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Bring It On doesn’t hold up—until the Clovers show up

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WRITING: @ScarlettEHarris

Watching any piece of pop culture celebrating its 20th anniversary is a hit-or-miss exercise. Homophobia, fat jokes and rape apologia are rife, and Bring It On, which turns twenty this week is no exception.

The iconic cheerleading film starring Kirsten Dunst as Torrance, the plucky head cheerleader of the Rancho Carne Toros, and Eliza Dushku as Missy, the new girl in town, doesn’t hold up at all. The r- and f-words are freely thrown around like the fat-shamed cheerleader who face-plants, breaks her leg and misses being able to compete in the cheer competitions that make up Bring It On’s narrative arc. And who could forget the distasteful running “joke” about Jan, one of the male cheerleaders, digitally penetrating Courtney without her consent during a stunt when he was supposed to be protecting her.

Even without all of these micro—nay, macro—aggressions Bring It On is painful to watch now. That is, until the Clovers show up.

Headed by Isis (played by Gabrielle Union, who is sure to enhance any project she’s in), the majority POC East Compton Clovers are a much needed breath of fresh air into a stale, paint-by-numbers teen flick.

Dunst, as always, imbues Torrance with an earnest determination but, with the news that a new Clueless reboot will focus on Cher’s Black friend Dionne instead, I couldn’t help but think that if Bring It On was remade today (not to mention the needless sequels), Isis and the Clovers would be our heroes instead of antagonists in the way of the Toros racking up another championship. In the film, the Clovers going on a Black talk show to appeal to the Oprah-esque host to sponsor them and their *spoiler alert for a film that came out two decades ago* winners’ journey to becoming national champions are far more interesting than Torrance dumping her douchey, cheating boyfriend. Remind me again why we’re watching the Toros doing a car wash fundraiser instead of the Clovers?

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The comparatively lacklustre talents of the Toros indicate this is, like the classic quote, a “cheerocracy” not a meritocracy.

Torrance and Missy are not wholly unsympathetic, though, and are stand-ins for white audience members like myself who want to rectify the racist systems that put people like the Clovers at a disadvantage. When Missy points out to Torrance that her team, under the tutelage of the fearsome former head cheerleader Big Red, has been using stolen choreography for years, she is quick to rectify it, even getting her dad to sponsor the Clovers at regionals. “We don’t want your guilt money,” Isis says, tearing up Torrance’s white saviour cheque.

The monotonous, endless days of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly garnered repeated nostalgic rewatches of everyone’s previously favourite teen movie, coupled with the success of Cheer earlier in the year which, notably, does not centre on any female cheerleaders of colour. As much as many of us would like to ignore the problems with Bring It On like Torrance’s teammates want her to ignore their squad’s cultural appropriation, it’s interesting to rewatch Bring It On through the lens of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and a long-overdue reckoning of white supremacy and cultural appropriation in many industries, including media. Many of the same issues are there, with the Clovers never having had a chance to excel at the level of the Toros, because the rich, majority white team is always “jacking the Clovers’ shit.”

In the rush to diversify industries this summer (which begs the question, why weren’t they already?), BIPOC who have been placed in those roles are now wondering if they’re being set up to fail as token hires who still have to do the work to educate their still largely white workplaces. Though the Clovers were able to topple the power structures that rule Bring It On and, indeed, the world and walk away with the national championship,

By the Clovers schooling the Toros on their white privilege, Bring It On unintentionally puts a spotlight on what it means to appropriate Black and brown culture without really reckoning with what it means to make space for Black and brown people at the top of the pyramid.

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic and the author of the forthcoming book A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman.

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