Leaving lasting impressions and providing lessons that validate our questioning and understanding of the world, timeless teen films feel grounding. These movies are the blueprint for reflecting on social hierarchy: there’s the cliques, the leaders, and the disregarded; usually there’s pep, and most of the time there’s meanness. Today, I’m celebrating how Bring It On brought it all.
Bring It On wasn’t just about popularity, cheerleading competitions, or rivalries. This iconic teen flick recognized that class and racial privilege permeate throughout the lives of high schoolers. The harm inflicted upon the marginalized, specifically Black people, was brought to the forefront: accounted for and checked in a way that isn’t happening today.
We’re living in a time of thievery, one where the mocking and exploitation of Black people is at an all-time high. From white influencers altering their appearances to look Black (AKA “Blackfishing”) to the frequent misuse of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by nonblack people, there’s little to no recognition of the erasure that takes place regularly. A recent trend is famous white Tik Tok users flaunting their blaccent with the “it’s the _____ for me” challenge, but tomorrow it’ll be something else. To them, it’s harmless — it’s internet slang and Gen-Z culture, which must mean it belongs to everyone. But in reality, they’re wrong. Cultural appropriation occurs every time people “borrow” from Black culture without credit or compensation. It’s inherently violent and inhumane, simultaneously benefitting from and erasing the people in its process. Twenty years later, Bring It On serves as the perfect refresher course.
The film begins with an unforgettable line entrance and catchy chant from the Toros, Rancho Carne High School’s spirit team. The takeaway from their cheers is that they’re cute, they’re popular, and they dominate the school. It’s fun and energetic until Torrance Shipman, played by Kirsten Dunst, is literally exposed — gasps and laughter emit from the crowd as the top of her cheerleading uniform falls off. Suddenly, an alarm clock buzzes and we’re brought into the present, showing that the embarrassing moment was just a terrible nightmare.
It’s a beginning that’s effective in making Shipman empathetic. She’s clearly stressed by the pressures that cheerleading, popularity, and the general high school hierarchy breed. Big Red, the former cheer captain who passes the torch to Shipman, is suggested to be the antagonistic force, upholding unreasonable expectations as expressed by the other girls in the locker room. With Big Red gone, it’s a chance for clarity, redemption, and greater wins — or so they thought. Culture vulture behavior is inescapable, deeply embedded in the fabric of their organization and very beings.
Shipman realizes that her team’s routine is stolen once the new cheerleader recruit, Missy, calls her out on it. They go to East Compton High School to watch the Clovers perform their signature cheer, which is the one that the Toros always use. After the game, Isis, played by Gabrielle Union, and some other Clovers confront Shipman and Missy for spying on them. It’s revealed that the Toros won all of their national championships based off of the Clovers’ cheer routines. In other words, they stole and benefited off of the labor of a predominantly Black team.
“It’s like, every time we get some, here y’all come, tryin’ to steal it, puttin’ blonde hair on it and callin’ it something different.”
Isis is weary as she should be. Lame, half-witted apologies fail to make up for the damage done. Shipman’s mumbled regrets mirror today’s iPhone notes app apologies. There’s no sign of accountability, no restorative justice, and more often than not, repeated offenses occur. That’s why the aftermath, where Shipman spirals in Missy’s car, means nothing. It’s a gross display of white guilt, and the evasion of responsibility is the cherry on the top.
Even though the Toros won national championships consecutively, Shipman doesn’t blame her team, but overdue bad luck, for the wrongdoings against the Clovers. Flashing back to hazing season, she remembers Big Red’s bold initiation order to drop the spirit stick on the ground. The infamous curse is that whoever drops the stick brings bad luck to their team. At the time, she thought nothing of it and followed through with Big Red’s bet, but now the curse is ruining Shipman’s life. It’s the number one tactic straight out of the Cultural Appropriators’ handbook: play the victim. Her self-indulgent, woe-is-me act centers her pain and leaves the Clovers with crumbs.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the Toros do not care about the stolen routines or the Clovers’ feelings. They believe that they earned the right to keep their cheers since everyone takes from other teams. Under their logic, today’s influencers deserve to steal from Black people, because everyone steals from Black people. Their flawed reasoning, devoid of empathy and understanding, is so normalized that even the ones who passively resist complicity end up contributing.
Missy, the white savior who brought the wrongdoings to Shipman’s attention, succumbs to defeat and remains on the team. She’s a little disappointed, but her reaction is off-putting since she fails to recognize the ways in which she appropriates from Black culture. From her silky looking “locs” to her fake tattoo, Missy sported a look that made her seem unapproachable to the rest of the team. She never interrogates what it means for her, as a white person, to use Black aesthetics in order to cosplay as a tough girl. Once she’s officially a Toro, Missy ditches her old hairdo for a plain-jane appearance that the other cheerleaders love, which reinforces European beauty standards as ideal and exemplifies how cultural elements are treated as disposable. We, Black people, wear our hair in locs, box braids, twists, and other styles to protect our sensitive curls. There is meaning in the things that we do and wear, but the white girls disregard the cultural significance of everything in this movie — all in the name of “borrowing.”
Their inability to reckon with their harmful behavior extends beyond how they treat the Clovers. And yes, the movie is dated. In the same vein as countless other early ‘00s films, Bring It On isn’t exempt from its unnecessary fatphobic, misogynistic, and homophobic remarks that serve to “other” marginalized communities even further. That’s why the Toros chant against the opposing cheer team — which notably consists of more women of color than their own squad — isn’t lost on me as they state their rivals will “pump their gas someday.” Regardless of their intent, their statement is targeted and heavy. Thankfully the film follows up the cringeworthy trash talk with a moment of justice for the Clovers, who arrive at the game to cheer and prove that their routines were stolen. “Tried to steal our bit, but you look like shit! But we’re the ones who were down with it!” the Clovers exclaim to the crowd, exposing the Toros for the frauds that they are. On par with most cultural appropriators, the Toros are disgusted and shocked about being outed as thieves, centering their comfort and victimhood once more. It’s a moment that reveals the true antagonistic force, Shipman and her squad.
Coming to grips with her team’s appropriation, Shipman decides to prioritize authenticity and work harder. She hires a professional choreographer, Sparky Polastri, to help them come up with new dances, which fails since he also plagiarizes other people’s cheers. It’s easy to feel sorry for Shipman again, because the minute she tries to make things right, her plans backfire. On the flipside, she technically hasn’t made amends for the specific damage that her team inflicted. The Clovers still lack the funds and resources, while the Toros were never thoroughly held accountable for using Polastri’s plagiarized routine at regionals.
When the reality of the class discrepancy between the two cheer teams becomes clearer to Shipman, she operates from a place of questionable intentions. She wants her dad to “do the right thing” — a line that inadvertently recalls director Spike Lee’s magnum opus — and have his company financially sponsor the Clovers so they can compete at nationals too. Shipman wants to beat the best of the best in order to prove that the Toros actually deserve credit, when in reality her team owes the Clovers financial reparations for benefiting off of their labor.
Isis understandably rips up the check, not wanting white guilt or hush money from Shipman and the Toros. Working in their favor, a talk show host ends up sponsoring the Clovers. When all of the teams compete at nationals, the Clovers win, ultimately beating the Toros who receive second place. Of course Isis and Shipman leave on better, more agreeable terms since the Toros finally used an original cheer at the competition. It’s a heartwarming ending, getting to see the Clovers prevail, especially in contrast to reality — where Black people are still uncredited and uncompensated while nonblack people make millions off appropriation.
On its twentieth birthday, Bring It On keeps its well-earned status as an underrated cult gem, one that articulates a repeated injustice against Black people, but allows healing in its ending. There’s no trauma porn, and no prioritizing the victory of the oppressors. For once, we’re given a rare yet necessary resolve — one where Black people win.