New College Professor Featured in Netflix Docuseries “Cheer”

Cheerleaders in front of a sunset.
The title card of the hit Netflix docuseries “Cheer.”

From the February 2020 Desktop News | Cheer, Netflix’s new six-part docuseries, follows Navarro College’s cheerleading squad’s journey to compete for their 14th national championship at Daytona Beach, Florida. Between almost-acrobatic stunts and tear-jerking interviews with the squad, a face familiar to UA’s campus appears: Dr. Natalie Adams.

Adams, professor of New College, plays a vital role in Cheer’s story. As the co-author of one of the only academic books on cheerleading, Cheerleader! An American Icon, Adams serves as a cheerleading historian. Throughout the series, she gives insight into the ever-changing world of cheer, from its start in the 1950s to the billion-dollar industry that it is today.

We sat down with Adams to ask her about the experience with the popular docuseries, as well as her work on cheerleading in the United States.

Q: How did you get involved in the docuseries?

A:  Last June, I got a phone call from Chelsea Yarnell, who’s one of the producers of the show. She said she was with Netflix and that she was working on this documentary on cheerleading. The book I co-authored is really the only academic book on cheerleading, so anytime there’s anything to do with cheerleading, I get a call. They ended up flying me to Dallas, and we did the interview in the Dallas Public Library. And Greg Whiteley, who’s the director, interviewed me for about two and a half to three hours. He’s fabulous. He ended the interview and he said, “You know, we filmed everything, but we haven’t gone to production. You’ve really kind of given us this meta-narrative to help us script the story.” And I thought that was great.

Q: Did you expect it to be this popular?

A: After the interview, I really didn’t think anything else about it. I kept up with the producers throughout the semester, and it was supposed to drop in December, but it didn’t, so my immediate thought was well, it’s either getting canned or it’s not very good. When it premiered on January 8, a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in years texted me and said, “I’m watching this show called Cheer, and I just saw you.” And it’s funny, because it just blew up. It’s been so popular, and they had not done any advertising or marketing. It just dropped and it has just blown up. So yes, I have been very pleasantly surprised with the reaction.

Natalie Adams
Natalie Adams

Q: Why do you think Cheer has resonated with so many people?

A: First of all, it is because there is something about cheerleading that seems very American. On one hand, cheerleaders have come to represent the all-American girl. And at the same time, particularly the way that cheerleading has changed so much in the last 20 years, it has also disrupted all of those stereotypes, and I think that dynamic is very intriguing to people. There are cheerleaders everywhere, too, from little girls who cheer to Alabama cheerleaders to professional cheerleaders—they’re everywhere in our culture. This show took cheerleading and then disrupted it in a lot of different ways. It challenges a lot of stereotypes about cheerleading; it also perpetuates some, too. I also think there are people who just love cheerleading who appreciate that there’s a show that finally has taken it seriously and shown that cheerleading really is a sport. There’s just something intriguing and titillating about cheerleading, and the Cheer team was really able to capture it.

Q: What do you think are some common misconceptions about cheerleading that Cheer tackles?

A: I think a lot of people try to make the argument that cheerleading is only for rich people. One of the things that the Navarro team shows is that lots and lots of people who participate in cheerleading are not from the affluent class. And just like parents of kids who play baseball, football, and soccer, parents of cheerleaders make enormous sacrifices so their kids can participate. It is expensive to participate; there are gym fees, the cost of travelling, special training, uniforms, and plenty of other expenses. I think that has spoken to people because the Navarro cheerleaders aren’t rich. Another stereotype is that cheerleading is only for girls. There are more boys on the Navarro squad than there are girls. Then there’s the stereotype that cheerleaders are these cutthroat, vicious people, and I think a lot of people have noticed as they watch is how much they support each other. People have just loved Jerry, one of the stunters featured in the show, because, you know, because he’s so encouraging and challenges that idea of a cheerleader.

I also think that Cheer challenges the idea of who is a cheerleading coach. A lot of times cheerleading coaches have not fared very well either. They’ve sometimes been seen as old cheerleaders who don’t have anything else to do and they’re reliving their younger glory days. Monica is a fantastic coach, and she’s not doing it because she’s trying to relive her glory days as a cheerleader. I was writing a blog about it and said that I really think of her as being like the Nick Saban of cheerleading. She’s a brilliant strategist—she’s sitting there talking about how they can lose one point in one category but gain point in another. It’s clear how smart she is.

Q: What is one thing you wish more people knew about cheerleading?

A: I wish that people would not trivialize cheerleading as not being worthy of serious academic study, because my co-author and I have continuously faced that. By trivializing our research, it’s trivializing the activity. We have very much located ourselves within feminist scholarship, and a lot of people will say, “We can’t support talking about cheerleading and say that we’re feminists.” And I think just the opposite. What we try to do is actually bring a feminist lens to studying cheerleading without sucking the joy out of the activity. Cheer does that so well—you see their camaraderie and you see how much joy these cheerleaders get out of being in this space. Sometimes, I think academic studies of topics suck the joy out of the activity itself. And so, when we wrote Cheerleader! An American Icon, we were trying to write a serious book about a topic that I think is worthy of gendered analysis, but at the same time, trying to maintain some authenticity in the activity itself. There are 3.8 million people who participate in cheerleading, so we want to honor those cheerleaders and not just write them off.

Adams and her co-author, Pam Bettis, are currently working on another book about cheerleading titled Cheer: An American Obsession.

Watch the trailer for Cheer below.