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It’s been 20 years since the Clovers beat the Toros at Nationals, and we still can’t get enough of Bring It On. Released on August 25, 2000, the movie touched a cultural nerve, combining sex appeal, girl power, athleticism, and genuine social commentary into one fizzy, fun, and endlessly quotable package.
“[Bring It On] is socioeconomic inequality and cultural appropriation in cheerleading skirts,” screenwriter Jessica Bendinger told Refinery29 over a Zoom call earlier this month.
The film, directed by Peyton Reed (Ant-Man) from Bendinger’s first-ever original screenplay (she’d later pen such coming-of-age classics as Aquamarine, First Daughter and Stick It), debuted at number one at the box office, grossing nearly for $90.5 million — more than eight times its $11 million production budget. It remained in the top spot for over two weeks, as thousands of young women — myself included — flocked to see a movie that didn’t talk down to them.
Bring It On follows Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst), newly made captain of the Rancho Carne Toros cheerleading squad, as she strives to retain her team’s reputation as national championship winners. The problem? Her predecessor, “Big Red” (Lindsay Sloane), stole all their best routines from the East Compton Clovers, a predominantly Black squad led by Isis (Gabrielle Union). Along with newcomer and cheer outsider Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku), Torrance must figure out a way to make up for past slights, all while developing an entirely new routine for the Toros in time to compete against the Clovers at Nationals.
There are many things that account for the movie’s longevity as a millennial classic. First, it’s the rare film of its era to actually pass the Bechdel Test, which requires two named women characters to have a conversation about something other than a man. It also notably subverts toxic masculinity, portraying the football team as consistent losers, with fans flocking into the stands to see a squad made up of mostly women (and a few men, who often have to contend with blatant homophobia) perform awe-inspiring feats of physical strength. But more than anything, Bring It On was years ahead of its time in portraying the insidious nature of cultural appropriation and class conflict, and the way white privilege blinds so many to the world around them.
It’s ironic that Dunst now feels like she’s forever pegged as “that girl from Bring It On.” Her participation in the film wasn’t a given. In fact, Dunst, then known for movies like Interview with a Vampire, The Virgin Suicides and Little Women was a surprising pick for the popular It Girl. In fact, she initially had a conflict with another role, and didn’t think she’d be able to star as Torrance. The fact that she did — and would even be game to star in another— is a testament to the strength of Bendinger’s script.
Still, the road to making Bring It On the hit it would become was almost as eventful as the Toros’ encounter with Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts) and his spirit fingers. Ahead, Bendinger reveals the behind-the-scenes secrets you’ll want to keep in mind for your next rewatch.
The opening cheer was almost deleted.
Bendinger remembers a male executive suggesting she cut the movie’s now-classic opening cheer, a dream sequence in which Torrance imagines herself finally getting made cheer captain, only to realize she’s topless. It’s a shrewd tone-setting mechanism, which both pokes fun at the stereotypes we have about cheerleaders, while also making clear that this movie will not talk down to them.
“That was a big ask I remember balking at,” Bendinger recalled.”The discussion was ‘cut the opening cheer.’ They were trying to cut it for space, and also it was a white guy who didn’t get it. Cheerleaders are a complicated thing for people. Not everybody looks like a cheerleader, not everybody dates a cheerleader — it’s a mixed bag.”
Bendinger wrote two out of the five main cheers, including the stand-off between the Clovers and Toros in the bleachers during a game and the opening cheer, which leads off the movie with the line “I’m sexy! I’m cute! I’m popular to boot!,” acknowledging pretty much every cheerleader stereotype that exists, even “I swear I’m not a whore!,” by the time it’s over.
“I didn’t write ‘You’re Gonna Pump Our Gas Someday,’ that’s a famous Big 10 cheer that Northwestern University used to do,” she said. “They would lose a lot and they would do that cheer. “Awesome, Oh Wow” is an old schoolyard thing I learned from my friend. And ‘Brr It’s Cold In Here’ was a very famous cheer that I saw on the steps of Columbia University when I was an undergrad and I never forgot it.”
Torrance almost ended the movie with an award of her own.
Though the Toros lost the championship in every iteration of her script, Bendinger said there was talk of having Torrance win a Cheerleader of the Year award, as a way to temper the blow of the main (white, privileged) characters not winning the day.
“It was pander-y and didn’t work,” Bendinger said. “When Rocky loses to Apollo Creed, he doesn’t need to win Boxer of the Year!”
Looking back, Bendinger says she’s faced with her own inexperience as a first-time screenwriter, but also recalls the challenge of being a young woman in a room full of male executives. “I capitulated to all these endings because in some ways I was trying to make it okay that the movie is doing this really subversive thing,” she said. “I didn’t have the power or the clout in my career to say, This is how it should be. People were not convinced. I was told girls don’t go to movies.”
A different ending was filmed but never released.
In Bendinger’s original script, a post-credits scene showed Torrance and Isis cheering together at U.C. Berkeley. According to MTV’s 2015 oral history of Bring It On , Reed actually shot the scene on campus at UCLA, but decided to cut it from the film, replacing it with the “Mickey” lip-sync blooper reel, which has gained its own cult following over the years. The deleted scene was included as part of the Bring It On DVD extras.
“It really didn’t feel like it said anything, or did anything, so we just decided to cut it,” Reed told MTV. “The idea of doing ‘Mickey’ and doing the bloopers stuff just felt like — this is a cheerleader movie, we’ve got to go out on this, it’s all about energy. And nothing seemed to be better than that.”
Bendinger wanted to direct Bring It On but...Hollywood happened.
In 2006, Bendinger would make her directorial debut with Stick It, another classic, this time about the world of competitive gymnastics. Still, she told Refinery29 she originally expressed a desire to direct Bring It On, only to be discouraged by studio executives who didn’t trust a woman with no prior feature directorial experience with the project. And though Bendinger makes clear that she appreciates both Reed and his contributions to the film, she does think that decision reflects a problem within the system.
“I had directed 20 music videos and been nominated for a Best Director by Billboard for my Queen Latifah video,” Bendinger said. “I wanted to direct [Bring It On]. I was indulged with a meeting and it became very clear to me that I was being indulged, which pissed me off. It was what it was, and I was like, Okay, I’m going to make my own shot. [That’s when] I wrote a spec script for Stick It and was attached to direct and produce.”
Bendinger says she’d like to believe that conversation would be different today, but recognizes that the industry has been slow to see real change, largely because many of the same people are still in charge. “Nobody in Hollywood wants to go, ‘Yeah, I’m part of the institutional bureaucracy that isn’t paying attention to data and that is overly taxing women,’she said. “Nobody wants to claim that they’re part of the problem. But they’re totally fucking part of problem.”
Bring It On predicted the future of cheerleading.
“There is something in that original script that turned out to be prophetic,” Bendinger said. “The opening dream sequence was originally Torrance dreaming that cheerleading was an Olympic sport.”
In 2016, the Olympic committee finally gave cheerleading provisional recognition in the global sporting event. In 2018, the University of Kentucky represented USA Cheer and the United States at the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
What’s more, the success of Bring It On and its subsequent five sequels (none of which Bendinger nor the original cast was involved in — Rihanna starred in Bring It On: All Or Nothing) proved that audiences had an appetite for the world of competitive cheerleading. That set the stage for something like Netflix’s Cheer docuseries, which tracked the emotionally fraught highs and lows of the Navarro College cheer squad from Corsicana, TX, as they competed for a national title. In many ways, the cast of Cheer picked up where Bring It On left off — and Bendinger might be their biggest fan.
“I felt really really happy that whatever aspirational seeds we had planted in Bring It On had come to full flower,” she said about watching the show. “Whether it was with the embracing of gay culture, diversity, showing what hard work it is. I’m rooting for all those kids big time. I hope they’re able to keep landing hard tricks in life.”
If Bendinger could remove one scene from the movie today, she’d cut…
“The part where Jan is joking about how his digits slip occasionally,” she said. “I’ve been rereading the script, and there was a much bigger storyline about Courtney’s fear of being slut-shamed. I was trying to say something progressive about teenage sexuality in a very judgmental and sluts-haming context of the ‘90s. And it doesn’t work to try to cram that much nuance into that exchange.
“It doesn’t hold up,” she continued. “It looks rapey. It looks like a gross nonconsensual violation, and I feel terrible. That isn’t what we meant. It bugs me. The actors sold it beautifully, Peyton did a great job, but it’s very time-stamped in that American Pie way. It stands out like a sore thumb for me. Pun intended.”
Bendinger is currently the co-host of Mob Queens, her Webby-nominated podcast with Michael Seligman about the forgotten history of Anna Genovese.