Put Some Blonde Hair On It And Call It Something Different
The film Bring It On (Reed 2000) could be viewed as a light-hearted, mindless, cheerleading movie, but it would be naive to do so. Peyton Reed’s film is a diverse and forward-thinking, social critique on the cultural appropriation affair which remains relevant 19 years post-production. The movie encapsulates the age-old issue of the wealthy, white, upper class, stealing from the black, marginalized, lower class - but in this case, the black team comes out on top.
Bring It On is an example in which cultural appropriation is tackled appropriately and well represents people of colour without abiding by widely adopted societal ideologies and racial stereotypes. As stated in Race After the Internet,
“... the best way to combat racism is to offer more realistic portrayals of “raced others” and to produce media critiques that expose the fallacies of racial thinking.”
Reed’s movie provides an early social account on how groups with hegemony repackage, or ‘put some blonde hair’ on cultural inventions without the acknowledgement of the creator, which carries connotations of exploitation, dominance, and more severely, violence.
As Amandla Stenberg explains in her video project on cultural appropriation,
“appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”
(Stenberg and Masterson 2015).
Bring It On is immensely engaging in the sense that a bubbly cheerleading movie has the capacity of discussing such significant social issues surrounding racial inequality in an understandable and entertaining fashion. The film depicts the all-white team, San Diego’s Rancho Carne Toros, plagiarizing intellectual property (cheers and dance routines) from the marginalized and predominantly black team, Los Angeles’ East Compton Clovers. “Every time we get some, y’all come trying to steal it,” the East Compton Clovers’ captain, Isis, tells the Toros captain, Torrance. She accuses the Toros squad of
“putting some blonde hair on it, and calling it something different.”
This vexation is not specific to plagiarizing cheerleading routines, but to the systematic oppression and the centuries-long robbing of culture in which minorities have experienced. Beyond the cheerleading context, Bring It On is a dramatized exposé on the repetitive cultural theft of black art resulting in the credit being given to white people. We, as a society, are experiencing a profound cultural shift. Discussion surrounding cultural appropriation seems new, but especially in regards to the arts, white people have been reproducing and replicating other cultures for personal gain for centuries. Bring It On provides a commentary on race and racism in modern society.
As Josh O’Connor explains,
“...the thing that is appropriated is something the dominant group once looked down upon”
Features and art forms viewed as “ghetto” in reference to black people, are celebrated in white people. Music, beauty, dance, and even bodily features (most infamously executed by the Kardashian family) are whitewashed for mainstream consumption (Powell 2017). The brilliance of the film comes from its subtleties: it deals with stereotypes, racial inequalities, hegemony, and cultural appropriation - all while following two competing cheerleading squads.
The film centers on a rivalry between two high schools — San Diego’s Rancho Carne Toros and Los Angeles’ East Compton Clovers. The city of Compton becomes synonymous with some of the biggest threats to black people: poverty, incarceration, gangs, drugs, and police brutality. Because half of the film is set in a danger-stricken neighbourhood in East-Compton, it cues the significance of race in the narrative. As previously mentioned, the white people in the plot are celebrated (by winning five national championships) for using stolen black routines, while the Compton cheerleaders are mocked and labelled “ethnic” or “ghetto” for doing the same thing. When cultural appropriation is addressed, Reed handles race and class with precision to offer an appropriate method in dealing with appropriation. The upper class, represented by the Toros in the film, is often blinded by their privilege, so much so that they do not understand the struggle and oppression that those just 100 miles away experience every day. Clovers’ captain, Isis (portrayed by Gabrielle Union) uses direct language in order to effectively tackle privilege and appropriation. 15 years after the film’s release, Gabrielle Union discusses the division of race in the film in an interview from ‘Complex’, “As long as there’s been art and there has been people not getting credit for their art or recognized at all....the appropriation of our culture and winning awards and championships, using routines created and cultivated by black women who never got acknowledged, and couldn't afford to get on that national stage to be recognized.” (Kim 2016). Privilege is made evident in the film. In sport, talent gives way for equality, but race and class do not. Bring It On highlights the financial pressures inhibiting athletes from progressing in the class divided society. To expand, when the Toros need money, they can simply have a cheque written instantly, whereas the Clovers struggle to cover the costs on their own - risking their chance at even participating in the national championships. Privilege can be blinding and difficult to comprehend, especially when those who have it cannot see what they possess. The acknowledgement of privilege is imperative when discussing race in the media in order for those in all social groups and races to understand the systematic racial oppression that occurs in every society.
The black female lead, Isis, is not a stereotype. She was not the “mad black woman”. As outlined in Stuart Hall’s commentary on representation in the media,
“The moment you say blacks, already the equivalences begin to trip off people’s mind. Blacks then, sound bodies, good at sports, good at dancing… never had a thought in their heads, you know, tendency to barbarous behaviour. All these things are clustered, simply in the classification system itself.”
Isis is competitive but she does so with class. The film was originally written in an exploitative way in regards to the black females in the film, depicting them as violent and uneducated (Kim 2016). In order to convert the film into the respectable cultural media commentary that is mindful to all races depicted, straying from stereotypes, casting had a large role to play. Gabrielle Union describes her character Isis in the positive light as follows,
“She was a leader, that she wasn’t some bad caricature. Yeah, she had every right to be angry. She was young and black.”
Breaking away from existing racist ideologies and stereotypes was a goal of the film once in production. This enabled the film to be a long withstanding example of cultural appropriation and how it should be handled.
To conclude, Bring It On provides a minor example of the violence and struggle caused by privilege, hegemony, and cultural appropriation in order to convey to a broad audience how situations (like the one depicted) should be handled. It is a crash discourse on cultural appropriation that was years ahead of the rise of the racial conversation in popular media and gives positive representation to less privileged social groups. Even 19 years after the movie’s release, Bring It On’s concepts of repackaging black culture with blonde hair and dealing with stereotypes is still relevant in media texts today. Instead of ignoring being exposed for plagiarism and continuing to capitalize on another group's intellectual property, the Toros insist on developing something originally.
There was no discussion on reverse racism, discrimination, or arguments about who-owns-what, just acceptance of the hegemony and oppression that exists that must be dealt with in order to achieve a level playing field in a world in inequality. Despite it existing for centuries, today, there are heightened cases of rightful racial sensitivity causing cultural appropriation and racism to have being brought to the forefront of public media texts. Bring It On well represents these issues when such concepts were not as omnipresent in the early 2000s.
-Kim, Kristen Yoonsoo. "Black Girl Magic and Spirit Fingers: Gabrielle Union Talks Bring It On 15 Years Later." Complex. October 20, 2016. Accessed October 9, 2017. http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2015/08/bring-it-on-15-year-anniversary-gabrielle-union-interview.
-O'Connor, Josh. "Bring It On Tackled Cultural Appropriation Before It Was Cool." Dose. April 24, 2017. Accessed October 9, 2017. https://dose.com/articles/bring-it-on-tackled-cultural-appropriation-before-it-was-cool/.
-Nakamura, Lisa. Race after the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2012.
-Powell, Marcus D. ""Bring It On" Tackled Cultural Appropriation Years Before It Was Cool." Hypefresh | Exploring Culture. February 16, 2017. Accessed October 9, 2017. https://hypefreshmag.com/opinion/bring-it-on-cultural-appropriation.
- Reed, Peyton. Bring It On. Format. Directed by Peyton.Reed 2000. Hollywood: Beacon Pictures. Universal Pictures, DVD.
-Representation & The Media. Directed by Sut Jhally. Performed by Stuart Hall. Representation & The Media. 1997. Accessed October 9, 2017. https://shop.mediaed.org/representation--the-media-p174.aspx.
- Stenberg, Amandla, Quinn Masterson. 2015. “Don't Cash Crop on My Cornrows: A Crash Discourse on Cultural Appropriation” Posted April 2015 by HypeHair Magazine, Video, 4:30. http://www.hypehair.com/46876/amandla-stenberg-addresses-black-hairstyles-discussing-cultural-appropriation/
-Wickman, Kase. "Bring It On: The Complete Oral History." MTV News. August 06, 2015. Accessed October 9, 2017. http://www.mtv.com/news/2224189/bring-it-on-complete-oral-history/.
-Zarley, B.David. "Cheerocracy Forever: The Enduring Superiority of Bring It On." Vice Sports. December 10, 2015. Accessed October 9, 2017. https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/jp7epb/cheerocracy-forever-the-enduring-superiority-of-bring-it-on.