Be Your Own Cheerleader: An Interview with Jessica Bendinger

Where are the cheerleaders of yesteryear?

With all of this *gestures vaguely around at everything* going on, it feels significant that 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Bring It On (2000), the fizzy yet razor-sharp teen comedy that first established words like ‘cheer-ocracy’ and ‘spirit fingers’ in our generational lexicon.

As a lil kid, Bring It On and its gymnast older sister Stick It (2006) offered models of utopian teen feminism, where girls made room for each other on the winners’ podium. Little did I know then that both movies were scripted by Jessica Bendinger, who this year published her comprehensive text The Bring It On Book.

The book is kind of a rebellious alternative to a sea of stuffy, instructive screenwriting guides. But it’s also a creative memoir. And it’s a fan’s treasure trove of behind-the-scenes info on the ‘sports movie’ that introduced a generation of white girls to the concept of cultural appropriation.

For me, though, The Bring It On Book functioned mostly as a cheerleader in itself, and during our interview, Bendinger was just as encouraging and passionate; fixating on the toxic issues facing young people today, but also matriarchal storytelling and Taylor Swift. 

Eliza Janssen: I’m so happy I read this book this year. I don’t think screenwriting books normally make me want to write but this one actually did!

Jessica Bendinger: Oh thank you! I love to hear that. I tried to write the book I needed, and it’s such a dogmatic space, I really hate those books. They’re very male, for the most part. And just not that encouraging. Patriarchal.

EJ: Do you feel you were writing a book for your students? (Bendinger recently taught screenwriting at UCLA).

JB: For sure, yeah. I loved my students. I really wanted to help people connect with their tone, and their point-of view, and their voice, in a way that was friendlier. I think we all need a reframe with everything right now; what are we prioritising, what are we thinking about? Eliza, it’s like things are really….what are you watching right now?

EJ: Heaps of horror movies for halloween…Haunting of Bly Manor, also Lovecraft Country, The Vow

JB: Yeah I’m watching that too. That’s really well-made. My friend Scott [Frank] has a show, The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, I thought it was excellent. I’ve been watching Schitt’s Creek finally, and I’ve been revisiting a really great show I loved when it was on. Happy Endings?

EJ: Oh yeah, it’s great.

JB: It’s so well written. And it’s a style of comedy that’s really hard to do. So I’m just watching it and studying it. Like Simpsons-level comedy but for live-action ―

EJ: like really quick jokes?

JB: That writers’ room and that cast is phenomenal. It reminds me of a simpler time! It makes me nostalgic, as crazy as that sounds.

EJ: I have to ask. Did you watch the Netflix series Cheer

JB: Yeah, of course! I felt like they were my grandkids. I feel like that show exists in large part because of the amplification of Bring It On. I felt really emotional when I saw it because you could see that the promise of inclusion had been borne out on that show. Squads did not look like that when I was researching Bring It On. Like I imagined that, I hoped it would be like that. But with queer kids and kids of colour? That was not the case. Also cheerleading historically has been very homophobic from certain quarters of the industry ― largely Christian, largely southern. So it made me very happy to see that.

EJ: I feel like Cheer also made a lot of people appreciate just how legit and dangerous cheerleading is as a sport.

JB: I tried to tell everybody!!

EJ: Yeah, like just watch Bring It On??!

JB: It’s hard. Tricks and tumbling, the level they’re at now, it’s really blown up since I wrote Bring It On. But yeah, I loved Cheer.

EJ: Since you already brought it up, I wanted to talk about the power hierarchies in Bring It On. Like obviously you’ve got the two competing schools where one is way more privileged and advantaged. But there’s heaps of homophobia and body shaming among the ‘Toros’ squad. How do you feel about how the movie has aged?

JB: Oh look, the movie is time-stamped. And in the book, I acknowledge that the context we’re in now is wildly different than the context of 2000. I’ve said that if the Toros were to compete now, they would be cancelled and there would be no redemption story. I think we need to think about cancel culture more in terms of redemption culture. 

So instead of seeing [Kirsten Dunst’s protagonist] Torrance being ‘shamed’, she’s not humiliated to the point of trauma where she can’t function. She’s shamed just enough that she tries to make it right. And that’s what any of us who make a mistake should be given…depends on the mistake, of course, but…

Even the worst mistake…is there no path for redemption? That seems psychotic to me. A psychotic level of exclusion. If you have hurt a lot of people over a long amount of time, your level of accountability should be different. 

It’s a long way of saying that, looking back at the movie now, I’m struck by how a lot of it is prescient and ahead of its time in its thinking. 

Still from Bring it On. Photo: Jessica Bendinger ©

EJ: From the annotations in your early drafts of the script it sounds like a lot of the characters are based on how cheerleaders actually talked, when you spent time with the teams.

JB: And it’s comedy. So I think there’s been a very punitive lens placed on comedy, but comedy doesn’t do well with censorship. We’re at a really interesting point in history, right, in the country of free speech, where we’re all being held accountable to different degrees. We have to figure out, ‘where is this toxic?’ But in comedy, where could that lead to something good?

Like think of Archie Bunker, in All In The Family ; he was a bigot and a horrible, horrible human being! But he was a catalysing agent in the culture. 

I don’t have an answer for you. But I think if there was anything egregious, it was the ‘slipped digit’ moment. [Bendinger’s annotations of the original Bring It On script express regret over the male cheerleader Jan’s cheeky admission that, while lifting the female cheerleaders, he ‘may have slipped a few digits’].

There was more context to that, bigger handles on that than were in the movie. We were kind of trying to show a different side of slut-shaming, with this young woman…they’re engaged in a consensual dance. Is that apparent and clear to everyone watching the movie? No. Because we didn’t have time put in all the stuff that really emphasised it. So it just comes off as awkward and yucky now. But what we were trying to show is: here’s a young woman who likes this thing they’re doing, she’s letting him know, and she has to hit him afterwards and pretend she doesn’t like it ―

EJ: Like a ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ situation.

JB: It’s all that fucked-up thwarted sexuality in America, puritanical thing we have goin’ on here. I feel badly if anyone was hurt, I can only imagine some dude trying to do something stupid.

EJ: But the Clovers versus Toros storyline is still very precise to the world we’re living in right now. Like on TikTok, there are white kids getting hugely famous off dances and memes made by Black creators.

JB: It’s the oldest story in America. My mother plays traditional jazz from New Orleans, so we all grew up revering that Black culture. But also, I was the benefactor of white parents who worked in appropriations of Black culture. And then working as a music journalist, you know, Elvis Presley was stealing from the blues guys too. 

There’s so much great writing on this and I haven’t had time to marinate in all of it. Sonia Renee Taylor has a book out called The Body is Not An Apology. She’s a profound thinker. She talks about ‘the ladder’ ― this idea that we’re reaching for a higher rung, and if you’re on a higher rung, somebody’s below you. This sense of hierarchical value outside of us that’s very toxic. If you decide not to participate in the ladder, that’s the most radical act of self love; you’re saying, ‘my value is inherent. I don’t need to compete, I don’t need to be in a win/lose dynamic.’ It means we all have value, and that’s a very different world, right?

EJ: Kind of like a cheerleading pyramid?

JB: No but she’s saying ‘no hierarchy’! Lose the ladder. Then everybody’s equal. We are in interesting times. I hope we make it.

EJ: Me too! Speaking about competition, is there a particular reason you find a sports movie to be a compelling genre to work in? I just thought with Stick It and Bring It On, they both use this formulaic genre to be about girls helping each other win.

JB: Thank you for asking that. I don’t think I would’ve known this at the time, but, as a young woman with a lot to say, trying to find a place where young women could be centred and valued…the place that I saw that happening was gymnastics. Originally I was a gymnast, and then a cheerleader…and sports were a place where women could get positive attention.

That’s part of the fun of the movie, I think; poking at your own preconceived notions and dismantling those a little bit. It’s a fun piece of taffy, as a story. Genre movies for me, as a young filmmaker, were a place where I could express matriarchal storytelling inside a patriarchal structure. Patriarchal storytelling is win/lose; there’s a winner and a loser. Us versus them. Matriarchal is win/win, the heroine is ahead of the audience, and it’s up to everybody else to catch up to them. Or the hero.

I think critics got it? The New York Times liked Bring It On and Stick It. But a lot of people didn’t get it. They just saw it as a sports movie, but they didn’t see the medicine in the candy.

EJ: That’s like my favourite kind of movie. Like Robocop (1987).

JB: When I saw the documentary Athlete A, I don’t know if you get to Athlete A without Stick It. I don’t know if in Athlete A, you’d see these girls standing up for each other in a sport that marginalises them, and pits them against each other. Kind of keeping them in childhood, in a way that’s disturbing? Seeing them stand up and bond together for a different result, I think there is a relationship between my movie and seeing that public activism.

EJ: I was actually wondering if there was a link between sports movies and your B-ME outline process (The Bring It On Book’s fractal screenwriting structure, which expands the simple concept of ‘beginning-middle-end’ into each act, sequence, and even scene of a screenplay).

Because both sports and this three-act structure have a really distinct pattern; you know, in sports movies the team will always have a local contest, then regional, then nationals. It’s all super built up to a big satisfying climax…

JB: Maybe? Yeah, I think the sports movie, with that natural three-act structure, does have a cadence to it. It’s funny with Bring It On and Stick It, I think they’re such different movies. I remember some dude telling me I just rewrote Bring It On. But even from a point of mono-myth, they’re so different… Maybe most sports movies are quite intuitively satisfying.

Audiences now are really aware of the structure that’s baked into a movie. This many years later, context is king, and we have the most sophisticated consumers of entertainment in the history of entertainment. It’s a very different landscape. I don’t know if you could make Bring It On, or Stick It today.

EJ: How would you go about it? Making Bring It On today

JB: I mean, we’re talking about Bring It On stuff, and it’ll be a fun challenge to think about that…I’m thinking about big problems. ‘How can I proxy solutions for people in the candy of a movie? How can I start to simulate problem-solving for people?’ That’s where my head’s at. I think there’s enough garbage content out there, there’s enough fluff. So I’m setting out to do what I started doing with Stick It and Bring It On but…I’m not sure what the context is exactly.

Mob Queens [the true crime podcast Bendinger co-hosted] was exciting, and it’s going to be made into a TV show, with a really significant star. It’s really important. But I have to noodle on context right now. We’re living with such a short attention span, people are so distracted, consumers have 100% of what they want to curate for themselves so the audience has changed. Storytelling has to change. I was looking at TikTok last night and some of it was fun and cute. But I got really depressed, actually.

EJ: At the disposable nature of it?

JB: That’s fine. I think there’s a lot of fun charming things there. Not the disposable nature of it. But that the value of human attention…that human capital, energy, attention is being sucked into a very powerful hypnotic trance. It’s a very hypnotic platform. That’s where I got concerned.

EJ: When I think of the time that Bring It On came out in, it seems like there was a really perky and optimistic feeling to a lot of pop culture. Like Britney, the pop-punk and hip-hop music that inspired Bring It On…I feel like now, everyone’s so depressed and mature and sophisticated…

JB: Did you see The Social Dilemma?

EJ: Oh yeah, super depressing.

JB: Those algorithms are very strong. The cure is ahead of us, I hope. But I think it needs to be treated almost like smoking. There has to be cancer warnings.

EJ: You mean before you download an app or something?

JB: I’ve studied neuroscience a little bit and I’ve spoken on behavioural health at the Stanford Neuroscience Summit. And the toxic nature of social media, especially disproportionately to young women, is something we’re not taking seriously enough. It makes me very sad. I think the truth is we can’t handle it.

EJ: Did you see Eighth Grade?

JB: Yeah and there’s a little Bring It On thing in that. I saw part of it, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and got like, ‘ugh, this is going to be dark and I can’t handle it’. I was feeling a little too squishy so I haven’t watched it. But I’ve heard it’s great.

EJ: It just reminded me of what you’re saying, just ‘cause it’s one of the first films I’ve seen that’s about someone who really was raised by the internet, like a third parent.

JB: It’s not a parent, it’s not a human being. It’s something of infinite capacity, and so we love that. Having that on demand, there’s a lot of gifts that come with that, but absolutely we are not built for the exponential scale of the internet, and social media. 

There’s been a lot of robber-baroning; as these platforms have been built, we haven’t had proper mediation or intervention by the government, who’s way behind technologically. No-one can keep up with the speed of evolution. It’s kind of like, we need a Surgeon General for social media. For the impact it has on brains and lives and human beings. 

I do think we need to think in terms of entertainment: ‘is this toxic?’ We’re in this radical time of change, and we can’t think of it like it’s just entertainment. I know we can think that, when you just want to numb out and have your reasons for doing it. But I think this is a really important moment. I do hope it’s reversible. I’m sorry we’ve gotten onto this ― !

EJ: No it’s okay! It all ties together

JB: I said to the UCLA screenwriters; ‘what I really want is to hold people accountable and raise the bar.’ So that’s the whole point of the book; when I say to you, ‘be your own superhero’, I mean it. 

Still from Stick It. Photo: Empire ©

EJ: Something that I hadn’t heard before was your description of how a writer has to protect their point of view. Which is something that can often get kind of discouraged, like when people say ‘that’s just your opinion’ or if you’re writing to represent someone else…

JB: And it gets diluted when we get hypnotised. I had to do a total screen blackout for 48 hours recently and I couldn’t believe how many times I went to reach for my phone. Like I could tell myself I only wanted it on for background noise but like, I’m a fucking addict. So messed up. So yeah, point of view. Point of view is precious.

EJ: Did the point of view you were kinda trying to defend or protect, in Bring It On… Do you think it changes over the course of the filmmaking?

JB: Well when I look at the bolded parts of the original outline, I think it’s amazing that so much of it stayed intact. It had its journey and that’s a collaborative thing, the project is growing and maturing naturally. But it’s really remarkable how much he [director Peyton Reed] kept it intact. He really got it, and respected it, cultivated it. You know, he was a good parent, he didn’t harm the baby.

EJ: I couldn’t believe the cheer at the start of the movie ‘I’m sexy, I’m cute, I’m popular to boot’ was the same in the first draft. Nailed it on the first go.

JB: Okay yeah, my point of view is largely intact! But I think part of that is because we were basically left alone. Nobody cared. The movie had enough juice and energy that it got made, but everybody was shocked it was successful. And you wouldn’t believe what some guy filmmakers said to me. Really backhanded compliments about its success. Just really gross.

EJ: Because of the subject matter?

JB: Just not getting it. And guys being sooo fucking delusional about their own movies, just insanely myopic. But that’s Hollywood! It is myopic insanity. Very in love with itself, right? Q4 is spent [pursuing nominations for awards], Q1 is spent giving out and celebrating its’ awards, so half the year is spent congratulating itself. I really don’t know how relevant any of it is anymore. It remains to be seen…

EJ: It was also fascinating hearing that Barry Jenkins thanked you for your outline process. ‘Cause when you watch Moonlight, it’s so distinctly told in three parts.

JB: Yeah! It was very gratifying and very generous of him to say that in a magazine.

EJ: You’ve said that Bring It On was really inspired by the music you were listening to at the time of writing. So since you’ve said there could be more Bring It On in the future, is there a particular kind of music you think would fuel it?

JB: That’s a great question. I’m gonna go to my iTunes and see if it has a suggestion for us.

Everybody assumes that the next Bring It On would be a sequel, but i’ll be thinking about a prequel. And I’ll say this, I think nineties hip-hop is still really interesting. and really relevant. I think there’s a lot to explore moving backwards, to maybe a more simpler time. And nineties hip-hop is really in that direction. I don’t know, that’s still my answer. I just listened to Bedtime Story, which is such a political song. I just did a playlist for something I was meant to direct, and it was very much nineties hip-hop, and I’m not gonna let go!

EJ: I mean Public Enemy played at a Bernie rally this year; that music clearly means something to a lot of people.

JB: How does that sound to you? I’m curious, you’re so young, how does that strike you? Does it seem primitive, like so old-fashioned, given where hip-hop is ― ?

EK: I don’t think so. I guess the first hip-hop music I was ever aware of was like Eminem and 50 Cent, the mega-popular rap 10 years on from like nineties hip-hop…

JB: Look, I love that stuff too. Lloyd Banks, I love stuff that he did. So you love hip-hop huh?

EJ: I’m extremely white but I like it!

JB: Then what bands do you mainly listen to? Not in hip-hop, just whatever bands or artists.

EJ: My most consistent thing is like eighties new wave or gothy music like Kate Bush, Nick Cave

JB: I wouldn’t call Kate Bush goth-y, is she goth-y to you? When I think of goth, I think of like, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy ― I love industrial kind of goth, like Ministry, early Al Jorgenson. I’ve got two specific Sisters of Mercy songs I want to tell you, hang on…‘Lucretia My Reflection’, and ‘This Corrosion’ are the two songs you want.

EJ: I’ll look into it more. Thank you.

JB: If you like that era, sure. But Kate Bush was fantastic.

EJ: I think I like any singer-songwriter where every song is like its own self-contained lil story.

JB: How do you feel about T Swift? Are you team T Swift or no?

EJ: Eh, I’m not a superfan. But the fact that she’s written so many good melodies and I know the lyrics to so many of her songs, that’s pretty nuts.

JB: I like her new album. And I liked Lover too, the last album. She’s a great songwriter.

EJ: Do you think your tastes in music and movies and stuff skew towards teen stories? 

JB: No, not really. I thought Booksmart was fantastic. But no, I like darker shows like Succession, Breaking Bad. I like a lot of non-fiction, documentaries ― I loved Crip Camp, Love On The Spectrum. I like to learn about things I don’t know about that open my heart and my mind and my perspective. We’re all so siloed in our little bubbles. That’s my favourite kind of yoga.

Crip Camp was one of the greatest documentaries I’ve seen in my life.

EJ: I actually haven’t seen it.

JB: Oh my god! it’s fucking unbelievable man. You saw My Octopus Teacher?

EJ: Yeah.

JB: Okay that was good but Crip Camp. You really see that horrible side of human nature, that one-up, I’m-better, dehumanisation that we all do when we’re uncomfortable. I was just at a think-tank on Friday, on dehumanising language in scripts. You know, a word like ‘ex con’ ― no, that’s a human being! ‘The criminal justice system’ ― no, it’s the criminal legal systems. Social media is like that too, forcing us to make snap judgements. And our judgements are so frequently wrong.

EJ: Before I let you go, I have to tell you that when my sister and I were little, we used to kind of alternate between watching Bring It On and Stick It. Probably without knowing you wrote both movies

JB: Oh that’s so sweet! Thank you.

EJ: And I remember one time my sister pointed out that the main character of Stick It felt like the backstory of the character Missy in Bring It On

JB: She’s very right. I was a gymnast first until I got too tall for gymnastics, so gymnastics is definitely the magma behind Bring It On too. And when Missy Peregrym got the part [of Haley in Stick It] ―

EJ: Like, they have the same name?!

JB: There is a magical connection between both movies and I do think that the Missy character has primacy because I was a gymnast. That’s very perceptive of your sister. Thank her for that.


Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit / @eliza_janssen.

Eliza Janssen