‘Bring It On’ Tackled Cultural Appropriation Before It Was Cool
Brrr, it’s cold in here! There must be some ignorance in the atmosphere!
Growing up in North Carolina, my high school was the “black school.” Compared to the wealthier, mostly white city schools, we were last in everything. The paint flaked off our classroom walls; my history textbook was so old it didn’t include the Vietnam War. My calculus teacher wasn’t certified, so I never learned calculus and was ill-prepared for college math.
What we did have was a band. Similar to black college bands immortalized in films like “Drumline,” our marching band played straight up hip-hop. Halftime was party time: when the drummers broke the beat down, the rest of the band abandoned their instruments and danced alongside our school’s cheerleaders and majorettes. It was the shit. It was also unfair to other schools?—?when the white school’s band debuted their smooth-jazz cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” they appeared hopelessly uncool.
The only thing worse than being uncool was being unoriginal. If we went to a game and a rich white school’s band and cheer team ripped off our style, we would holler “biter!”?—?late 80s slang for copycat.
“Beat biter, dope style taker. Tell you to your face you ain’t nothing but a faker.”?—?MC Lyte, “10% Dis”
The cheerleading movie, “Bring It On” is chock-full of biting.
Remembering “Bring It On”
Released in 2000, “Bring It On” was light-years ahead of its time. The film centers on a rivalry between two fictional schools?—?San Diego’s Rancho Carne Toros and Los Angeles’ East Compton Clovers. In the past, cheerleaders from the privileged, white Toros secretly recorded the Clover’s hip-hop inspired routines. The Toros performed identical copies of these routines, winning national competitions year after year. When the Toros’ new team captain, Torrance (played by Kirsten Dunst) discovers the truth behind the team’s success, she faces a moral crisis.
As a rule, plagiarizing is bad. And if the white cheerleaders in “Bring It On” were stealing intellectual property from other white cheerleaders, that would be plagiarism. Instead, they’re stealing routines from cheerleaders at East Compton High School.
In the ten years leading up to the film’s release, Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood became syonymous with some of the biggest threats to black Americans: poverty, incarceration, drive-bys and crack. By setting a major portion of the story in a Compton high school, the movie’s writer cues the audience that race will play an important role in this narrative.
“Every time we get some, y’all come trying to steal it,” the East Compton Clovers’ captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) tells Torrance. She accuses the Toro squad of “putting some blonde hair on it, and calling it something different.”
Isis isn’t just talking about plagiarism. She’s talking about cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation?
The “Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature” defines cultural appropriation as follows:
“The taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non?Western or non?white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”
In the past 5 years, the conversation around cultural appropriation has heated up. Americans debate issues like whether or not it’s appropriate to refer to a football team as the “Washington Redskins” or for white people to wear Native American headdressses to music festivals. Americans are constantly testing the cultural waters: is it okay to wear cornrows or dreadlocks in your hair if you’re white? What about dressing in hip-hop clothing and speaking with a black accent?
Talking about cultural appropriation is new, but the practice of white people co-opting other cultures for personal gain is old as time?—?especially when it comes to music. Elvis Presley scored his first hit with a cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Pat Boone built his career covering songs by black artists and making them attractive to white audiences. Rapper Vanilla Ice claimed that black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, allowed him to use their step chant, “Ice, Ice Baby” in his first hit?—?the Alphas disagree. Canadian rapper, Daddy Snow, used a fake Jamaican accent for his 1993 hit, “Informer.”
When is it wrong?
What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing and how can we tell if it’s good or bad? In an article for the progressive news site, AlterNet, communications scholar Kovie Biakolo writes:
“Exchange between cultures cannot be viewed as simply occurring in a vacuum, devoid of politics, power, and group advantages and disadvantages.”
Biakolo says the term conveys the experience of “being from a culture that has been disabused of its power by other cultures who now seek to borrow from it, at no cost, and with no reverence for history.”
In short, cultural sharing becomes appropriation when a group in power takes something from a group it has historically dominated. In some cases, the thing that is appropriated is something the dominant group once looked down upon— like dreadlocks and cornrows. Or rapping, which white politicians and parents used as a scapegoat for 90s gun violence. Or black dance styles like “booty dancing” and twerking.
Which brings us back to “Bring It On.” After learning how the Toros treated the Clovers, Torrance’s white guilt kicks in, and she convinces her father to sponsor the East Compton team so they can afford to attend the national cheer championship. Isis rips up the check?—?East Compton will find their own way to attend nationals.
Duly chastised, the Toros buckle down and create their own routine, piecing together a wide range of influences and ultimately creating a style that’s truly their own.
“Bring it On” tackles other issues, like the denigration of cheerleading as a sport, discrimination against male cheerleaders and sexploitation of women. But coming from my high school, the message of cultural appropriation hits hardest. If you didn’t catch it the first time, go back and watch it again?—?there’s a reason why Vice Sports calls the film “unequivocally the Greatest Sports Movie of All Time.”