Cheerleader chic?

The pom-pom girl evolves in the national consciousness.

THIS HAS BEEN an exceptionally good year for cheerleaders. First, there was the Oscar-sweeping American Beauty, in which Mena Suvari's cheerleader, bathed in rose petals, became the muse to Kevin Spacey's suburban salaryman. Then came Jamie Babbit's kitschy-hip indie film But I'm a Cheerleader, about a good Christian pom-pom girl with lesbian leanings. Now, the country's cineplex crowds are hit with Bring It On, which, in spite of prurient print and television ads that seem aimed at the pedophile set, takes a surprisingly intelligent and even good-natured look at the world of competitive cheerleading. As incongruous as it sounds, Bring It On is a cutting-edge cheerleader film, not just because of the plot's race politics or witty parody (there's a stripteasing Suvari look-alike in one scene), but because the movie actually makes turning cartwheels in a short skirt seem respectable.

It's no coincidence that the one-dimensional reputation of these sideline screamers is being rewritten. With more women becoming filmmakers, more attention is being given to girls' experiences. Bring It On was written by Jessica Bendinger, who became fascinated with cheerleading when she watched the national competitions on cable television. The film's talented teen star, Kirsten Dunst, portrayed an aspiring beauty queen in last year's Drop Dead Gorgeous, a black comedy written by Lona Williams, who is herself a former beauty pageant contestant.

Hollywood may also be churning out so many teen-oriented movies and revising its portrayal of cheerleaders to counteract the negative headlines involving high schoolers in the past several years. Peppy and preppy, cheerleaders are, as Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman writes, the "Energizer Bunnies of teen sexuality." But more importantly, they represent sweetness and light, the very opposite of the morbidity and violence of Columbine. Talk to real-life cheerleaders and you're bound to be disarmed by their sheer let's go! spirit. You may begin to wonder about your own cynicism, your suspicion of group mentality, your loneliness. You may wonder what your life would have been like had you been a high school cheerleader. Some day soon, scientists may discover that people like you simply lack the rah-rah chromosome.

Much like the Sapphic heroine in But I'm a Cheerleader, 20-year-old Jen enjoyed being around other girls in her squad. But cheering was also a sport, an athletic primer for what she would take up next, karate. Now a tattooed and septum-pierced administrative assistant, she speaks fondly of her cheerleading past in Minnesota, though she refuses to come out of the closet to her friends. "No one except for my girlfriend knows that I was a cheerleader," she says, urging me to withhold her last name in print. "It just doesn't fit with who I am today." But once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader. Jen is the kind of person who smiles a lot. She's super neat and organized. And she's friendly and upbeat even when she's had a bad night's rest.

As one character in Bring It On pronounces, "We're not just cheerleaders; we're inspiration leaders." She's a member of the Clovers, a mostly black inner-city squad whose slick, high-flying routines are a mix of Janet Jackson hip-hop and Cirque du Soleil acrobatics. The Clovers' sophistication signals the cheerleaders' modern-day arrival: Today's cheerleaders may be bubbly, but they're not all blonde, and they're not all female, either. In short, they've come a long way from the halcyon days of Marcia Brady, or from the debauched '80s typified by Revenge of the Nerds, when a certain shower scene involving a group of sorority sisters/cheerleaders foreshadowed the dormitory Web cam.

CHEERLEADERS DOMINATED at a promotional screening of Bring It On at Uptown Theater last month. They hooted, shrieked, and sang as they competed for Britney Spears CDs. They shot up with lightning-quick responses when cheer-related trivia questions were asked. ("Who in Friends dressed up as a cheerleader to hook up with a guy?" Answer: Rachel.) When the theater darkened and a trailer of Ben Affleck's upcoming movie Bounce began to play, in unison, they swooned, "Awww."

But cheerleading isn't all fun and games. While movies and television portray cheerleaders as date magnets, the reality is that—like anything else—glory has its price. "It's easy to be a cheerleader, but it's hard to be a good cheerleader," emphasizes 12th-grader Alix Knapp of the Roosevelt High squad. "If you have a stomachache or something like that, you still have to go out there with a smile and be positive. That's your job."

This summer, while most of her classmates enjoyed lazy mornings, Alix and the rest of her squad got up to practice every weekday from 8am until 11am. Petite with fair skin and elfin features, Alix says that a typical day for her would be to go to cheer practice in the morning, then go to work at her dad's auto mechanic shop, come home at 7, eat dinner, and then go to bed.

Another senior at Roosevelt, Amber Warren, says that she needs a planner to keep track of all her obligations; not only does the squad cheer at football and basketball games, they also have to show their support for other teams, such as swimming and gymnastics, and they're called on to appear at special events like assemblies and freshman orientation.

Alix says that the movies about cheerleaders "glam it up." She likens the false imagery to movies showing climbers on Everest or Rainier. "They make it seem so easy and fun. . . . And you actually try and ascend the mountain, and it's like the worst thing in the world, [with] like all the bad smells and everything." (All right, so she may have to work on the analogy, but the girl seems so earnest that it's only fair to indulge her.) When asked what her future goals are, Alix answers that she wants to be an anesthesiologist, "because my mom had cancer. And [being in the squad] has been a really good thing for me, because I love cheer, and I want to cheer in college as well."

WHILE POPULARITY and visibility may be the most obvious fringe benefits of cheerleading, many on the Roosevelt squad say that their extracurricular activity can help build anything from a potential career to strong muscles. "It's like performing, it's like acting," says 11th-grader Emi Nomura Sumida. "I want to be a news anchor, and I think [cheering] helps me with being comfortable [with an audience] and getting it right the first time."

Alison Marra, a 10th-grader who wants to be a dancer "like on Broadway and stuff," feels that cheering, which develops rubbery limbs, is good preparation.

As for the five male cheerleaders on Roosevelt's squad, well, they have to endure some ribbing from other guys, but they're showered with respect by the girls. "They're like our brothers," says Emi. "They're really good guys. I trust them."

The guys also develop some enviable triceps by hoisting up girls with one arm and catching them after jumps. Jansci Szablya, who with broad shoulders and a tan looks like a 17-year-old Russell Crowe, says that while he gets teased sometimes by other guys, "Most people think of [cheering] as a cool thing." While massaging Alison's neck, he says, "They realize that we get to hang out with girls all day long."

"The only thing that pisses me off is when people don't realize that we actually put effort into [cheering]," he adds.

It's obvious that male cheerleaders, just like their female counterparts, work hard and signal the growing diversity of pep squads in general, but what do the more traditionally macho guys—the football players—think of them? "Actually, I'm on the football team," Jansci replies. Oh.

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