“Cheer” is much more than a sports documentary.
On top of its mission to prove that cheerleading is no sideline sissy sport, Netflix’s new original documentary series takes a deep dive into questions about family, morality, and even religion. It will inspire some, irritate others, and surprise many, but regardless, it demands a response.
Directed by Greg Whitely, the original series released earlier this month follows the cheerleading team at Navarro College, one of the top cheer schools in the nation, as they prepare for the highly anticipated National Cheerleaders Association competition in Daytona, Florida.
Throughout its six hourlong episodes, it presents a myriad of in-depth interviews with teammates, coaches, and family members in such a way that presents cheerleading not only as an intense sport but also a loving family, and for many, a saving grace.
We meet students who have been to jail, were bullied, and grew up in broken families. Head coach Monica Aldama knows each of them through and through, and she approaches her job not just as an athletic trainer but also as a mentor, mother-figure, and friend.
For the most part, the series avoids the topic of religion, but when it does address it, it wastes no opportunity to make a cultural statement. And that statement presents a serious challenge to Christian viewers.
In the fourth episode, former cheerleader Billy Smith commends Aldama’s Christian example. “Monica’s so good,” he says. “You know she’s not Bible beating, and she’s got a great foundation and upholds the truth of what Jesus is all about, not being judgmental, has always stood up for those kids that were different, given them a place and outlet in life.”
At this point, the film has already addressed the fact that several boys on the team are gay and find the cheerleading team to be a place where they can be themselves. Within that context, Monica explains her faith perspective. Her words are both intriguing and unnerving:
“Yes I’m religious, and I would sound more conservative … but I get angry. I will debate you up one side and down the other if you talk about my boys. I will. I don’t understand how people can be so cruel about someone they don’t even know. … I’ve had a long conversation with my pastor at the church I’m a member of about it, and I won’t budge about my beliefs about it at all. I’m not doing it. You know those are my kids, I’ll fight tooth and nail for them.”
On the one hand, Aldama’s words hold a lot of merit: they might inspire viewers to get to know people who are different, to speak kindly to them, and to befriend them. On the other hand, her words aren’t just about being kind; they’re about belief.
The implication of “Cheer” is subtle yet radical: that the true Christian way to love a same-sex-attracted person is to set aside the biblical view of sexual ethics and, as a Christian, stand up against those who disapprove of the homosexual lifestyle. In other words, what was previously known as “the Christian view” of love, sexuality, and marriage is apparently no longer Christian at all.
Resisting this conclusion is even more difficult in light of the human faces and moving stories of the Navarro cheerleaders who are gay. Jerry is the heart of the team and exudes nonstop energy and encouragement, even though he has suffered the loss of his mother to cancer. His father is never mentioned. La’Darius is a stellar athlete with an immense love for the sport, but as a child he saw his mother go to prison and suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
“Cheer” captures these stories with compelling emotion and finesse, and indeed, they are stories that should be told. They affirm the vulnerability, strength, and dignity of people amid their pain. If there is an authentic Christian response to these individuals, it must involve listening, building relationships, and celebrating their uniqueness and virtues.
But mustn’t it also involve calmly, quietly, yet steadfastly holding true to the teachings of the Bible and the Church, even as a dear friend disagrees? After all, those teachings were not created in a vacuum but with the joy and flourishing of humanity in mind.
“Cheer” teaches many noble lessons about the power of teamwork, perseverance, and coaching as mentorship. But when it comes to morals and religion, the biggest letdown about the series is not that it isn’t compelling, but that it is. In a fallen world, authentic Christianity has always had to struggle to make itself heard and understood, but its mission becomes even more difficult when it is obscured by a distorted, “new and improved” Christianity that sows confusion disguised as truth.
Watch it to experience the incredible stunts and heartwarming personalities, but when it comes to looking for moral cues to take, proceed with caution.