Kia ora, Internets! I was going to do a post on Teen Comedy Movies with Serious Messages, but it, uh, it kinda grew! So now it’s a series.
On the list so far:
Bend It Like Beckham
Bring It On
But I’m A Cheerleader!
Recommendations are very welcome.
I can’t guarantee I’ll even get to all of the ones on my list (some of the messages are pretty nebulous, but either beloved or interesting enough that I kinda want to talk about them anyway) but heck. Why not?
On with the show!
Teen Comedy With A Serious Message Number One: Bring It On.
Oh, Internets. You know my feelings about cheerleading. Of course this is the first movie I’m going to tackle.
Here’s the deal, Missy. We’re the shit, the best. We work hard, have fun, and win national championships. I’m offering you a chance to be a part of that.
Torrance Shipman has just been elected the successor to the scary Big Red, captain of the Rancho Carne Toros, six time national cheerleading champs. When disaster strikes, and they need a new cheerleader, she champions bad seed Missy, who’s just moved in. (“I moved here from Los Angeles/This school has no gymnastics team/This is a last resort!”)
Because this isn’t a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy, Torrance overrules the others and invites Missy to join. In turn, Missy alerts Torrance to the fact that Big Red has been stealing routines from another squad, and after some initial fumbling, the Toros put together a new and genuinely original routine for nationals. They come second, which, because they did the right thing – eventually – “feels like first.” As a bonus, Torrance breaks up with her shitty boyfriend Aaron and hooks up with Missy’s cute brother, Cliff. (“You believed in me! That’s important to me! You believed in me!”)
Racist appropriation of someone else’s creative work is disgusting, and way too easy to get away with.
Tried to steal our bit/But you look like shit/But we’re the ones who were down with it.
You see, Big Red hasn’t been stealing from just any squad. She’s been ripping off the East Compton Clovers, an “inner-city” Los Angeles school that’s never been able to make it to Nationals – and thus is unlikely to ever prove her crimes. “Inner-city”, by the way, is movie code for “Black”.
Missy is disgusted when she sees the “new” Toros routine she’s supposed to learn. She takes Torrance to an East Compton game, where she can see the evidence with her own eyes. A teary Torrance clearly recognises the routine, and as the two girls leave, the Clovers, led by their captain Isis, come out in force.
They immediately make it clear, to both Torrance and the audience, that what the Toros have done is not simply a matter of stealing a routine, but an act of racist appropriation. The Toros are a team that is almost entirely white (and economically privileged – the houses we see are spacious and expensively decorated, and those are not the homes of the squad’s “rich girl”, who can come up with $500 at will). And they have been taking the credit for the creative work of underprivileged people of colour.
The Clovers react angrily to Missy and Torrance coming to view the “ethnic festivities” at their school, feeling, that like ‘Raggedy Ann’, they are there to steal.
Torrance: ‘Raggedy Ann’?
Isis: Ugly redhead with a video camera permanently attached to her hand. Y’all been coming up here for years trying to steal our routines.
Lafred: And we just love seeing them on ESPN.
Torrance: What are you talking about?
Isis: ‘Brr, it’s cold in here, there must be some Toros in the atmosphere’? I know you don’t think a white girl made that shit up. Our free cheer service is over as of this moment.
Isis: Every time we get some, here y’all come trying to steal it, putting some blonde hair on it and calling it something different. We’ve had the best squad around for years, but no one’s been able to see what we can do. But you better believe, all that’s gonna change this year. I’m captain, and I guarantee you we’ll make it to Nationals. So just hand over the tape you made tonight, we’ll call it even for now.
And, while Torrance and the rest of the squad were genuinely ignorant of what Big Red had done, ignorance is not really an excuse. The damage has been done, and the Toros have already profited from that malfeasance. As Torrance indignantly told Missy before witnessing the damning routine, “Our routines are 100% original! Count the trophies!”
“I swear I didn’t know.” “Well, now you do.”
Even worse, however, Torrance reluctantly agrees to carry on with the routine anyway, because, as antagonist Courtney puts it: “We learned that routine fair and square. We logged the man-hours. Don’t punish the squad for Big Red’s mistake. This isn’t about cheating. This is about winning.”
The problem is, of course, that they didn’t learn it fair and square, and the situation is about cheating – and about using their privilege to get away with it.
It takes the Clovers actually showing up at a football game and doing the same routine in the stands before Torrance will do more than wring her hands about doing the right thing. And even then she tries to take shortcuts, before she puts her big girl’s spankies on and does the work herself.
Then it looks like the Clovers won’t be able to go after all – they just can’t get the funds. Most of the Toros celebrate, but Torrance insists that her father’s business pay their way – partly out of guilt, and partly because she wants her squad to be genuinely the best. Which means beating the best. And she recognises the Clovers as the best.
But Isis rejects the cheque. Instead of relying on this contribution, the Clovers appeal to an icon from their own neighbourhood, TV personality Pauletta, who comes through in her show’s wish-granting hour. Neither Torrance’s money nor Torrance’s guilt are welcome to the Clovers – but her competitive spirit is.
Isis: 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.
Torrance: Oh, I’ll bring it. Don’t worry.
Isis*: I never do.
Anyway, the Clovers go to Nationals, the Toros bring it, and the Clovers win national acclaim and ten thousand dollars with their own spectacular routine. And Isis and Torrance have reached detente – certainly not a friendship, but a wary respect for each other. (It does strike me as unrealistic that self-reliant and goals-focused Isis would bother thinking too much about Torrance’s feelings and “rewarding” her for doing something that’s absolutely baseline good human behaviour, but hey, Hollywood happy ending)
Isis: I just want to say, captain to captain, I respect what you guys did out there. You guys were good.
Torrance: Thanks. You were better.
Isis: We were, yeah.
– Torrance’s gay cheer friend Les is awesome – about the only one on the squad, other than Missy, who resists carrying on with the stolen routine. And while he doesn’t get a relationship of his own, he does get a genuinely cute moment of nervously introducing himself to a guy he likes, and getting the “I’ll see you around” meet-cute response.
– There’s a totally unnecessary bit where it’s implied a male cheerleader digitally penetrates a female one while he’s holding her. She giggles, but she looks surprised – she clearly wasn’t expecting it. So: 1) Dude, how hard is it to ask first? Yes means yes! 2) Come on, in the middle of a routine your hands should be making sure she doesn’t smash her skull, have some professionalism.
– There’s some major girl-on-girl hate, but also a lot of girl-on-girl love. Missy and Torrance sro it up, and Isis and her immediate friends are a strong, cohesive group.
*Can I just point out that Isis is an amazing character, given incredible presence and depth in her few lines by the sterling acting chops of Gabrielle Union? Gabrielle Union should be a star on the level of Kirsten Dunst, and should most certainly have more work than Eliza Dushku, but she’s not, and she doesn’t, because – surprise! – racism.
I still hear things like, “Gabrielle, you gave the best read! If we decide to go black, you’re at the top of the list”. I’ve actually been told, “Gabrielle, you’re absolutely perfect for the role, but the role is a girl who’s most popular in school”. I’ve been to the point where I brought in my yearbook. “See how popular I was? It really can happen”.