On the cover of Pom Pom Squad’s 2019 Ow EP, singer Mia Berrin sports a cheerleader outfit and a black eye. The sleeve art proved more controversial than Berrin had anticipated. “I remember people being like, ‘Mia you can’t do that. You’re talking about domestic abuse.’” And I was like, ‘Woah, wait – what?’” says Berrin.
“It was interesting that the second I was a feminine person with a black eye, they’re like, ‘Well, someone must have hurt you and you’re making this commentary now on being a victim,’” says Berrin, who this week releases a cover of Nada Surf’s high school underdog anthem, “Popular” (the 1996 video of which featured cheerleaders in full flight).
Such responses struck Berrin as “bizarre”. “Cheerleaders are athletes to me. I loved the idea of using the image of a girl who is a badass and maybe she took a fall from the top of a pyramid and hurt her eye. Or maybe got in a fight. Me being dressed as a cheerleader… suddenly the implication is that she was hurt by somebody. Abused. It’s weird.”
It has been a big 12 months for cheerleaders in popular culture. In January, Yu Gu’s documentary A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem told the story of two former cheerleaders who filed class-action lawsuits against their teams and the National Football League, claiming they had been financially exploited and subjected to illegal work practices. Later, in the video for her early summer hit “Good 4 U”, the year’s breakout pop star Olivia Rodrigo donned a cheerleader outfit and rattled her pom poms before undercutting the wholesome imagery by strapping on creepy latex gloves.
And then in June, Berrin released her full-length debut as Pom Pom Squad, Death of a Cheerleader. For the 24-year-old half-Black and half-Puerto Rican songwriter the project has been an opportunity to both interrogate and subvert the idea of the cheerleader as icon of all-American girlhood.
“I’m gonna marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team,” Berrin sings on lead single “Head Cheerleader”. The song reimagines a stereotypical romance between the high school quarterback and Queen Bee cheerleader as queer romance. Rather than end up with a Johnny Football Hero, the cheerleader becomes romantically entangled with Berrin, with whom she cavorts “under the bleachers”.
In the video Berrin sings and rocks out in cheerleader garb. This was a brand extension for the artist, who often performs shows in cheerleader costume. She continues to be struck by the reaction it provokes. “When I first started playing as Pom Pom Squad, the way people would treat me when I went on stage dressed as a cheerleader, or in a very feminine outfit… there were all these preconceived notions that came with it,” she says. “I’ve been told people expect me to be a bitch. Which is funny given the nature of my music, which is obviously sensitive and emotional. It is funny that people expect me to get off stage and be mean.”
For Berrin, the cheerleader is not a symbol to be undermined or mocked – but a way for her to explore her queerness and her place in America as a person of colour. Her obsession with the exalted position of cheerleaders began while attended a preppy, overwhelmingly white private girls’ school in her hometown of Orlando, Florida (she is the daughter of 1990s rapper MC Serch).
“I’ve always loved the cheerleader character because it always felt like something that I couldn’t ever be when I was a young woman. The implication is she’s white, she’s straight, she’s bitchy, she’s an airhead. Me walking into a room being queer and a woman of colour and being a little bit esoteric – I’m not received in the same way I am when [dressed as a cheerleader]. It has opened a lot of doors for me in an interesting way.”
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She is also, however, confronting assumptions as to how a queer singer in an indie-punk band should look. “I’ve always been very feminine,” she continues. “I love frills and lace and pink. [In punk] that was very much rejected. To be a woman in punk it had to be black and studs. And that was annoying.”
Cheerleaders and American teen culture are a source of endless fascination regardless of whether you went to school in Texas or Tyneside. Even outside America, the cliche of the mean girls and jocks in one corner and the nerds and moody outcasts in the other has become ingrained in our idea of adolescence. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, the Kirsten Dunst-Eliza Dushku cheerleader dramedy that took on subjects such as racism and privilege and which continues to resonate with an international audience.
Those same teenage archetypes have been recycled and dissected anew in modern dramas such as Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education, nominally set in the UK yet which takes its cultural cues largely from America.
The cult of the cheerleader has “always been tied up into notions of femininity and the performance of femininity that young women have been expected for generations to engage in”, says Megan Abbott, author of 2012 “cheerleader noir” bestseller Dare Me, in which two close friends become bitter rivals after joining a cheerleading squad (the novel was later adapted into a Netflix series).
“There are all sorts of notions of the cheerleader as shallow and silly. And then, if you actually look at what’s required of cheerleading – it’s this extreme sport with no safety regulations at all, no protective equipment. In America, it has the highest injury rate of all sports. That contradiction felt very connected to the contradictions around femininity and being a young woman and the smiling mask you’re expected to wear.”
With so much cheerleader iconography around, there have been inevitable accusations of appropriation. “Who Owns the Teen Girl Aesthetic” ran a July headline in Pitchfork, which hailed both Rodrigo and Berrin for “reimagining girlhood in slyly dark ways”.
In addition to unpacking Pom Pom Squad’s cheerleader look – which predates Rodrigo’s by several years – the piece touched on Nick Walker’s photos of Rodrigo as a tragic prom queen girl in a tiara, with smudged mascara. The image was widely seen as riffing on the prom queen with running make-up who appeared on the cover of Hole’s 1994 album, Live Through This.
Courtney Love of Hole certainly saw a comparison. She tweeted it was “rude” of Rodrigo and her label “not to ask” if they could borrow, as she saw it, from Live Through This. Rodrigo’s response was that she was flattered Love would even know who she was.
“In this case it’s the prom queen but it’s in the same wheelhouse [as cheerleader],” says Abbott. “It doesn’t come from [Courtney Love]. It comes from a 1970s movie, Carrie [in which Sissy Spacek played a bullied teen with psychic powers]. Every 20 years we have to figure out teenage girlhood again. Each time there is a new generation of teenage girls that want to reckon with it. I grew up in the 1990s – I have a very specific idea about how radical [the Hole cover] felt. But I guess every 20 years it feels radical.”
Courtney Love wasn’t the only one to dismantle classic images of American womanhood in the 1990s. This was also happening within the feminist punk scene dubbed Riot Grrl (to which Hole were regarded as adjacent). Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, for instance, would go on stage in cheerleader outfits. Yet for Berrin it was Love who articulated the mixed feelings we have towards cheerleaders: how they simultaneously fascinate and repel us.
“The thing about Courtney Love that I appreciated is she also sat at the outside of the Riot Grrl movement. And didn’t agree with everything it was doing. She was never shy of talking about the things that made her not a ‘perfect feminist’. She wasn’t really playing to what could have been ‘virtue signalling’. People saying things for the sake of saying things. I related to her struggle with beauty standards. This is all speculative: the thing I always perceived in her music and love… is that she didn’t realise she was conventionally attractive.”
As an awkward kid at an elite school, Berrin identified with Love’s struggles. “That was something I felt deeply. I hated the prom queen. I hated the cheerleaders. I hated the beauty queen. But I wanted to be her. I wanted to have that social cachet. I wanted to fit in and to be perceived. I loved the tension that it created in Love’s artistry. I found it so moving.”
Berrin takes a sideways glance at cheerleader culture once again as she tackles “Popular”, a biting deconstruction of the high-school class system. But after that she is ready to move on.
“It’s interesting seeing the ways in which people can’t look past certain things. With this video, I’ve been saying, ‘it has to be the last one we ever do on a football field’. It would be sad if people were so married to the idea of me as a cheerleader. I’ve definitively had the experience throughout the album cycle of having to convince people to look past the image of me in a skirt and listen to the contents of the music. I guess I didn’t realise how strong the cheerleader image was.”
Pom Pom Squad’s ‘Ow’ has just been reissued on vinyl. ‘Popular’, featuring Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, is released on 15 December
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