Critic's Notebook: How TV Is Reinvigorating the Female Sports Drama

Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's 'Cheer.'

With shows like Netflix's 'Cheer,' TV has been picking up from where film left off years ago following the demise of the once-popular female sports drama.

Watching Netflix's smash hit docuseries Cheer, you start to get a false sense of your own physical prowess. You spy numerous young women contorting themselves into all sorts of unearthly forms as they back flip half a dozen times in half as many seconds or hurtle into the air, twisting to land onto someone's shoulders or in "baskets" created by the outstretched arms. They resemble rag dolls a child would flop around while ignoring the laws of physics and mortal endurance. They transform themselves into the spokes of a wheel, turning, turning, turning on the mat. They move so sinuously you begin to imagine the ease with which you could perform these stunts. "I bet I could do that…" you lie to yourself, fantasizing about how refreshing it would feel to elasticize your muscles and will your body into complete submission. There are no safety nets for these spry competitors. When the choreography goes awry, you're witness to bone-crunching catastrophe.

Greg Whiteley, the director of Cheer and its college football predecessor Last Chance U, has said that the subjects of his docuseries, the champion cheerleaders of Texas' Navarro College, are the "toughest athletes I've ever filmed." Cheerleading has a reputation for frivolity: It conjures images of a chirpy, sunshiny pep squad or sneering viragos at the top of the high-school social hierarchy. But there's no mistaking the Navarro College cheerleaders, who have won 14 NCA National Championships since 2000, are pure powerhouses. As they flex their limbs and fling themselves at top speed into the wide open unknown, you can't quite believe the improbable feats they're executing.

Still, these women aren't just entertaining us with their dexterity; they're fueling us with their ambition and passion. Cheer, alongside other Netflix titles like Emmy-nominated wrestling show GLOW and the prematurely canceled figure skating soap Spinning Out, has helped reinvigorate the long-stagnant female sports drama.

Sports films, at large, have been a tried-and-true genre since the advent of cinema. One of the first, 1915's The Champion, stars Charlie Chaplin as a mischievous wannabe boxer. Films like Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Hoosiers, Field of Dreams, Dogtown and Z Boys and even Dodgeball have all made their marks on popular culture. Sports continue to remain a consistent theme at the movies — just look at 2019 Oscar winner Free Solo or 2020 car racing Best Picture nominee Ford v Ferrari — but films focused on women in sports are a rarer sight these days.

The female sports drama began to flourish not long after the 1972 signing of Title IX, a law that banned sex discrimination in educational programs and resulted in increased athletic opportunities for women on the high school and college levels. (Just five years before, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon after masking her first name on the registration forms and defying flabbergasted race officials as they tried to physically throw her off the course.) From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, these screen stories highlighted the trials and triumphs of women competing for athletic glory and fighting for the respect they deserve. Sports movies love an underdog. Women, who have traditionally been expected to sacrifice their bodies to give birth and manage a home, not gain musculature and train for worldwide competition, are the ultimate athletic underdogs.

These movies moved and inspired us: National Velvet (horse racing); Ice Castles (figure skating); Personal Best (track-and-field); A League of Their Own (baseball); Bring It On (cheerleading); Love & Basketball (basketball); Girlfight (boxing); Motocrossed (motocross); Bend it Like Bendham (soccer); Blue Crush (surfing); Million Dollar Baby (boxing); Stick It (gymnastics); Whip It (roller derby). For every one of these classics, at least a dozen other sports films center a man, despite the fact that as of 2018, women represent 44 percent of all NCAA college athletes. At some point in the mid-aughts, however, these stories virtually disappeared from screen.

Many of these films' protagonists must prove their mettle for the sake of their pride and dreams, much like their male counterparts in other films, but the stakes are weighted differently for them. They're also competing for systemic change, championing the dignity of all women in fields strictly devoted to strengthening the human physique. Female sports dramas have returned to screens in recent years on a more elastic medium. With television, writers have the freedom to expand these stories beyond the traditional hero's cycle structure crammed into just an hour and a half. Within the next year alone, Apple TV+ may debut an '80s aerobics dramedy starring Rose Byrne and Netflix will launch a new British ice skating import, continuing the genre trend.

Cheer, GLOW and Spinning Out each emphasize the extraordinary physical power of female athletes, which viewers rarely get to see in a medium where women are typically either the beauty or the brains, but almost never the brawn. The characters on these shows embody raw power and endurance, whether they're flying 20 feet through the air, learning to control their wrestling maneuvers for maximum safety or cutting through ice to propel themselves into a three-turn aerial twist. Unlike female superheroes, whose hyperbolic abilities are so outside the realm of possibility that your brain can glaze over watching Wonder Woman knock out her foes during combat or Black Widow finagle weaponry with precision, athletic characters remind you of women's material potential. These athletes don't need to embody sexuality in order to give their physical talents value. In the words of actor and writer Brit Marling: "Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: 'Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.'" TV's female athletes aren't #Badass. They're prodigious.

These shows also have the narrative space to showcase the darker side of athletic ambition. On Cheer, much of the pathos stems from characters horrifically injuring themselves during practice, cutting their chances of making it to Nationals. These cheerleaders crack their bones, suffer multiple consecutive concussions and are pummeled so many times in the ribs they risk permanent disability. Without a professional league, there's a firm expiration date on their careers once they hit their early 20s and can no longer compete in the NCA.

Similarly, on Spinning Out, we watch young women go through hell in order to train for the Olympics — eating disorders, sexual abuse, gory injury — but the worst may yet come for some of these athletes who have devoted their lives to a one-in-a-million chance of success instead of getting a formal education. On this show, the women who have been chewed up and spit out by their passion can only envision a bleak, empty future.

GLOW also offers an insider's view, showcasing that professional wrestling isn't exactly a "fake" sport, as some naysayers claim, but a highly controlled and choreographed one. As we learn, it takes just as much bodily strength to simulate an act of head-thwacking violence as it does to actually perform it. These backbreaking steps lead to rough days, as evidenced by the third season, which sees its characters struggle with the monotony and chronic pain of performing the same moves night after night.

For decidedly unathletic people like myself, it's easy to start thinking of yourself as a brain in a jar, completely disconnected from the meat bag that actually houses your consciousness. I have always been more interested in nourishing my mind rather than my body — hence, a lifetime of irregular sleep, unsteady hydration and developing a connoisseur-level fascination with novelty potato chips. Only in recent years have I recognized that powerful muscles encase my bones, and despite inheriting the squat form of a classic endomorph, I'm surprisingly strong. Lately, every time I stretch my inflexible back and inch closer to actually being able to touch my toes again, I imagine Cheer's loving, hopeful teammates rallying me forward.