20 Years Later, Bring It On Still Teaches Us About Cultural Appropriation

The Rancho Carne Toros' innocent "borrowing" is not the same as a mutual “cultural exchange.”

It seems unlikely that an early 2000s movie centered on the world of competitive high school cheerleading could teach a valuable, timeless lesson about cultural appropriation, but Bring It On does. Between witty dialogue and catchy cheers, the 2000 film provides an astute critique of white supremacy and colonization. Namely, it shows us how a privileged group of upper-class white students can easily infiltrate a largely Black inner city high school, steal their creative wealth, and benefit from it by passing it off as their own.

Starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union, the movie focuses on newly appointed cheer captain Torrance Shipman (Dunst) on her quest to win another National Championship for her high school cheer team, the Rancho Carne Toros. However, her idealistic dream is quickly shattered: She discovers that the former captain, “Big Red,” has been unabashedly stealing the team’s routines from their inner-city rivals, the East Compton Clovers. The identity of the Toros has been built upon the physical and creative labor of the Clovers, who are entirely composed of women of color—mainly Black girls.

Torrance displays surface-level remorse for the injustice committed by Big Red, but the captain of the Clovers, Isis (Union), refuses to make her team a charity case. In an act that is representative of the white savior mindset, Torrance presents Isis with a large check to cover the Clovers’ competition fee at Nationals. Isis rejects Torrance’s financial compensation, asking if it’s “hush money.” Wanting to maintain the respect of her team, Isis lets Torrance know that her forgiveness can’t be easily bought, thus rejecting the idea that monetary amends alone is enough to fix the problem of cultural appropriation.

Bring It On tackles cultural appropriation without heavy-handed condemnation of Torrance, but it doesn’t exactly paint her as a guilt-free victim either.

It would be wrong to say that Torrance’s crime is being a white, well-off, blonde woman. Rather, her complicity makes her an agent of cultural appropriation. For example, when Torrance initially informs the team that Big Red stole their cheer routines from the Clovers, they all vote to keep the routine. At first, Torrance sides with her peers instead of exercising her power to make things right. She understands that Big Red’s actions were unjust, but she won’t go against the status quo of her overwhelmingly white team.

When discussing cultural appropriation in real life, (white) people often use their ignorance as an excuse, calling their actions “cultural exchange” and dismissing the very real consequences of intellectual theft. In the film, Torrance uses her ignorance of Big Red’s transgressions, along with her own inherent sense of entitlement, as justifiable reasons to initially forge ahead with the stolen routine. Unfortunately for her, this decision spectacularly backfires.

In the context of the film, Big Red’s consistent swiping of routines and cheers means that the legacy of the Toros is built upon a fragile lie. This is painfully apparent when Isis and members of the Clovers attend a football game at Rancho Carne. While the Toros perform a routine on the field that was stolen from the Clovers, Isis and her team members simultaneously perform it from the bleachers. Torrance is mortified, and it is this public calling out that persuades the Toros to change up their routine for Regionals—not the acknowledged weight of their actions.

The Toros’ initial dismissal of their cultural theft is identical to the dismissal we see time and time again in our collective cultural landscape.

The line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation can be incredibly blurred, as pointed out by actress Amandla Stenberg in her 2015 viral video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.” But Bring It On suggests that cultural exchange becomes cultural appropriation when the colonizer erases the origins of the work in question. However, let’s be clear: Intentions are a non-factor.

To say that the Toros innocently “borrowed” the Clovers’ routines would be a vast understatement. Borrowing implies a transaction founded upon mutual consent between parties with similar social standings—and that’s not what happens in Bring It On, or in the many instances of cultural appropriation we see in the real world every day.

Since Bring It On‘s theatrical release 20 years ago, the theft of the Clovers’ work still mirrors the cultural appropriation we regularly see in mainstream media—especially in the fashion industry.

Styles that originate from Black culture are dismissed as low-brow, yet praised when worn by white women. In 2014, Marie Claire crowned Kendall Jenner as an innovator for wearing “bold braids” (aka cornrows), and then, four years later in 2018, Vogue styled the white model in an afro hairstyle that Black women are shamed for. Kim Kardashian has been accused of cultural appropriation more than once, wearing cornrows multiple times and inaccurately calling them “Bo Derek” braids. Similarly, designers such as Marc Jacobs have faced immense criticism for styling non-Black runway models’ hair into dreadlocks. As a response to the backlash, Jacobs took to Instagram to issue a defensive and tone deaf answer, commenting “funny how you don’t criticize women of colour for straightening their hair.” As if white women face discrimination for having straight hair in the way that Black women routinely face discrimination for wearing their hair in natural styles.

A November 2018 Twitter thread by writer Wanna Thompson revealed that numerous white women influencers pose as Black women online with the help of makeup, hairstyles, clothing, and Instagram filters—taking profitable creative opportunities from the actual Black women who originate these styles.

I’m also reminded of a rather obvious example of Black cultural appropriation involving the white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. Azalea’s image is undeniably crafted on a shallow caricature of Blackness, from her “blaccent” to her lyrics that aim to project the aesthetics and backstory of an Atlanta trap star, rather than a blond, white woman from a small, working-class town in Australia. When responding to criticism, Azalea has used her proximity to Blackness (i.e. her ex-fiance, Nick Young) as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Like the Toros, Azalea’s success is directly connected to a whitewashed iteration of Black ingenuity.

These instances are not harmless borrowing; they are an exercise in commodification and theft of Black culture in order to repackage it into something palpable and profitable for the white mainstream.

Part of the charm of Bring It On lies in the fact that the Clovers beat the odds; they not only defy expectations of making it to Nationals, but they dominate. Despite their considerable effort, the Toros place second at Nationals, while the Clovers claim first place. Ultimately, the film decides that Torrance, and by extension, the Toros, will not be rewarded for their well-intentioned but delayed attempts at reparations. The film’s conclusion provides a sense of relief that seems rarely witnessed in the real world. If only such outcomes were commonplace in everyday life.

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