On the Mat We’re Briefly Perfect: On Netflix’s “Cheer”

There is a moment after a cheer team floats into their pyramid when they hang still in mid-air, creating the impression that time has stopped. Then the pyramid disassembles in much the same way it was built; the tape could be running forwards or back.

Whether linear or disordered, time — the central condition of human life; an overriding concern of the art that seeks to make sense of it — is the structuring logic of all narratives. In the Netflix docuseries “Cheer,” it is also a powerful theme, which is one way this glossy show signals to us, its viewers, the philosophical weight of its topic. If the show raises the question “is cheerleading worth this much time?” the bigger and more significant question lurking is: “what is worth our time?” How might each of us make meaning out of our one and precious life?

Time, in the show, is alternately liberating and far more painful than the concussions, the torn rotator cuffs, and the fractured ribs the athletes suffer. The pain of these injuries, in fact, is measured not in character nor intensity, but in time. Take, for instance, a question vital to an early episode: How hurt is “Sherbs,” the seemingly indestructible flyer (or “top girl”) who recounts with searing terror the experience of seeing the mat below her from a great distance with no one below to catch her? “8-10 weeks out,” her coach reports stoically to another athlete. No further conversation about the extent of her injury is necessary. 8-10 weeks is an eternity in cheer time; she may as well have died. And her teammates actually begin speaking of her in the past tense at this point, “Sherbs was such an important part of the routine,” they say. When they practice without her, they hang their heads in solemn remembrance; “let’s do this for Sherbs.” And then, later, when Sherbs is mostly recovered and hanging out around the margins of the mat, even the camera seems to skirt her. Now that she is no longer literally on top, she is a ghost.

Though individuals and locations receive identifying captions, the intertitles in “Cheer” tell us only one kind of information: how many days and hours and minutes remain until “Daytona,” the single significant collegiate cheer competition of the year. The docuseries follows the Navarro College cheer team of 2019, a nationally famous team that has won 14 championships since 2000. As cheerleading authority and competition organizer Billy Smith tells us in the docuseries, “They’re the best of the best of the best.”

NC is a junior college in a little Texas town called Corsicana whose economy revolves around a fruitcake factory, and much is made of the challenges of running a junior college team. The coach, who they all justifiably call “The Queen,” Monica Aldama, has only two years to mold her athletes, whereas university coaches have four. Two years is not nearly enough time. But somehow, it also is.

A cheer routine is two minutes and fifteen seconds long. The team spends an entire season rehearsing it. It is only performed in competition once at Daytona.

Leading up to Daytona is an entire childhood of preparation. An entire adulthood follows walking off of the mat the last time an athlete will perform a routine. The most desired outcome of a Daytona performance is, besides winning of course, hitting, which means executing the routine perfectly with zero points deducted for error. The feeling when you hit at Daytona, alums describe, is the best feeling you will ever have in your entire life—a single, identifiable moment from which the trajectories of your experience on earth spin outward and back.

Persistent in the athletes’ experience of time in the series is the need to hold on to every moment. Their bodies visibly struggle to preserve the difficult formations they make for just a moment longer than seems physically possible. There is never enough time. “It’s not ideal to change the routine this late,” Aldama says over and over again. The athletes don’t have enough time for homework, enough time for sleep or to eat, enough time to finish their hair and makeup before a performance. (It takes the girls 2-3 hours, but some of the boys help.)

Just as the pyramid must go up and come down with the same seamless movements, the struggle to hold on is met by the need to let go. One of the most compelling stories in the series is that of La’Darius Marshall, who grew up in dire circumstances in Florida after his mother was imprisoned. Left mostly alone, La’Darius suffered bullying, sexual abuse, and a suicide attempt in silence. Understandably, he has a chip on his shoulder whose edges Aldama works to soften, repeatedly telling him to be more empathetic and positive in his attitude toward others.

The cameras follow La’Darius into his psychology classroom, where the instructor describes how memories that are associated with strong emotions become irrevocably lodged in the brain. “Theoretically forever,” she says as La’Darius looks on with wide eyes, “it’s permanent.” At the end of the series, he explains the battle to overcome his own bad behavior like this: “It’s hard when you’re trying to be a new person but the old person is just right there.”

In the world of “Cheer,” the secret to letting go is ultimately the same as the secret to holding on: one must relinquish the self completely. Individuals become part of a single all-encompassing cheer self—the team—that moves as one body through the two-minute and fifteen-second routine. They are the perfect iteration of the abstract entity that is Navarro Cheer, and the routine is only the present manifestation of every other Navarro routine that has come before and will come after. Once the music begins, they are entered into a tribal right, the struggles and imperfections attendant to being one person in time disappear.

Six episodes capture an entire season, less than one calendar year, which is a full half of the time the Navarro athletes will spend on the team. Because of this, and the sheer amount of practice hours they log, the perception of time within the series seems warped. Aldama, the athletes, and the editing of the series itself all work together to create narratives of development and dissolution that seem preposterous when you think about the brief amount of time that’s elapsed.

Lexi, a dreamy and troubled loner, tells the camera that she doesn’t fit in with the team and isn’t a “cheerleader type” in an early episode. Only a few weeks later, we see both her and Aldama narrating the trajectory of her belonging. Immediately before they leave for Daytona, she makes a speech in front of the whole team, describing how utterly the season has altered the course of her life, how the team has become her family.

After Daytona, we learn Lexi has been kicked off of the team for incurring a drug charge and the camera follows her as she returns to her dissolute ways, preparing to attend a rather sad-looking Houston rave with a friend. “Most kids my age are very stressed out about, you know, finding themselves, and what they have to offer to the world,” Lexi tells the camera, “I know what my hobbies are and I know what my talents are. I just don’t know yet how I want to use them.” It’s a rare moment of resistance to the teleological narratives of success and legacy the series constantly spins. She wants to know what she wants rather than just to prove herself worthy of being alive.

The story of Gabi Butler, on the other hand, is one of the utter subordination of personal desire to the greater cause. By all accounts, Butler is one of the most talented cheerleaders to have ever lived. She balances her Navarro career with the responsibilities of being a “cheerlebrity” with endorsement deals, a bikini company she runs with her sister, and over 800,000 followers on Instagram. Her micromanaging parents repeatedly encourage her to “make the most of her moment” by monetizing her cheer career as much as possible. She complains to her fellow athletes about hating school, “Everyone’s like: ‘What’s your major?’ And I’m like, ‘Cheerleading!’” She’s been a competitive cheerleader since she was 8 years old, flying all over the country to compete with various non-collegiate teams. Cheerleading is all she has known.

When practice becomes intense and the routine potentially too challenging, Gabi leans against the wall sobbing, “I just want to quit.” Her teammate tells her, “You can’t quit. You’re Gabi Butler. That’s not who you are.” And suddenly her name feels like a prison. But the nature of the prison is the threat of being cast out—it’s very clear that she can’t be Gabi Butler much longer. That doesn’t, in the end, worry her father: “My daughter has solidified her position in the history of cheerleading,” he says with confidence. Like warriors of old, the measure of cheer lives is how the athletes fair in crucial battles, not what they do when they put down their swords.

One of the things a cheerleader on the Navarro team must learn is history. They study and are drilled on the names of past NC athletes, the details of past routines, the scores of past competitions. They can answer with ease questions along the lines of, “Who had the last tumbling pass in the 2011 routine?” in the way a sommelier can tell you how much it rained in the Loire in a given year. When the 2019 team is able to perform their complete routine for the season, they invite the Navarro cheer alumni to come watch, and into the gym file a gaggle of fit thirty-somethings with their babies and toddlers—future cheer athletes all, we can only presume. The cheer athletes of the past physically look very much like the cheer athletes of the present and the future. Slightly older or younger versions of the 40 people who are presently on the team, at the top of the pyramid, for this one fleeting moment.

Aldama is straightforward about the fact that, in addition to physical prowess, what she seeks in a prospective Navarro athlete is “the look.” She never says exactly what “the look” is, but one answer to that question is to be found in her reasoning behind signing Morgan Simianer, a relatively inexperienced young woman from Wyoming. “Morgan just showed up at try-outs,” she says, “she didn’t really have the college experience –but, she had the look.” Aldama clearly adores Morgan, and treats her the way a child might play with a treasured doll. The libidinal energy between them burns through the screen.

In an intimate moment the crew films at almost uncomfortably close range, Aldama calls Morgan into her office to show her the new team uniform. “Can you put it on?” she grins, fizzing with anticipation. Morgan is happy to oblige; she turns and poses for Aldama’s admiring gaze.

What does Morgan look like? Well, she looks a lot like Aldama. They have a similar build, a similar facial structure, a similar skin tone, a similar hair color. Though they come from different backgrounds, the two women are so fully mutually identified that, for both, there is no difference between what they do for themselves and what they do for each other. “I would do anything for that woman,” Morgan tells the documentary crew; “I would take a bullet for her.” In all aspects of the sport, self sacrifice is the chief tenet — and the best way, in fact, of extending one’s life beyond the limits of time.

“Cheer” begins with the athletes lamenting the way cheerleading has figured in the popular imagination—a sport that, given its beginnings, has long been relegated to the sidelines. Historian of cheerleading Natalie Guice Adams, a commentator in the docuseries, describes the insularity of the cheerleading world and the fact that very few individuals who are not directly involved in cheerleading have any understanding of what present-day cheerleading involves. A message of the series seems to be this is not your grandmother’s cheerleading, and the quaint mid-century images of young women awkwardly climbing into a pyramid on all fours look silly in the context of the mind-bending acrobatics and precise choreography of the Navarro athletes. But I think the origin of the sport as an accessory practice—something in service to something other than itself— is still at the heart of its value.

“Cheer” leaves no doubt that cheerleading is, indeed, an intensely physically demanding athletic pursuit, but it makes an even better implicit case for cheerleading as a certain kind of art. In a book whose title is usually translated as The Kingdom of God is Within You, (which also sounds like something Monica Aldama might casually say,) Tolstoy defines art as a practice that allows the artist to make others feel what they feel through their medium, “to take the simplest example;” Tolstoy writes, “one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow.” The essence of cheerleading is to transmit the emotions of the individual to the team, and the emotions of the team to the crowd.

Tolstoy’s consideration of art, too, is in the service of a greater point, which is about a Christian commitment to non-violence. In another work, What is Art?, he praises the kind of religious art that he believes has a clear social purpose: “by calling up the feelings of brotherhood and love in people under imaginary conditions, religious art will accustom people to experiencing the same feelings in reality under the same conditions.” The two minutes and fifteen seconds of a cheer routine are nothing if not an example of such intensely powerful imaginary conditions. The time limitations, the difficult necessity of complete teamwork, the labyrinthine point system that even a pro like Aldama doesn’t seem to totally understand—what are these if not analogues for the struggles of life itself?

These struggles, in the logic of Cheer, are mostly temporal and existential. But of course structural and cultural struggles emerge as well. Most—if not all—of the male cheer athletes on the team are openly gay. Many are non-white. And the optics of this grate against the culture of Corsicana (the internet has already identified what is perhaps the most horrifying scene in the series, when an NC instructor tells a room full of many non-white, non-straight students that Tex-Mex is a “way better version” of Mexican food and that, furthermore, “a man and a woman is the traditional definition of marriage.”)

When Aldama, who was born and raised in Corsicana, is asked about her faith and her “boys,” she says, “Yes, I’m religious. And I would say I’m more conservative, I might be a little bit ‘old school’ with values and stuff like that, but I get angry . . . if you talk about my boys. I don’t understand how someone can be so cruel.”

At Daytona, after they pray together, the cheer athletes take center stage. There is no football game being played, no battle on the field. The real battle, the series implies, is bigger and elsewhere: In Texas. In America. In the everyday lives of people who don’t fit in. It’s an unlikely message for a series about cheerleading, a sport we tend to associate with normativity, social popularity, and conventional attractiveness. But art has always occupied the fraught spaces between beauty and morality, excellence and outsiderism.

When the athletes compete at Daytona, the series captures all of their loved ones watching the routine through a difficult-to-access streaming service from their homes across the country. Tears of pride streak the face of the brother who frequently beat La’Darius and called him “fruity.” Morgan Simianer’s grandparents, who rescued her from child neglect, celebrate in their remote Wyoming home. The Corsicana chief of police, to whom Lexi Brombeck reported an incident of revenge porn perpetrated against her, watches with bated breath from his desk at the station. Seemingly everyone who has ever known these athletes are watching them now, for these two minutes and fifteen seconds, cheering them on with an irresistible fervor. “The gas is turned on;” their assistant coach tells them; “If you light yourself on fire they will watch you burn.”

The fantasy of that 2:15 is so very seductive: to be briefly perfect, to be completely seen and adored. To hit. And have the power of those emotions lock the memory inside, to be played and replayed over and over—forever.

There is perhaps something fundamentally foolish about devoting the entirety of one’s early life to a pursuit that cannot be continued past the early twenties, something desolate—even “Cheer” seems to imply—about the future for cheer athletes. But this seems to me simply another version of the myth of the madness of art: the beauty of youth sacrificed to a greater purpose. And I find myself asking if the great works of art that have rendered their creators immortal, despite the frequent brutality and abbreviation of those creators’ lives, are simply other instances of an impossible transcendence of the earth- and time-bound limitations of the individual human life: brief moments when mere mortals have “hit.”

Arielle Zibrak: here for the mat talk