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Netflix’s Cheer
Courtesy of Netflix

How Netflix’s Cheer captures a generational search for purpose

The smash-hit doc series follows the Navarro College cheer team, as they break their bodies and push themselves to emotional brink for palpable success

The makers of Cheer can’t have had a tough time pitching the show to Netflix’s execs. The documentary follows a group of American teens that make up the Navarro College Cheer team – the number one cheerleading squad in the world. They reap the celebrity status that goes with it, while simultaneously putting themselves through bone-breaking, tear-inducing training regiments in the lead up to a national competition. 

Instagram-friendly with gym-honed bodies, they’re the kind of cast capable of inspiring viewers to hit ‘Follow’ on social media after watching the show. Of course, Cheer’s soaring popularity since its release at the beginning of the year means hundreds of thousands of viewers have done just that.

And however much the show smashes preconceptions about cheerleaders – these aren’t just pretty faces meant for the sidelines, but tough-as-nails athletes capable of superhuman feats – part of Cheer’s appeal can be found in the aspirational idea of being young, fit, and pretty that has long been part of the sport.

But it’s not just a superficial fantasy that Cheer allows us to indulge in. Watching the show, we’re given a glimpse into lives that are full to the brim with purpose – something people have always struggled to attain, and which is characteristically missing from the outlooks of younger generations.  

There’s never any doubt that the singular, laser-focused purpose of a Navarro cheerleader is to help their team win at the National Championship in Daytona, and it’s what drives them to push through the exhaustion, pain and fear of their gruelling cheer practice. In a world where slippery economies and dysfunctional politics have shaken our ideas of what we can achieve, it’s thrilling to watch a group of people join together in aid of a higher calling that promises a spectacular, tangible pay-off.

For many on the Navarro team, this sense of purpose is their salvation. Lexi, for instance, who is prone to rebelling and having run-ins with the police, says that she appreciates being busy because she knows what it’s like to not have anything going for her. Jerry, who lost his mother to cancer, has found support and even a foster home among the cheer community, and is obsessed with every detail about the sport. 

“In a world where slippery economies and dysfunctional politics have shaken our ideas of what we can achieve, it’s thrilling to watch a group of people join together in aid of a higher calling that promises a spectacular, tangible pay-off”

But that doesn’t mean cheerleading is always the most beneficial option for them. Impressing the judges at Daytona requires competitors to improve on previous years’ performances, which pushes routines to become more elaborate, technically brilliant, and dangerous. As team members start to literally drop out of the performance (often, it should be noted, from a significant height), it becomes clear their purpose is so all-consuming that individuals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Morgan, the all-American-looking cheerleader with a tragic backstory, describes the person who came up with baskets – “chucking someone into the air and seeing how many times they can flip” – as psychotic. But she performs them anyway.

All the while, the Navarro team are spurred on by their coach Monica Aldama, who they both love and fear. She is “like a mother” to them and is known as “The Queen”, but she also has a Mr. Hyde-like persona they are terrified of and call “Annette”. Monica appears to offer them a sure-fire route to success, with her scoresheet-based strategy, relentless perfectionism and excellent track record – it’s under her 24-year tutelage that Navarro came to dominate at Daytona. Her conservative outlook and unflinching belief that hard work will always lead to success also harks back to a more certain era, before the financial crash exposed capitalism as rigged and meritocracy as broken.

Monica is a master at controlling the small piece of the world she has carved out and turning the Navarro cheerleaders into lean, mean, winning machines. And it’s in this bubble that the cheerleaders’ sense of purpose exists. In the wider world, it’s ridiculous to think that the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” is “cheerleading”. But on the Navarro College Cheer team, it quite simply is.

As well as being limited in scope, this purpose-driven life only exists in a temporary state. Cheerleaders can’t compete professionally beyond college, so Navarro – which can only accommodate them for two years – is the ceiling of their career. Post-competition, the future is unclear for some of the team members. LaDarius wants stability and thinks about becoming a personal trainer, a choreographer, or joining the military. Lexi, caught with “illegal stuff” and kicked off the team, isn’t sure what to do next and stops going to the gym (although fans will be pleased to hear that Monica has since allowed her to rejoin). 

In this way, the feeling of purpose Cheer portrays is a fantasy for both viewers and the Navarro cheerleaders themselves. For viewers, it’s a second-hand feeling they experience while watching the show. For the Navarro cheerleaders, it’s something that can only exist under specific conditions and for a tightly-contained period of time. Nevertheless, it is glorious.