging Isis's strong one, and second learns the other valuable lesson of acknowledging that Isis is the one who knows what it takes to redress the wrong that was committed.

    It's worth noting here that the only reason that Isis and her friends don't sound super alarmingly like a white person's idea of inner city slang is because the writers wisely let Union and her castmates rewrite their own dialogue. Good choice, guys. Probably served you a lot better in the long run.

    I didn't know that.

    1. Yes! If Isis and the Clovers had lost at the end, the film would lose so much of its resonance and point. It would actually make this a bad movie. If Isis were the one who had to come to Torrance in humility, this movie wouldn't be nearly as good.

      I read an oral history of the making of Bring It On and that was one of the big things they mentioned. I found it pretty surprising, but then not.

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