Cultural Diversity in 'Bring It On'
Cheering for Conformity
Bring It On is a film that explores binary opposites such as conformity/individualism and black/white and distinguishes hierarchies between them. I will argue that while on the surface the film seems anti conformist, the assimilation of characters into Torrence’s structured, idealistic reality repeatedly undermines any progress made to establish individualism, and instead supports boundaries and rules that help prevent ‘outsiders’ from challenging these ideals. By pitting the white cheerleading squad the Toros against the black Clovers, the audience is positioned to view the two teams as opposing forces and reinforces the concept of ‘us and them’, thus extinguishing any chance of cultural equality within the film.
Boundaries and rules are a dominant theme in Bring It On, as they often are in sporting narratives. The theme of cheerleading acts as a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and social boundaries, suggesting that it’s okay to be different as long as it’s a socially acceptable form of individuality - one that can coincide with social conformity. Assimilation is a key concept explored in the film, as it is made evident that only certain members of society can be allowed to integrate. This is most apparent when examining the scene with the cheerleading tryouts. Characters deemed too far removed from the conformist ideals of the squad are not allowed to join the team because of the threat they pose of upsetting the social balance. Missy on the other hand is allowed to join because her values are aligned with those of the team, even though, initially, she is apprehensive about joining them.
Both Missy and her brother Cliff begin as outsiders, unwilling to conform to any of the stereotypical groups that dominate the school. Cliff is uninterested in football and joining the hyper masculine ‘jocks’ that seem to hold much power at the school, and spends his time listening to old punk music (which represents resentment towards conformity, social restraint and authority). Despite this, he does little to rail against the system and doesn’t exhibit much enthusiasm towards a particular cause, unlike Torrence who is driven and determined. He appears utterly non-threatening, and therefore unlikely to upset the social balance. It is also ironic that the first indication we get of Cliff’s supposed individuality is a shot of his Converse sneakers – an enduring iconic symbol of popular culture and with a reputation as a reliable sports sneaker! And yet he isn’t remotely interested in sport or trends. The only redeemable feature of Cliff’s personality is that he supports Torrence in her cheerleading endeavours, and as Torrence acknowledges: “you believed in me” (Bring It On, 2000).
Cliff’s sister Missy is again a paradox with her feisty personality and apparent unwillingness to participate in the degrading nature of cheerleading. When first introduced she is confident and talented, and stands out as being different from the indistinguishable cheerleaders. But she is quickly assimilated into the conformist world of cheerleading and adopts the hegemonic ideals related to femininity, such as the acceptance of her body as something to be ogled at by males (her bikini at the car wash), acting coy and un-intimidating, and learning to join the mob mentality rather than speak out for what she believes in (when she accepts that they should continue to use the stolen routine). Her change is dramatic and begins from the moment she adopts the cheerleading costume – from this moment on she fits in with the rest of the girls on the squad, and demonstrates this fact by doing her peppy little dance to the catcalls of the boys in the car. So while Cliff and Missy may appear to be different and ‘special’ the film allows them to drift into the background. Their only real function is to propel the films central heroin Torrence to success.
Isis, the captain of the predominantly black cheerleading squad The Clovers, is another character used to help Torrence grow as a person. Even though it is acknowledged that she and Torrence “understand each other”, Isis still represents everything Torrence is not. Isis is outspoken, abrupt and intolerant. Alternatively Torrence is tolerant, polite and caring, and knows her limits. Isis and her team of cheerleaders push Torrence to strive for excellence and to produce original moves, and becomes a worthy opponent for the Toros. As Michelle Preston points out, “In war the idea that your enemy is a worthy opponent means that fighting them increases your status accordingly” (Preston, M. 2007, p.2). Torrence considers Isis and her team to be “the best there is” and believes that unless she has the opportunity to challenge them the Toros will not have achieved their true potential. Though the Clovers win the tournament, Torrence says, “it still feels like first” to her, thus discrediting the Clovers win by suggesting that she has found a higher sense of wellbeing and success. In this instance the Clovers are not considered to be of equal social standing to the privileged Toros but rather adequate sporting rivals. Despite their modest win the ultimate role of the Clovers is to encourage the Toros to be as good as they can be, and in this way they become an instrument to the Toros success.
Like Missy and Cliff, Isis and her team of black cheerleaders are portrayed as outsiders and represent the ‘Other’. The significant difference between Missy, Cliff and the Clovers is that the two white characters are able to adhere to the social ideals of Torrence’s reality and be assimilated. In Claudia Mills’ essay on the encounter of the ‘Other’ she observes that it is common for foreigners and other minorities to end up sacrificing some of their cultural differences in order to be assimilated by the dominant group (Mills, C. 2004, p.85). This is evident in Bring It On as Cliff and Missy are relatively passive and willing to realign their priorities to fit in with those of the white cheerleading squad. Isis and her team on the other hand, have a strong set of their own values and an unwavering sense of identity. They are aggressive and challenge boundaries; which is not conducive to a conformist society. Therefore they have no place on the ‘playing field’ of white society.
White culture draws on many different ethnic discourses – at least that’s how it would seem in Bring It On. This is evident in the final routine created by the Toros in which they incorporate a wide selection of elements taken from different cultures, such as mime, martial arts and ballroom dancing. By embracing aspects of other cultures they critique them to produce a worthy dance routine of which they are proud. But despite this display of boundary hopping the Toros ultimately reject the primitive characteristics of black culture. As Donnarae MacCann observes, White western culture tends to be reluctant to embrace the ideals and beliefs of the Black community. “One finds a repudiation of non-Anglo religion, sciences, art forms, and customs – a rejection of the realities evolving from non-European histories and priorities” (MacCann, D. 2005, p.186), she says. By dispensing with the stolen Clovers routine, abandoning the ‘spirit fingers’ dance move and breaking away from the power that the spirit stick held over them the Toros are showing their unwillingness to embrace seemingly primitive Black traditions. Because the Clovers are so rooted in their heritage and refuse to be influenced by outside forces they are positioned outside of white society and remain there for the duration of the film. Ultimately, it would seem that anyone who’s unwilling to embrace the ideals of western white culture will be excluded from it, and thus true individualism in the film is overshadowed by the power of conformity.
The theme of individuality, which masks much of the underlying messages of the film, can also be applied to the dynamics between the Toros and the Clovers. Both teams place great importance on the originality of their moves and are protective about their cheerleading routines. The black Clover’s are perhaps more keen to guard their moves than the white Toros, who seem to think there’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s routine. “Who cares if we stole their moves”, says one of the Torro girls with support from her friends. The Clover’s protectiveness may stem from the oppression of the black community and the fact that they are used to having to fight for certain rights. In accordance with this they are all characteristically feisty, assertive and proud. Their captain, Isis, in particular is a very powerful figure full of determination. But despite this representation she and her team are constantly undermined by the portrayal of Torrence and her white companions. Torrence is made to look more open minded and tolerant when compared to the prejudice of Isis. For example, she allows the unconventional Missy to join her squad and recognises the Clovers as a worthy opponent, where as Isis is surly and too proud to allow a white girl to help her, insisting on sticking to her ‘own people’ for assistance.
This hierarchy between the dominant white team and the subordinate black is reinforced further with the way in which the two teams choose to raise money. The Clovers rely on the sympathy of the black community and a successful TV personality, while the Toros raise the money by organising a car wash. So the white team earn the money while the Clovers virtually beg for it – this polarisation of white and black values works to give greater authority to white society.
The scene with the car wash is just one of many in which white characters are seen to be ridding themselves of impurities in an act of cultural cleansing. Missy removes the black ink tattoo that marks her arm so that she can join the conformist cheerleading squad, and Torrence and Cliff share an intimate moment when they clean their teeth together in a display of whiteness. As Stuart Hall observes, it is a conditioned response for White Western culture to want to scrub away any sign of contamination in an effort to restore cultural purity: “What unsettles culture is ‘matter out of place’ – the breaking of our unwritten rules and codes… ‘Matter out of place’ is a sign of pollution, of symbolic boundaries being transgressed,” (Hall, S. 1997) he says. By cleaning their teeth together Torrence and Cliff are bonding by communicating the alignment of their priorities - to attain cultural purity by scrubbing away any dirtiness that might taint them. This moment epitomizes the values of the film and reinforces its concern for maintaining boundaries against the ‘Other’.
Just as purity is associated with whiteness, primitivism is associated with black identity and reinforces their position as the minority. Identity in Bring It On is deeply imbedded in the cheerleading profession, especially for Torrence. “I am cheerleading”, she exclaims at one point. In accordance with this, Torrence plays by a set of social rules just as she does within the field of cheerleading. Even her name is similar to that of the team she supports, the Toros. Given this link between the boundaries of cheerleading and identity Torrence can be construed as welcoming of other cultural discourses as long as they are carefully monitored – the routine she creates embraces socially acceptable cultural elements and so too does she. Similarly, Cliff also forms his identity by drawing upon past trends and social movements from various cultures. This digestion of other discourses to cultivate an identity of ones own is portrayed as a positive act, with characters demonstrating this being rewarded (Cliff and Torrence find love; Missy finds acceptance). The important thing is that they explore race and culture within a structured environment with restrictions and boundaries.
Ultimately Bring It On fails to break down the boundaries that keep ‘outsiders’ from challenging the dominant ideologies and hegemonic norms of society. It places emphasis on the need for rules and restrictions in regards to cultural overlap, and embraces conformity over individualism. The hierarchy between the black and white cheerleaders is never broken and instead the film settles for a sort of cultural harmony between the two as they accept their designated place within society. The racially opposed teams may play by the same rules but the Toros remain the dominant team and the Clovers their subordinates.
Abraham, Marc. 2000, Bring It On, Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures.
Preston, Michelle. 2007, The Property of Whiteness in Bring It On, Deakin University, pp. 1 – 6.
MacCann, Donnarae. 2005, ‘The Sturdy Fabric of cultural Imperialism: Tracing Its Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Novels’, in Children’s Literature vol 33, Hollins University, pp.185 – 189.
Mills, Claudia. 2004, ‘Diversity in Deep Valley: Encountering the ‘Other’ in the Betsy-Tacy Stories’, in Children’s Literature vol 32, Hollins University, pp.84 – 86.
Hall, Stuart. 1997, The Spectacle Of The ‘Other’, in Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, Sage Publications, London, UK, pp. 225 – 290.
- Bring It On (2000) - IMDb
Directed by Peyton Reed. With Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Jesse Bradford, Gabrielle Union. A champion high school cheerleading squad discovers its previous captain stole all their best routines from an inner-city school and must scramble to compete