Corsicana, Texas, is a teeny tiny town about 50 miles outside of Dallas where, according to the marketing chief of their local bakery, “the pace is slow, you hear the crickets and the birds chirping and the train whistles.” Corsicana is the land of 4-H competitions and Friday night football.
It’s also the town that boasts the most competitive college cheerleading team in the country.
Cheer, Netflix’s six-part documentary series, takes us into the heart of Corsicana, following the cheerleading team at the local Navarro College as they prepare for the national championship. Led by famed coach Monica Aldama, the Navarro Bulldogs are looking for their 14th NCA Collegiate Cheer Championship win — a title secured by a single 2-minute-and-15-second performance that they spend the entire year working toward.
Cheer is a gritty and compelling series ostensibly about the tenacity, heart, and literal bone-breaking dedication that goes into competitive cheerleading. It unflinchingly looks at the physical toll cheerleading takes on the body — the bruised ribs, the twisted limbs, the sheer panic of being thrown into the air only to look down and see that there’s no one there to catch you — as well as the athletic drive and mental acuity needed to succeed in the sport.
But Cheer is also about the journey to self-acceptance. It’s about how the sport can be a refuge for kids who feel “different,” whether they feel lost or abandoned or insecure.
This is particularly evident in the show’s portrayal of their LGBTQ athletes. A junior college in rural Texas might not seem like the place where queer kids would find a sense of belonging. But it’s precisely there that so many queer student athletes, who have otherwise been rejected by the world around them, have found a safe haven, a place where they transform into their truest selves. Cheer is looking to subvert expectations, not only about what it means to be a modern cheerleader, but also what it means to be a queer young adult carving out a place for yourself in rural Texas and the world beyond.
Take La’Darius’ story, for example. La’Darius Marshall, a former football player-turned-cheerleading stumbler (stunter and tumbler), grew up in an impoverished family where masculinity was prized above all else. Marshall, who lived in the care of another woman after his own mother went to prison, was sexually abused by an older man and bullied because of it.
After rumors that he was “fruity” started circulating, Marshall’s own brothers would try to “beat him into a man,” to the point where Marshall attempted suicide. Marshall tearfully recounted how he ultimately survived and realized that “if I let my emotions win and I do go and kill myself, then I feel like I let them win… And I would never have met the people that are helping me change my outlook on life.”
Marshall’s roommate, Jerry Harris, also faced a turbulent upbringing of his own. Raised in poverty by a single mother, Harris was a fish out of water in the all-too expensive and exclusive world of cheerleading and was able to afford the sport purely by his mother’s sacrifice. After she died from cancer, Harris found solace in cheerleading and the family he found there, even moving in with one of his “cheer moms.” Even though he could have understandably sank into grief and sadness after his mother’s death, Harris remains relentlessly joyful, exuding positivity and working his hardest even when his talents are overlooked in favor of other team members.
Though LGBTQ representation onscreen has made great strides in recent years, both Marshall and Harris’ stories still feel groundbreaking. Part of that is certainly because black LGBTQ men are underserved compared to their white counterparts. And LGBTQ characters shown in rural settings — particularly impoverished rural settings — is still something we all too rarely see.
Marshall and Harris, along with their other queer or otherwise nonconforming squad members, serve as powerful reminders that the LGBTQ community doesn’t just exist in New York City or Los Angeles or San Francisco — representation is just as important in the smallest communities, if not more so, and Cheer reminds us of that so eloquently.
Perhaps some of the most poignant moments in the series come from the dynamic between the LGBTQ team members and Coach Aldama. Aldama, who was born and raised in Corsicana, is white, religious, and on the conservative side. She explains that she “might be a little bit old-school with values and stuff like that, but I get angry. I will debate you up one side and down the other if you talk about my boys. I will.”
She recounts facing backlash for coaching queer athletes within her own religious community, one that involved “a long conversation with my pastor at the church that I’m a member of about it. And I won’t budge about my beliefs at all. I’m not doin’ it. You know, those are my kids. I’ll fight tooth and nail for them.”
“I don’t understand how people can be so cruel about someone they don’t even know. And not only that they don’t even know, but they have probably never even been around or tried to form a relationship with someone that is gay.”
Billy Smith, a cheerleading competition organizer, echoes these sentiments, noting that Aldama is “not bible-beating, but she’s got such a great foundation and upholds the truth, what Jesus is all about: not being judgmental, has always stood up for those kids that were different, given them a place, an outlet in life.”
That’s not to say that Monica is always the savior her peers equate her to. She can have an alarming ambivalence toward injuries, at one point forcing stunter TT to practice with a painful back injury until he collapses into the fetal position on the mat, holding back tears.
And when two girls are competing for one spot in the competition, she openly favors one cheerleader over the other because she says that cheerleader Morgan has “the look.” We are left to wonder exactly what having “the look” entails, and why it should matter for someone who has otherwise gone to great lengths to prove that cheerleading isn’t the image-obsessed sport that so many have reduced it to.
However, flaws and all, Monica promises to every single one of her team members that she is “there to be your advocate and I’m there to make you a better person.”
And, no matter how many times the Navarro kids fail to point their toes or fall from the pyramid, she sticks by her word.
Ultimately, the LGBTQ representation in Cheer uplifts fragments of the LGBTQ community so rarely shown onscreen. It reminds us that acceptance can dwell in even the tiniest, whitest, most conservative communities. It pushes us to question our own inherent bias, both when it comes to the sport of cheerleading and well beyond.
Cheer is currently streaming on Netflix.