Stunt Queens: The History and Cultural Significance of the “Queerleader” in Film and Television

Given recent news about two new upcoming movies with gay cheerleading premises as well as my longtime appreciation of this very specific character type, I decided to reflect on a very important dyke media legacy: queer cheerleaders on screen.

I made a list of all the pom-pommed lesbian and bisexual moments from film and television I could think of off the top of my head, which it was already very long! I then researched further and uncovered even more. The Queerleader has long been an image used to both subvert and reinforce notions of girlhood and femininity. As with many tropes and stocktypes when it comes to queer images and stories in film and TV, the Queerleader is complicated: sometimes a powerful image of femme lesbianism and other times intentionally portrayed as disruptive and dangerous, a threat to not only men but the women in close proximity to her.

Before we get into the timeline, let’s start with the roots of the Queerleader’s legacy.

What makes the sport and spectacle of cheerleading a realm so rife with lesbian and bisexual activity? Well, I think the answer is as simple — and as complex when you really drill into it! — as the answer to why settings/contexts such as all-girl’s schools, convents, and sororities are also frequent playgrounds for queerness and sexual exploration. These are, conventionally, highly feminized spaces considered to be largely free of men. And that’s where things also get complicated, because such spaces are often fetishized by straight cis men for that exact reason. It is a place where they are forbidden, and therefore it’s a place where they cast their voyeuristic gaze, peering as if through a peephole. You might not be surprised that when researching this specific topic, I also encountered a lot of cheerleader-themed lesbian porn.

But I think it’d be overly simplistic — prudish, even — to suggest the Queerleader and the homoeroticization of these other “feminine” spaces exist solely for the male gaze. It’d be a stretch to suggest straight men invented the Queerleader, even if the earliest examples of these filmic depictions were indeed constructed by men. While those might compose the majority of our pre-1999 examples, I think that has more to do with who had the means and power to make movies. There are lots of early- to mid-twentieth century examples of women writing lesbian narratives set in some of the aforementioned women’s spaces, including 1917’s Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane, set at an all-girls school. Radclyffe Hall drew from her friend Toupie Lowther’s experiences in a French World War I women’s unit for her famous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Prolific lesbian pulp novelist Ann Bannon realized her own sexuality while in a sorority in college and then went on to write Odd Girl Out (1957) about two sorority sisters in a relationship.

Sure, these are examples from literature, but in the early- and mid- 20th century, literature was a more accessible artform than film/television for women and queer people, especially because pen names allowed them to write somewhat anonymously and ambiguously. But on the cinematic side of things, Dorothy Arzner arguably invented the all-girls school film with The Wild Party in 1929, and while the movie features pre-Code compulsory heterosexuality, its lesbian erotics are impossible to miss.

So, cheerleading does seem to fit into this concept of “women’s spaces,” which make for ideal settings for lesbian narratives — especially in decades when homosexuality was widely criminalized and stigmatized — by allowing women to be in close proximity to each other. These are worlds in which women touching and being physically close can be seen as normal and even expected and not strictly forbidden or policed.

But when it comes to the Queerleader, I do think the reoccurrence of this image goes beyond cheerleading being a largely women-dominated sphere. At the risk of starting to sound like an academic paper (or perhaps that line has already been crossed lol), I argue that the cheerleader is an ideal symbol to inject with or project upon queerness due to the dichotomies cheerleaders have long culturally represented. In Go! Fight! Win!: Cheerleading in American Culture, Mary Ellen Hanson digs into these contradictions embodied by cheerleaders:

The cheerleader is an icon, an instantly recognized symbol of youthful prestige, wholesome attractiveness, peer leadership, and popularity. Equally recognized is the cheerleader as a symbol of mindless enthusiasm, shallow boosterism, objectified sexuality, and promiscuous availability. (Hanson, 2)

Indeed, cheerleaders are largely considered the most popular girls at school while simultaneously dismissed as vapid, empty-headed dolls. They’re portrayed as Good Girls who cheer on the boys but they’re also portrayed as scantily clad seductresses. Their femininity is a weapon and a beacon.

I’ll never forget the time a friend rudely dismissed another woman I barely knew and, when I asked why she’d done so, she simply said “she was a cheerleader in high school.” This ex-friend was parroting very common (and boring!) assumptions about cheerleaders that have been around for forever. She sounded not unlike this snide 1974 Esquire article about ex-cheerleaders, but it was 2014. (That Esquire article replicates additional persistent cultural expectations of cheerleaders, including that they be white, blonde, and have an ass in a manner that could read as tongue-in-cheek but is most certainly not.)

Do these dichotomies and paradoxes not sound familiar? Are they not evocative of the ways lesbians are also culturally regarded and portrayed throughout history? Simultaneously sexless and hypersexual. Queering the cheerleader becomes a way to both challenge and reify these dual narratives. Homophobic iterations of the Queerleader see her as a predator and an affront to the feminine ideal cheerleaders are meant to symbolize. But positive and queer-created iterations of the same character ultimately capitalize and play on the same assumptions and cultural symbols. The most successful and compelling ones just do so in a way that confronts those ideas rather than merely replicating them.

When I started writing this piece several months ago, I mostly meant for it to be, well, horny. Horny, funny, and detailed — my sweet spot! Now this final iteration has, like, lite citation work???? But listen I, not unlike a Queerleader, can be many things at once. Please let me live my best erotic-meets-scholarly life. Reference work can be horny, too!!! I’m engaged to a librarian after all.

And with all that context, here’s my painstaking timeline of the Queerleader in film and television.


1970s: The Sexploitation of Lesbian Cheerleaders

Two girls in red cheerleading uniforms flank a girl in a blue t-shirt

I tried very hard to find some readily available pre-Code films that 1. featured cheerleaders in a significant role and 2. had enough legible lesbian subtext to warrant a place in this timeline, but this proved difficult! Once I researched the actual history of cheerleading itself, the reason became clear.

Cheerleading has not always been a women-dominated sport. In fact, it was mostly for men prior to WWII. This makes sense, as cheerleading started at the college level in conjunction with intercollegiate sports. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, male volunteers would lead cheers to encourage spectator involvement during sporting events (Hanson, 11).

Stunts and jumps started becoming more popular in the 50s, and then the 70s saw the introduction of Title IX, which expanded athletic opportunities and funding for women’s sports. Cheerleading increasingly became more athletic and less about just shouting from the sidelines as a result. So, that’s your little mini history lesson on cheerleading and likely the reason why we don’t see a lot of filmic representations of women cheerleading in the pre-Code or Hays Code eras of Hollywood.

The first real instances I found of cheerleaders engaging in lesbian activity were the aforementioned 70s sexploitation movies in which hookups between women are used mostly as non-sequitur titillations. The Cheerleaders (1973) — in which high school cheerleaders decide to sleep with the rival team’s players so that they’ll be too tired to play well — and the absurdly titled The Great American Girl Robbery (1979), about a bus of cheerleaders taken hostage, were the most overt examples of these.

As that aforementioned Esquire article published in 1974 shows, the idea of the cheerleader as a sex symbol was already firmly in place during this decade, and it’s not at all shocking that we see Queerleaders cropping up in these soft core movies. I cannot in good conscience recommend these two particular films, but the lesbian sex scene in The Cheerleaders that prominently features an exercise bike is…very memorable! If you’ve seen any 70s-era titty movies, there’s nothing here that will shock you too much.


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

Natasha Lyonne and Clea Duvall in But I'm a Cheerleader in punk shirts and teal gloves

Jamie Babbit’s satirical teen film starring Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall as friends-turned-lovers at a gay conversion camp is easily the most iconic entry on this list — and arguably the prototypical Queerleader Movie even if technically some depictions do predate it. But given that Babbit is queer herself, this feels like the true beginning.

In an interview in 2005, Babbit had this to say about the decision to make the lead character a cheerleader:

Well, the reason we wanted to have the lead character be a cheerleader is because, for us, it was sort of the pinnacle of the American dream, and the American dream of femininity.

Babbit utilizes and flips the same image and assumptions those 1970s sexploitation movies with Queerleaders also put forth — but in a way that’s distinctly queer and subversive. Those 70s movies assume that a cheerleader engaging in lesbian sex is inherently horny (and mainly for straight men) because it seems forbidden and wrong in the context of the All-American Good Girl the cheerleader has come to represent. Cheerleaders exist, by the definition adopted by those movies, to root for and devote themselves to men and men’s accomplishments. To see them having sex with each other (even with the secret presence of a male voyeur, as those 70s scenes tend to involve) is at odds with that. With But I’m a Cheerleader, the primary intent is not necessarily titilation, but there’s something similarly fraught in how Megan’s queerness is considered at odds with her identity as a cheerleader. Even its tongue-in-cheek title nods to this: She can’t be gay because she’s a cheerleader. Only here, Babbit is indeed making fun of such a silly declaration, challenging not only the dominant narrative of how queer women look and act but also of how cheerleaders act, too.

The movie is not just one of the best and earliest Queerleader texts but also one of the greatest lesbian films of all time; in fact, it’s in the number one spot on our list of the 200 best lesbian, bisexual, and queer films.


Bring It On (2000)

Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union in Bring It On in their cheeerleading uniforms

This movie is the only one in this timeline that employs lesbian subtext rather than explicitly queer content, but it’d be silly to ignore Bring It On‘s ongoing popularity in the dyke community, especially since a lot of us who are over 30 and often clung to movies in our younger years that were not necessarily loudly queer but had an implied lesbian undercurrent to them (because some of us ourselves were not necessarily loudly queer but had an implied lesbian undercurrent to, like, every movement we made). Bring It On might not be an official Queerleader text, but it is almost too easy to project a Queerleader narrative onto it.

Bring It On, a very good movie, also inspired an entire multiverse of very bad straight-to-video/made-for-TV movies, and you’ll read a little more about that further down the timeline.


Veronica Mars, “Versatile Toppings” (2006) / Heroes, “Hysterical Blindness” (2009)

Kristen Bell and Kristen Cavalleri in the Veronica Mars episode "Versatile Toppings"

Season two of Veronica Mars gave us gay cheerleading activity in the episode “Versatile Toppings,” which is, unfortunately, a reference to pizza and not to lesbian tops. The episode feels like a 2006 pop culture time capsule in that it stars Kristin Cavallari of Laguna Beach fame as a closeted cheerleader. There’s also some throwback high school homophobia on display, with Madison Sinclair taunting another closeted character, Marlena, for looking like an Indigo Girl? Anyway, while lesbian cheerleading isn’t exactly a main throughline of this show or even this episode, I’m interested in how the Queerleader trope’s appeal and ubiquity makes it so that it even shows up in small moments like this. We see another quasi-instance of this in the fourth season of Heroes, which manages to combine Queerleader and Sapphic sorority shenanigans. Sure, Claire is no longer a practicing cheerleader at this point, but her college roommate’s obsessive crush on her does seem to hinge on a romanticization of the All-American girl aesthetics that Claire gives off. I’m counting it!


Degrassi: The Next Generation (2006)

Paige from Degrassi: The Next Generation during cheer practice

Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) is arguably television’s prototypical Queerleader. She first comes to terms with her bisexuality in season five, beginning a relationship with Alex Nuñez (Deanna Casaluce) in “The Lexicon of Love (2).” They have a classic enemies-to-lovers + opposites attract trope trajectory: Paige is the school’s Queen Bee and a popular cheerleader, while Alex is considered a “bad girl” from “the wrong side of the tracks.” They both have more layers to them than these stocktype categories suggest. It’s easy to interpret Paige’s attraction to Alex as directly connected to the fact that she’s different than the other girls Paige tends to associate with. A quick tumblr search reveals their ship portmanteau “Palex” is still popular to this day, and I found a few different fanfics that explicitly make use of Paige’s cheerleading uniform to erotic effect.

It’s quite easy to draw a line from Paige to Glee‘s Santana Lopez.


Across the Universe (2007)

Prudence from Across the Universe (2007) sits on the bleachers wearing a green uniform

The chokehold this Beatles-themed musical movie had on me when I was 15 and in performing arts school? Impossible to overstate. Though I was too closeted at the time to admit it, a big component of this obsession was the movie’s recontextualization of the song “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to be about a closeted cheerleader’s queer longing. Prudence holds it down for all the small-town Midwestern queerleaders out there. Played by Chinese American actress T.V. Carpio, she also stands out on this list, which incidentally tracks how a lot of on-screen portrayals of cheerleading default to whiteness. After all, queerleaders are known for being many things at once, and oftentimes characters of color are not allowed to be as complex and contradiction-laden as their white counterparts.


Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Jennifer in Jennifer's Body wears a cheer uniform and twirls a flag.

Underrated — and even maligned — at the time of its release and now accepted and celebrated as a classic after many years of cultural writing that has reconsidered and reframed the conversation around it, Jennifer’s Body is one of the best bisexual horror movies ever made. It was, by my memory, the first time I saw two women kiss on the big screen.

But even before that, Jennifer’s Body stirred within me some sort of feral animal force. It wasn’t the jumpscares or the body horror that got me; the thing that made me want to shut my eyes was the sexual tension between Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and her best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox). It was too much for my closeted self to bear. In their first scene together, Needy watches Jennifer do a routine in her cheerleading uniform — in slow motion — in the high school gym. Perhaps the slow motion is intended for the viewer’s own voyeurism, but my reading is that this is Needy’s perspective; she sees Jennifer’s body (*Beanie Feldstein voice* it’s the TITULAR ROLE) in aching, softened, sexy motion, so that’s what we see, too. She watches so closely, so intently, and with such unfiltered desire registering in her gaze that another student actually leans forward and says “you’re totally lesbi-gay.” To me, this entire moment is far more erotic than their eventual make out.

This is less a movie about cheerleading and more a movie about Jennifer turning into a flesh-eating succubus, but given that opening scene’s slowed-down, cheer uniform-clad, “lesbi-gay” iconic visuals, it’s an important film in this timeline. Jennifer’s status as a popular cheerleader is a big part of why she’s able to get close to men and subsequently kill them. She threatens natural social order at their school not because she’s maybe in love with her best friend but because she’s… a literal demon.


Fired Up! (2009)

Sylvia in Fired Up! has medium length brown straight hair and blue eyes. She's standing in a school gym.

Do I regret the hour and a half I spent watching this movie? Mostly! Was it perhaps worth it for the scene where all of the attendees of a cheer camp recite lines verbatim in unison while watching Bring It On? NOT QUITE. Fired Up! is about two football dudes who decide to go to cheerleading camp in order to up their body counts, so perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that the humor here is of the crude, bro-y sort.

The only Queerleader in this movie is a textbook example of a predatory lesbian, and I almost didn’t include it in this timeline for that reason. But I ended up wanting this exploration to feel really comprehensive and layered, and that means including the bad shit, too.

There’s a running gag in the movie that one of the airhead cheerleaders doesn’t realize the Queerleader is aggressively hitting on her. Fired Up! positions the Queerleader as an impure perversion of the cheerleader, as a stark deviation from what Fired Up! believes cheerleaders should represent. In a way, there’s even a parallel between her and the straight dude protagonists, whose proximity to cheerleading is predicated on them just wanting to have access to cheerleaders and their bodies. Only, the guys get to be the goofy and ultimately redeemable protagonists, while she remains a bit character we’re meant to think is gross.

Fired Up! came out when I was in high school, and I don’t think I saw it at the time, but this was an image of lesbianism I was very familiar with, and it’s actually this sort of casual representation of the lesbian as inherently creepy and aggressive within feminine spaces that did way more psychic damage on me than any overt examples of the lesbian as a villain or even as a killer. Remember how I wanted to shut my eyes during the opening cheerleading scene of Jennifer’s Body? It was exactly because of this; because I felt like a creep for looking at her the way Needy does.

Fun Fact: There’s a blooper reel during the credits, and in it Juliette Goglia’s Poppy — who is one of the main guy’s little sisters — actually says the word Queerleader during a runner of various alternative punchlines. It’s absolutely meant as an insult in this context, but again, I’m looking at alllllll filmic representations of this topic, baby! The good, the bad, and the ugly!


Glee (2009)

Brittany and Santana kiss on Glee

Ah, yes, if Across the Universe had a chokehold on me when I was a musical theater student in high school, well, Glee tightened that grip even more. Though about a glee club first and foremost and only sometimes about cheerleading by way of its central villain Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, unfortunately not playing a queerleading coach), the image that comes to mind most readily and potently when I think of Glee is this: two girls in cheerleading uniforms, holding pinkies.

Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) and Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris) were formative queerleaders for me — and arguably they are THE Queerleaders in this timeline. The first time we ever see them kissing, they’re in bed together in their cheerleading uniforms. Those uniforms are inextricable from these characters. Brittany’s bisexuality isn’t really a source of conflict, and Santana’s whole thing is that on the surface she’s the prototypical Mean Girl trope but then there’s so much more to her. Indeed, she’s mean to just about everyone except Brittany. And they go from high school sweethearts to wives!

Fun Fact: One of the gayest things I ever did when still identifying adamantly as straight was when I wrote an “article” for a “pop culture zine” on my college campus about the merits and nuances of Santana Lopez’s coming out arc on Glee.


Hellcats (2010)

A group of cheerleaders in yellow and purple cheerleading uniforms that say HELLCATS on them in the show Hellcats.

This series about college cheerleaders only ran on the CW for one season and is nearly impossible to stream these days. But during that brief run, Elena Esovolova played Patty “The Wedge” Wedgerman, an out lesbian on the squad. However, Patty only appeared in five episodes and never really got a fully fleshed out storyline. Despite having a lesbian character, there are no lesbian relationships in the series, and if anything the gayest parts actually seem to be the subtext between the show’s main characters Marti (Aly Michalka) and Savannah (Ashley Tisdale).

Apparently during a press tour in 2011, Michalka noted that Patty had been dropped from the narrative because the writers “found that it was really hard to involve her with the Hellcats and dividing all the story lines.” While supposedly Michalka noted this had nothing to do with Patty being a lesbian………….I’m not convinced. It sounds to me like another instance of the Queerleader rendered an “outsider,” and instead of that becoming a meaningful and potentially even powerful image dismantling ingrained images, it becomes an inconvenience for the writers. I genuinely enjoy lesbian subtext, but if you’re only willing to go there and not into more explicit queerness WHEN THERE IS ALREADY A LESBIAN CHARACTER AROUND, that’s a no for me.


All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

A group of cheerleaders walk down the hall in All Cheerleaders Must Die

I watched this movie for the first time recently and was quite delighted by it! Is it perfect? No. But it’s fun horror trash with occasionally glimmers of brilliance. All Cheerleaders Die centers on Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey), a girl whose best friend dies during a cheerleading stunt gone wrong. (The found footage-style scene that establishes that death at the beginning of the movie is fantastic; I always love portrayals of cheerleading that acknowledge just how brutal the sport can be, which we’ll get into further down the timeline.) The following year, Mäddy joins the squad, which is very confusing to her recent ex-girlfriend Leena, who btw is a witch.

When an altercation with the football team leads to the cheerleading squad’s deaths, Leena brings them all back from the dead. The catch? They’re basically linked succubus/vampire-like creatures who have to collectively feed on men’s blood to maintain their strength. There’s body-swap shenanigans, body horror, all my favorite things. All the while, Leena seems to get a very kinky pleasure out of basically being in charge of the lives of these cheerleaders. And like a good monster lover, she lets Mäddy feed on her.

A double-feature screening of Jennifer’s Body and this movie would be very fun! I like my Queerleaders to be murderers of men!


Wynonna Earp, “Gonna Getcha Good” (2017)

Waverly Earp does a cheerleading routine in her Blue Devils uniform.

In season two, episode three of the beloved sci-fi Western series Wynonna Earp, bisexual character Waverly (Dom Provost-Chalkley) dons a cheerleading costume and puts on a seductive routine for her girlfriend Nicole (Katherine Barrell). This show isn’t even a little bit about cheerleading, but this is a very important Queerleader moment in that Waverly is explicitly doing cheerleader roleplay to turn on her girlfriend. The scene directly acknowledges the erotic appeal of cheerleading for lesbians and bisexual women.

“I didn’t know if it was your thing,” Waverly says after she’s done with the cheer. Nicole’s jaw is on the floor. “Baby, that’s everybody’s thing,” she says. Which is basically my entire thesis for this piece in a nutshell.


Riverdale (2017)

Veronica, Cheryl, and Toni in their cheerleading uniforms on Riverdale

Season two of Riverdale saw the official introduction of queer storylines for Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), but some of us ahem SCHOLARS were picking up on the gay vibes emanating off of the red-haired and sharp-tongued cheerleader since basically episode one.

Indeed, Riverdale‘s pilot actually features a Queerleader moment — a kiss between Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Betty (Lili Reinhart) during their Vixens tryouts that Cheryl immediately dismisses as pandering and dated: “Faux lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994.” But later in the series, Cheryl goes on to co-captain the Vixens with her literal girlfriend, the bisexual icon Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan). And while the show has veered very far away from its initial high school drama premise, Queerleading will always be a strand in its increasingly confounding alien DNA.

I strongly believe Cheryl is evidence of Santana Lopez’s lasting Queerleader impact. Here, too, is an on-the-surface Mean Girl stocktype who actually harbors a quiet vulnerability and softness in her, brought out by the fellow Queerleader she falls in love with.


The Babysitter (2017)

A blonde girl and a red head make out in The Babysitter

Here’s another slight stretch, but I’m nothing if not thorough. Horror-romp The Babysitter‘s only Queerleading-adjacent moment comes when Samara Weaving’s Bee tongues Bella Thorne’s Allison during a game of spin the bottle. Allison is in her cheerleading uniform for the purposefully over-the-top make out sequence, during which Bee puts her gum in Allison’s mouth???? There’s no overt textual evidence of Allison’s bisexuality or queerness in the film — unless you count her very apparent arousal during this extended kiss, WHICH I DO??? Plus, I feel like every Bella Thorne character just radiates Bella’s own bisexuality.

We do see this slow-motion scene unfold from the perspective of an adolescent boy, so I can see how it might be viewed as a continuation of the sort of male fantasy of Queerleaders from back in those 70s movies or in modern-day porn. But the scene is also so long and so exaggerated that it actually feels like its poking fun at the voyeur and quite LITERALLY being tongue-in-cheek.


Dare Me (2019)

Addy and Beth are in their cheerleading uniforms in the show Dare Me

Yay, I get to now participate in one of my favorite hobbies: Screaming at people to watch Dare Me.

WATCH DARE ME!

No movie or show has captured the baked-in brutality of cheerleading as a sport as searingly as Dare Me, a slow-burn thriller full of blood, crunched bones, and contorted bodies. It also lives in another hyperspecific subgenre I’m drawn to: stories about toxic mentorship. In this instance, that takes the shape of a really fucked up coach-athlete dynamic. It doesn’t go the ways you think it might. But coach Colette French’s (Willa Fitzgerald) need for total control over the body and mind of Addy Hanlon (Herizen F. Guardiola) and the ways she manipulates the young girl are a true source of horror.

And that violent power dynamic never becomes overtly sexual, because queerness itself isn’t villainized in Dare Me — abuse of power is. Instead, there’s a slow-burn queer romance at the core of the show, sizzling just on the sidelines for much of the series. but ultimately hugely important for character motivation and development. Addy’s co-dependent friendship with bff Beth (Marlo Kelly) is gradually revealed to be something more. The subtext becomes bolder text in measured, scintillating increments rather than some gaudy big reveal, and it feels all the more real for that. And throughout, Dare Me explores just how dangerous and intense cheerleading itself can be, sticking up its middle finger to portrayals of the sport as something cute and fluffy. Femininity in Dare Me has sharp edges and bite.

I recently read the pilot script for Dare Me and was struck by some of the language it uses in its descriptions of actions. It describes the girls putting glitter on their faces as putting on their “cheer masks.” When a character falls, the script notes that this is what cheering really is. Here is a show that understands well the performance, risk, and almost battle-like stakes of cheerleading, which makes its exploration of Queerleading all the juicier.


Knives and Skin (2019)

Two girls hold hands over a bathroom stall divider. One is in a cheerleading uniform.

A surreal psychological thriller that has been described as like if David Lynch made a teen movie without ever really living up to that admittedly alluring interpretation, Knives and Skin is a very strange movie that includes clownfucking, haunting a cappella renditions of pop songs, and strong use of color. For an experimental film, it just doesn’t quite take enough risks and could also have done with a tighter edit.

One of its many teen girl characters (the movie is largely about, among other things, the unbearable sadness threaded through girlhood) is a Queerleader named Laurel (Kayla Carter). Presumably, she’s in the closet or otherwise still figuring out her sexuality. She’s in a highly visible relationship with a boy but a shadow relationship with another girl. Even if they never officially “date,” they find a lot of homoerotic things to do together, including passing handwritten notes to each other that were kept…inside their vaginas.


The Prom (2020)

Ariana DeBose in The Prom.

Ariana DeBose’s closeted Queerleader Alyssa is easily the best part of The Proma movie musical I wish I liked more! It is very heartwarming and lovely in moments, but there’s an emptiness to it that makes it almost instantly forgettable. But! Alyssa! Alyssa is a great character, and her relationship with her queerness is different than that of the film’s main character. The stakes are different for her.

Alyssa’s solo in the movie “Alyssa Greene” is all about her mother’s (Kerry Washington) molding of her into a perfect girl. She has to be beautiful and smart (“The hair has to be perfect / The As have to be straight”). She has to be the best at everything she does (“Trophies have to be first place / Ribbons have to be blue”). Cheerleading is one of the many things Alyssa has to ascribe to in order to achieve the level of perfection her mother demands and the level of perfection that ultimately buries her queerness deeper and deeper. It’s a tactic a lot of queer folks employed in our teenage years, myself included: You think there’s something “wrong” with you so you fight like hell to make everyone else see “perfection.” Her cheerleading uniform is like the rest of her life: a costume and an act. Or, maybe, armor to protect herself.


Fear Street Part One: 1994 (2021)

Sam in her cheerleading uniform in Fear Street Part One.

I find Sam to frankly be the least interesting character in the Fear Street trilogy, but she is a Queerleader! We first meet Sam (Olivia Scott Welch) in the first installment. She’s in her cheerleading uniform on the football field at Sunnyvale High, where she has recently transferred from Shadyside. Up to this point, we know protagonist Deena (Kiana Madeira) is going through a dramatic high school breakup, but we don’t know it’s of the queer variety until this moment, Sam finally dropping the facade of her picturesque performance, wrapped in the arms of a football player, to have a full-on dyke fight away from everyone else with Deena. Sam’s clearly going through it, thinking that the only way she can have a happy and healthy life is to become this textbook, idealized cheerleader-dating-a-football-player high school trope. And frankly I think Deena should let Sam figure that out on her own and date someone more secure, but teens will be teens!


The music videos for “Somebody I Fucked Once” by Zolita and “Silk Chiffon” by MUNA and Phoebe Bridgers (2021)

A girl with short brown hair makes out with a girl with blonde hair in a cheerleader uniform.

Sure, these aren’t exactly film and television, but I’d be remiss not to include these two musical tributes to the Queerleader that came out in 2021. “Silk Chiffon” directly references and reproduces images and storylines from But I’m a Cheerleader, a cute and fun tribute that feels fitting for the bubbly queer love pop song that seemed inescapable last summer.

Zolita’s take for “Somebody I Fucked Once” is arguably the campier video of the two. It’s less of a straight riff and more like a mix-and-match collage of early 2000s aesthetics, teen movie tropes, and Queerleader imagery! In it, the blonde, pink-clad cheerleader falls for the goth brunette who’s into pottery. Yes, there is a sensual pottery wheel moment! Simply put, this is the hornier of the two music videos, still bubblegum pink and corny throughout but with more teeth to it.

Honestly, the main reason I wanted to include the Zolita music video is because I feel like it’s ultimately doing the same work I set out to do with this list by paying tribute to the Queerleader and recognizing her stronghold in lesbian pop culture in a way that acknowledges that, yes, some of us queer women do indeed find the mere concept of Queerleaders very sexy! The Queerleader as an erotic image does not solely belong to the realm of male fantasy. This music video gets that in the same way the scene from Wynonna Earp does.


Bring It On: Cheer or Die (2022)

A group of Cheerleaders stands in their uniforms which say DIABLOS.

This made-for-TV entry in the Bring It On universe is not very good, despite having a solid hook (a cheerleading slasher) and being the first of ANY of the Bring It On movies to be directed by a woman (how!!!!). I did say going into it “if this movie doesn’t have a Queerleader, I’m rioting.” Thankfully, it does technically deliver, even if it’s only in the most minuscule way, near the end of the movie. But sure enough, one of the members of this cheer squad harbors a secret crush on a fellow cheerleader, and instead of leaning into the predatory vibes the way Fired Up! does, we get something much more sincere and sweet. Also, as far as slashers go, I didn’t hate the killer reveal here. But no, it’s not a very good movie, so consider yourself warned. Now, someone let me write Bring It On: Queerleaders Rise.


Backspot and Bottoms (upcoming)

If you’re wondering where I got the idea for this piece in the first place, well, to be honest, I am very much just personally interested! I was drawn to cheerleading before I was even close to being out and always as a spectator, never as a participant. In fact, I was interested in cheerleading specifically because it was expressly forbidden in my family. My grandmother had a rule that we were not allowed to ever cheerlead, because she deemed it too dangerous. My mother enforced the rule as well, but I think mainly because she thought cheerleading was stupid. After all, she let my brother play football, which isn’t exactly known for being a safe sport or one that isn’t also mired in performative gender but I DIGRESS. So yes, cheerleading was quite literally forbidden in my youth, and I also was attracted to it. Sounds more than a little gay if you ask me!!!!!!

But the other reason I had this particular idea at this particular time is because there’s not just one but two new Queerleading films on the horizon. Backspot will be executive produced by Elliott Page and will star Devery Jacobs of Reservation Dogs. She’ll play Riley, whose romance with fellow Queerleader Amanda unfolds alongside their competitive cheerleading careers. Bottoms is set to be a sex comedy starring Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri as high school seniors who create a fight club with the intention of using it to hook up with other cheerleaders. I am intrigued! You can expect more thorough analysis of both films and what they manage to do or not do with the symbol of the Queerleader once they’re out.

During my research, I did not encounter any specifically trans representations of Queerleaders, suggesting that even queer representations of cheerleaders come with rigid assumptions about gender and girlhood and who gets to be a cheerleader.

Clearly, the Queerleader isn’t going anywhere — the character’s appeal is vast and lasting. Some stories use her to reinforce social rules and roles, some to subvert them. The built-in homoerotics of the sport makes it a terrific playground for lesbian activity, but it’s also the sheer position of the cheerleader as this mythical symbol of perfection and heightened femininity that makes it so enticing to inject queerness. The Queerleader is much more than a sex symbol, but at the same time, the character’s potential for distinctly lesbian erotics cannot be denied!


If you think there’s anything I’ve missed, please let me know! I love an excuse to watch Queerleading movies for my job, and as I’ve demonstrated, I want this to be as comprehensive as possible! I know cheerleading is distinctly American but any international movies I should check out? Let me know!


Before you go! It costs money to make indie queer media, and frankly, we need more members to survive 2023As thanks for LITERALLY keeping us alive, A+ members get access to bonus content, extra Saturday puzzles, and more! Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+!

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 472 articles for us.

76 Comments

  1. Aaaahhh!! I absolutely love this. Reading it brought me so much joy: I’m so here for queer media textual analysis that may or may not cross the line into full on academia. And I’m now I’m super excited about Backspot and Bottoms – and to read your thoughts on them when they come out! (Pun not intended!)

  2. If you’re open to things in the musical realm, you should check out the album “Death of a Cheerleader” by the band Pom Pom Squad! The lead singer has talked all about how she wanted to play with the cultural role of the cheerleader as a queer woman of color. The theme is all over the music videos and she even performs dressed as a cheerleader sometimes. Imo the whole album is a queer collage of repurposed pop culture references collaged back together in a very queer way…..and it’s great music, too! Thanks for writing this, very interesting and gave me some new media to check out.

  3. this is so thorough and complex and fun and i love it so much!

    “it’s actually this sort of casual representation of the lesbian as inherently creepy and aggressive within feminine spaces that did way more psychic damage on me than any overt examples of the lesbian as a villain or even as a killer”

    this is so true!! i am finding often when i re-watch movies & shows from the 90s they have queer characters i don’t even remember existing but they’re all these sort of bit parts of predatory lesbians who made me think lesbians were gross.

  4. This is so great! Growing up in the UK, where we don’t have cheerleading in school, I was always enamoured with the cheerleaders on American shows. She’s sadly not queer but she was “different” so I was very into Peyton on One Tree Hill. But mainly I came here to say that there is trans cheerleader representation in the musical version of Bring It On (which is actually loosely based on Bring It On 3, randomly). It’s not been made into a film yet but it’s a Lin-Manuel Miranda vehicle so there’s always a shot!

  5. Kayla this is such excellent scholarship. I greatly appreciated the historical research and context and Backspot? Bottoms?? I need these to be made. I know this took a seriously long time to put together but what a seminal work of Autostraddle writing.

  6. This is AMAZING! Thanks for this collection and fabulous write up, Kayla! I’ve got some new items to add to my to-watch list :)

    Also another Queerleader I’d like to add to the list is Waverly Earp from the TV show Wynonna Earp (the routine she does for Nicole is perfection).

  7. What about Paige from Degrassi Next Generation? Her enemies to lovers relationship with Alex was the blueprint for Cheryl/ Toni. Very underrated couple that didn’t get the respect they deserved.

  8. thank you thank you for this incredibly thorough and well written analysis ! really stoked for the upcoming 2 queerleader movies and to hear more of your thoughts!

    was just thinking – darby and the dead does have a trans cheerleader (piper played by nicole maines); she isn’t a main character but will be interesting to see how gen Z and future generations continue to queer the cheer archetype.

  9. Incredible scholarship!

    Ethel Cain in the American Teenager music video is the only trans cheerleader who comes to mind for me.

    Unlikely that you’ve missed any European films I think, since cheerleading is not a cultural touchstone here like it is in the US. Though your ‘thesis’ did really make me think of Celine Sciamma’s Water Lilies. The central sport is synchronised swimming not cheer, but it explores the same dichotomies of a historically ultra ‘feminine’ pursuit (intensely athletic but seen as shallow, simultaneously sexless and fetishised under the male gaze) with a queer coming of age slant.

  10. If you’re at all into musicals, I highly recommend We are the tigers! It actually follows through on the promise of a cheerleading slasher while also being quite queer (with a somewhat strange fandom on tumblr). It’s got a great original cast and soundtrack, and got me through an entire year.

  11. I saw Bring it On for the first time when I was 10 and it just absolutely had me enthralled from the first scene. Even now I think it’s a near-perfect movie. The depiction of race/class is chefs fucking kiss and contemporary efforts to explain such things in the clumsy and patronising manner of an Instagram infographic should take a leaf out of Bring it Ons book.

  12. Thank you!! This is the kind of content I come to autostraddle for and I will be watching the movies I haven’t seen on this list(maybe even the incredible ones)
    Other thoughts: still very mad about Dare Me being cancelled. A travesty.
    Eliza Dushku was a big part of my queer awakening – in general and also in Bring it On. Would love a picture of Missy (also Torrence x Missy should have been the love story in that film)

  13. Just… in case it matters to someone: You seemed to kind-of apologize for an academic tone in the first half of this, but I would gladly read the crap out of scholarly articles in Autostraddle. This was just gorgeous. Thank you.

  14. This piece is amazing!!!! What a fantastic scholarly and sexy exploration of gender and sexual orientation in an extremely American cultural institution! I felt like I was in college again in a women’s studies class but having way more fun than usual! Note: college was 1988-1991 for me so not yet gender studies and not much lesbian scholarly content.

    What I am really eager to say is that this reminded me of a significant lesbian moment in 11th grade when I was wrestling with my lesbian feelings towards several different girls: my best friend, an acquaintance, an out bi classmate who was pursuing me, a popular girl in my classes, a mean and scary jock and NOW member in my classes, and probably several dozen more on and unconscious level.

    One day in art we were drawing each other and a cheerleader and I were assigned to each other. I was so scared of her! I felt sure she would think I was gross for being queer if she figured it out! I still feel that way, especially about cheerleaders because they are the pinnacle of mean powerful feminine straightness!!!! Like the judges of normal! With the power to destroy other girls using homophobia!!!

    Anyway, after drawing me, she said I have no upper lip at all and a HUGE lower lip (her exact words, and not very accurate; I have very thin lips). I was stricken in fear that she would call me a freak! But later, she WINKED at me.

    WHAT DID THAT MEAN????????????? I think I obsessed over every possible meaning of that wink for years!

    THUS IS THE POWER OF THE CHEERLEADER.

  15. Cheer Up: Love And Pom Poms is a cute comic about a romance between a kind trans cheerleader and a grumpy lesbian who reluctantly joins the squad. The other girls on the cheer team have to learn to stop treating the trans girl as a mascot. It’s fun and quite well done.
    Lost Girl has two queerleaders. Badass bisexual valkyrie Tamsin has to go undercover as a cheerleader. Her partner Dyson thinks there’s no way she can pull it off. Tamsin replies, ” Gimme a D, gimme a Y, give me a suck my balls.” Tamsin does a bunch of cool flips and handsprings and wears a cheerleader outfit (probably the point of the episode). Tamsin dismisses the real cheerleaders and expects them to be in love with the quarter back. But they care more about their careers. Tamsin The one male cheerleader is actually dating the quarterback.
    Some books I haven’t read: She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, Homefield Advantage by Dahlia Adler, Say Yes To The Cheerleader by Abby Crofton, and Cheerleaders From Planet X by Lyssa Chiavari.

  16. Thanks for this list, and great to see Dare Me getting some love.

    Also, the main characters from Tragedy Girls are cheerleaders. It’s debatable whether it’s queer or subtexty, but the combined queerness of the main actors makes the whole thing feel pretty gay.

  17. Terrific article! At the end you mentioned that you’d yet to encounter any trans representations of cheerleaders. I’d like to recommend ‘Darby and The Dead’ (2022), which has Nicole Maines as a transwoman cheerleader.

    And another vote for Pom Pom Squad as a great band.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!