This was originally published on August 25th, 2020.
At its surface, Bring It On is a fun teen rom-com about cheerleading that perfectly sets up its tongue-in-cheek tone with its opening dream sequence. Featuring the “I’m sexy, I’m cute, I’m popular to boot” cheer, it pokes fun at how people typically view cheerleading as nothing more than a bitchy popularity contest, but the film also shines a light on Black culture by providing a smart commentary on the serious issues of economic and racial inequality — namely cultural theft.
Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) is handed five-time National winning cheerleading squad — the Rancho Carne Toros — on a silver platter when she is announced as captain. Her easy life is shattered when transfer student Missy (Eliza Dushku) recognizes their routines from a rival squad her previous high school used to compete against. Missy drives Torrance to watch the East Compton Clovers and their presence doesn’t go unnoticed by team captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) who confronts them: “Every time we get some, here y’all come trying to steal it, putting some blonde hair on it and calling it something different.”
While watching the Clovers perform routines identical to the Toros, one thing stands out: each squad worked with a different choreographer. Head choreographer Anne Fletcher hired H-Hat for the Clovers’ hip-hop moves, and Ray Jaspar for the Toros’ cheerleader competition moves. You can tell that the Clovers are the better team by watching them perform — the ease and originality jumps out of them because they use their culture to their advantage, whereas the Toros’ rip-off versions look stiff in comparison.
The Toros vote in favour of still using their stolen routines, but find themselves humiliated when Isis and her teammates show up at their high school football game and perform the routine simultaneously alongside them. “I know you don’t think a white girl made that shit up,” Isis says earlier in the film. The Toros chant back: “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re gonna pump our gas someday” — a classist retort that is certainly something a white girl made up.
This inspires Torrance to put her foot down and develop a new routine. At the advice of her boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman), she hires eccentric professional choreographer Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts). At Regionals, they’re humiliated once again when the team scheduled before them performs the same routine they practiced. As reigning champions, the Toros are granted their place at Nationals anyway — but they are told they must have a new routine.
While it never sat right with Torrance, it took her being humiliated twice to force her to learn her lesson. This journey is about Torrance recognizing her privilege and understanding how she and her team have always benefited from the hard work of the East Compton Clovers.
Bring It On recognizes the hard work that goes into cheerleading. It’s not an easy sport; it’s very physically demanding, requiring strength and discipline. Missy was originally a gymnast at her old school and was looking for something similar, which further highlights the athleticism that goes into cheerleading. There’s even a running joke that the Rancho Grande High School football team loses every game, while the cheerleading squad are five-time National Championship winners.
As much as the Toros cheer on the football team, they don’t do much cheering back. Cheerleader Les (Huntley Ritter) is gay and comfortable with it — as are the rest of the cheerleading squad — but he has to put up with homophobic digs from members of the football team. Luckily, fellow cheerleader Jan (Nathan West) has Les’ back and always defends him.
Commenting on this in an interview with Insider, director Peyton Reed explained the use of the f-slur, which was intentional in terms of dealing with sexuality and gender politics: “The word is used twice: when the football players are talking about Les and Jan and they use that word and it’s definitely hate speech — it’s intended to be hate speech — then when Missy uses it in the car to talk as the new girl on the team, she’s kind of co-opting the language. The whole idea that Jessica (screenwriter) had was kids co-opting language in that way. That was the intent of it.” Reed added that if he were making the film today, he would approach it differently.
Torrance aims for the Toros to be truly original by having her team learn different types of dance — Broadway, jazz, mime, etc. — to incorporate into their routine. They go right back to the start and their hard work is shown through training montages, bloody noses, and the practices they did with the choreographer before they had to make big changes. By doing this, Bring It On also promotes the idea that putting in your own hard work makes winning feel like a true achievement.
Torrance spends most of the film trying to win back the respect of Isis for something she inadvertently took part in. As the Clovers are struggling to raise the money to attend Nationals, Torrance gets her dad to write out a check for them so they can attend. Torrance wants real competition but she also wants to do the right thing. To her surprise, Isis refuses to take the money, which disregards the typical white saviour narrative we usually see — an especially rare occurrence in the late 90s/early 2000s. Instead, the Clovers secure financial support through an affluent Black TV show host.
As the Clovers are the rival team, they are typically considered to be the antagonists of film. It surprised many people that they won instead of the Toros as it didn’t follow the film formula we had become so used to. In an interview with Variety, screenwriter Jessica Bendinger was asked how she felt about people interpreting Isis as playing the villain, and she said: “I thought one of the beautiful things about the movie is there’s no real villain. The villain is your own behaviour. The villain is your own ethical moral compass.”
Reed also commented on this, adding that the film is “really about cultural theft” and how the Toros benefited from it. “Gabrielle’s character, Isis, is a determined leader who is going to get to Nationals and prove to everybody that they’re the rightful ones. In no way is she a villain or even an antagonist.”
One of the best things about Bring It On is how Isis and Torrance’s relationship develops over the duration of the film. Before they compete in Nationals, they raise each other up by giving pointers to each other’s teams. Isis is never depicted as a stereotypical angry Black woman. She’s strong, level-headed, and knows her self worth. The Clovers won because they were always the better team. They knew they were and they finally had the chance to prove it. When the Toros get second place, they say “second place — it feels like first!” and they’re elated because they worked hard for it.
Bendinger provided a mature approach to the elements she tackled in her screenplay. The women in the film are not self-deprecating and they’re not fighting over boys either. The film is about strong friendship, healthy competition, and equality. While there are many jokes from side characters, cheerleading is treated as a sport that requires hard work and Missy showed that it wasn’t just for preppy blonde girls who wanted to be popular either.
Bring It On was ahead of its time. It portrayed sexuality, racial inequality, and teenagers in a way that was uncommon for teen comedies around this time. The film had an awareness about it and its satirical touches are a wonderful addition, providing specificity for those involved in competitive cheerleading. Bendinger’s tight, clever, and funny script is super enjoyable and insanely quotable. The film’s high energy and catchy cheers are still as contagious 20 years later.