Will Hellcats Make Us Rethink Our Cheerleader Stereotypes?

When I was twelve, all I wanted was to be a cheerleader.  Okay, so this didn’t really set me apart from any of my peers; becoming cheerleader is right up there with “actress” and “ballerina” in terms of typical pipe dreams for young girls.  But for me, the quest to become one the few, the proud, the peppy had very little to do with the cute uniforms or notions of sisterly bonding.  I wanted to cheer because I was actually an accomplished gymnast with a penchant for performing in front of a crowd.  I still think that this combination would have made me a great cheerleader – but I never got the chance to find out for sure.  Why?  Because I made the mistake of watching Bring It On with my mom before I entered high school.My mom took one look at the girls in the movie: their perpetually exposed midriffs, love of sabotaging one another, and less than intelligent vernacular, and told me in no unclear terms that I was never allowed to cheer.

I realized something once I got to high school, though: that for the most part, the stereotypes about cheerleaders that are presented in movies and TV shows aren’t really fair.  Sure, girls (and guys!) who cheer are expected to act super perky while performing, but that doesn’t mean any of them are stupid.  In fact, a lot of the girls who cheered at my school went on to attend great colleges.  Walking through the halls of my high school, no one would have ever been able to pick out the cheerleaders from the masses.  They didn’t parade the hallways in their uniforms or spew cheers between classes.  They didn’t congregate by the captain’s locker – in fact, they really weren’t all friends, at least not in the clique-y way that we’ve come to associate with cheerleading squads.  And they certainly weren’t mean girls who loved to prey on non-cheerleaders.

Bring It On isn’t the only reason for the negative stereotypes of cheerleaders that seem to float all around America.  Ordinarily I’d hate to say anything bad about Glee, but the fact is, the show caters to the simple-minded view of cheerleaders.  By placing the fictional Cheerios in their flouncy pleated skirts episode after episode, Ryan Murphy strips these characters of their own identities.  I know this decision was intentional, meant to add to the satirical nature of the show, but I think some of the younger, more impressionable viewers could still take these messages to heart.  I mean, who could forget the story line about former loner Mercedes Jones soaring to popularity after joining the cheerleading squad?   How many young girls think they’ll achieve that kind of cheap it-girl status if they don a little skirt?

Last night I watched the premiere of the new CW show Hellcats, expecting to see the same ideas of cheerleaders resurface.  Of course, there was the requisite girl fight twenty minutes into the premiere, a hilariously physical confrontation between uber-cheerleader Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) and Missy…err, I mean Marti (Aly Michalka.)  There was also plenty of bitchiness and backstabbing,  (could we really expect anything else from The CW?) but the most enlightening part of the show came when the squeaky-clean, hyper-ambitious Savannah and her polar opposite Marty engaged in a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart.  Ultimately, I think the unlikely friendship between these two girls will become the heart of the show, and I only hope the creators continue to flesh this out, even amid all the cattiness that is sure to surround them.

I wonder if placing these cheerleaders in a college setting (as opposed to high school) might be the very thing that makes these characters more multi-dimensional.  High school is often shown as a place where only the elite can thrive, but the character of Marti, who is antithetical to the generalizations of most cheerleaders (an intelligent, intellectually ambitious girl who grew up in an unstable environment and favors a black over pink) is entirely believable as a well-adjusted college student.   If the show really allows us to see the cheer squad through her eyes, I think we’ll gradually see the stereotypes (which are still in place during the pilot episode, both in her eyes and ours) start to fall away.    Ashley Tisdale does a great job of rounding out her character – she gives genuine heart to a role that could have come off seeming like a cardboard cutout of a head cheerleader.   I hope the CW does with this show what it did for One Tree Hill so many years ago: show that a team is all about the underlying friendships it breeds, not constant competition or typical American perceptions of “jock culture.”

If Hellcats goes in the right direction, I could see it really changing people’s perceptions of cheerleaders.   And wouldn’t that be “Awesome! Oh, wow!  Like totally freak me out, I mean right on?”

5 Questions We Ask Everyone: ‘Operation Beautiful’ Founder, Caitlin Boyle
5 Questions We Ask Everyone: ‘Operation Beautiful’ Founder, Caitlin Boyle
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