Cheerleader Nation

by Roger Holland

21 March 2006


Are you ready for this?

Mentalism is something that everyone goes through in cheerleading.
—Ryan (Sophomore)

I… am a choreographer. That’s what I do. You… are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny, pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to turn your robotic routines into poetry, written with the human body. Follow me, or perish, sweater monkeys.
—Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts), Bring It On

cover art

Cheerleader Nation

Cast: Alexa, Amanda, Ashley, Ayrica, Ryan
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET


Lifetime’s latest grab at the female couch potato is an eight-part documentary focused on the cheerleaders and Cheer Moms of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky. Viewers with an interest in All Things Cheer may be forgiven for thinking that Dunbar is the only Cheer School in the contiguous 48, since it was also featured in MTV’s True Life: I’m A Cheerleader (2001). Cynics, however, may suspect that Cheerleader Nation is actually just an extended remake with a new cast of that original True Life episode, since executive producer and former cheerleader Laurie Girion also produced the MTV show.

As Bring It On revealed and Cheerleader Nation now confirms, cheerleaders are seriously competitive these days, and not just about their hair, handbags and boyfriends. And though, to an impartial observer, it seems to be as compelling a sport as synchronised swimming or blindfolded origami wrestling, leading the cheer clearly has a constituency. A constituency that consists of other cheerleaders, men who enjoy watching teenage girls bouncing around in skimpy uniforms, and (drum roll, please) Cheer Moms.

She started cheering when she was five. She chose cheerleading because
I chose it for her.
—Terri, mother of freshman sweater monkey Amanda

Lexington brands itself as the Horse Capital of the World. But Donna Martin, high school teacher, varsity squad coach and Cheer Mother Superior, begs to differ. As the premiere episode opened, the camera panned lovingly, perhaps ironically, across lavish horse country while she explained, “My name is Donna. This is where I live. Lexington, Kentucky. The biggest thing in Lexington, Kentucky is cheerleading.” I’m sure the 300,000 visitors Lexington expects for 2010’s World Equestrian Games can’t wait to see the Dunbar Cheer Squad.

Still, the Dunbar cheerleaders are a very successful team. At the time of filming, they were basking in the glow of back-to-back victories in their class at the National Cheerleading Championships, and plotting to achieve a third.

Consequently, the first episode of Cheerleader Nation centered on the annual Dunbar cheerleader try-outs. Following a time-honoured reality show template, the show introduced a range of characters and quickly threw them deep into the red hot crucible of selection. This was America’s Next Top Model Goes to High School with extra-added gymnastics and super-supportive mothers (where “supportive” can mean “pushy”).

The obvious reality TV questions formed the crux of the show. Who would make the varsity squad? Who would make junior varsity? And who would be cast into the High School Hell of Total Cheer Rejection?

But the unasked questions about the cheerleader’s home lives were potentially far more interesting. Which girls, for example, were already living in a custom built suburban home hell? And whose Cheer Mom sported horns and a long, forked tail?

Freshman Amanda’s mother Terri is a prime candidate. Having started her daughter on the road to Cheer Hell at the age of just five, Terri only has herself to blame when Amanda progresses from the endearing confession that “I’m so scared of high school… I just hope everyone likes me”, to her stunning announcement that “I only want the people who count to like me”. If one of Cheerleader Nation‘s many home sequences had revealed that Terri and Amanda were mutant lizard sleeper agents waiting patiently for the return of V, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. Well, maybe a little.

When Donna proclaimed that cheerleading was the biggest thing in Lexington, she was really saying it was the biggest thing in her life. It’s likely that the most entertaining or even educational aspect of Cheerleader Nation will be discovering whether cheerleading is more important to Donna and her ilk than their own daughters. An evident Cheer Star, Donna’s daughter, a sophomore named Ryan, was probably practising liberties and scorpions in Coach Donna’s womb, and she’s now preparing to put her mother through a moderate amount of mildly rebellious teenage angst payback.

As any of the above suggests, this must have been an easy scheduling decision for Lifetime. Cheerleader Nation comes with three parallel stories, all equally appealing to the network’s target audience. First, there’s the campaign for victory at Cheer Nationals and the bid to prove cheerleading a legitimate sport. Then there’s the study of the social and academic life of the common or garden teenage sweater monkey. And finally, there’s the relationships between the girls who cheer and their families who watch them. In short, Cheerleader Nation has pretty much everything any armchair anthropologist could possibly hope for from a single reality TV show. And let’s not forget those skimpy uniforms.

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//Mixed media