Shattering Perfection: Reading The Christian Cheerleader Trope
Or: What the Christian Cheerleader Trope Tells Us About Cultural Perceptions of Christianity—And What Maundy Thursday Tells Me About Christian Reality
A significant bonding activity for the Hildans this year has been watching TV together. Though most of the time this is just fun and doesn't prompt deep reflection, sometimes I notice that popular television programs seem to be commenting on religious ideas. Some of us have been watching Game of Thrones, for instance, which shows different religious ideas influencing the politics of a fantasy world. Apart from fantasy, however, the way religious characters are portrayed in more realistic programming can prompt some interesting questions about the way faith is viewed in our own world.
One trend I've thought a lot about in the past is the prevalence of the Christian cheerleader archetype. This may be something completely unknown to those of you who aren't as well-versed in teen dramas and comedies as I am, so let me give you a bit of background: multiple television shows about and/or aimed at teenagers have featured female characters who are vocal about their Christianity, popular, and often on the cheerleading squad. They typically have storylines involving a commitment to abstinence, which inevitably faces challenges over the run of the show.
Why Christian Cheerleaders?
One of the most popular examples of this archetype would be Quinn Fabray from Glee, who is vocal about her Christian beliefs and a member of the celibacy club. Her status as a model Christian girl (and popular girl as well) are challenged when she becomes pregnant. On Degrassi: The Next Generation, this role is filled by a character named Darcy Edwards, a purity-ring wearing cheerleader. At times, she fits the mold of a stereotypical, judgmental Christian character (particularly in her interactions with a teen mom on the cheerleading squad), but she is given complexities of her own in dealing with depression and attempted suicide after she is raped. The Secret Life of the American Teenager featured a vocally Christian cheerleader with a commitment to abstinence, not-so-subtlely named Grace.
Probably one of the most interesting examples of this trope is Lyla Garrity of Friday Night Lights. Lyla is a cheerleader in the first season. She also appears to be a Christian (inviting one of the characters to a prayer meeting for her boyfriend after an accident and referencing God), but her major faith-based plotline does not come in until Season 2. Lyla is baptized and becomes more serious—and vocal—about her Christian faith. This comes after her quitting the cheerleading team at the end of Season 1. I am sure combing through more teen movies and shows would present a few more examples of this archetype—or characters who, though not cheerleaders, might closely fit the mold.
There are a number of interesting questions that might come up when analyzing this trend —questions about what we think of femininity, sex, Christianity, high school, etc. One thing I find particularly striking is how prominent a role sex, and abstaining from sex, has in the portrayal of Christian characters. Especially for young women, remaining a virgin might seem to be the most essential aspect of following God—the defining characteristic of Christian behavior. This emphasis on sexual abstinence as the end-all, be-all of the Christian walk for women could be a blog post (or thesis) in and of itself. Jesus did not say, after all, “They shall know you by your virginity.” But again, that's for another day.
Here's a different question to which I want to commit more thought. Why Christian cheerleaders, of all things? Why might this be? Is there really an abundance of Christian cheerleaders out there in American high schools who require media representation (more so than Christian band geeks, drama nerds, lacrosse players, etc.)?
This is purely speculation, but I've always thought that the faith of these characters is meant to represent one aspect of a broader image—one of perfection. These characters are conventionally attractive, popular, and involved in an activity that has been assigned high social status. They are often striving after what it means to be a perfect American high-school girl. To be publicly, obviously Christian, on top of being pretty and popular, is to add attempted moral perfection to these other perfections. Being Christian is just another way for these young girls to become or represent the ideal. Perhaps these characters have become compelling fodder because viewers like to see a dramatic fall. It makes for good television to have these “ideal” young women face difficulties, fall from the heights (of popularity, of their moral code, etc.), and have their Christianity—which generally amounts to a commitment to abstinence—challenged or undermined.
The message implied by these television shows often seems to be that this perfection, including Christian perfection, is impossible and unsustainable. And surprisingly, this Hollywood message is (generally) a positive one. It is one that needs to be heard because of the truth behind these Christian cheerleader portrayals: we do often view, particularly in our American culture, Christianity as being about attaining moral perfection and meeting God's standards.
One manifestation of this is the fact that we even sometimes expect to earn blessing through this perfection. In the third episode of Friday Night Lights, Lyla Garrity says, “You know, I thought God would do me a favor for being such a good girl. Isn't that the stupidest thing you've ever heard?” This is following a hospital visit with her boyfriend who was in a football accident and may never walk again. Lyla's disappointment resonates with me.. It can be frustrating to feel as if God is not working on my behalf, especially when I feel that I am honoring God. On the other hand, it's a relief to feel that God doesn't work on a merit system, since I know I often do not honor God. All hope is not lost, even when I'm not at my best.
Discipleship and Perfection
The fact that Christianity is not primarily about my moral successes or failures has been an ongoing lesson for me. It is also one that was reinforced for me over Holy Week. During Christ Church's Tenebrae service on Wednesday night (a fairly contemplative service where the church gets gradually darker as we read somber texts such as Lamentations), I became irritated with myself for not being as focused as I wanted to be on Christ. Instead, I was preoccupied with myself and my own problems. I felt like I wasn't in the right state of mind to engage with Holy Week how I wanted. Of course, such thoughts were ignoring the reality: that our engagement of God should not be divorced from who we are and what we are dealing with in the present moment. It occurred to me as I sat there, somewhat restless during Tenebrae, that I was far from the first to be too focused on myself instead of God.
In fact, the disciples were plenty guilty of that exact same thing; a message emphasized for me the next night during our Maundy Thursday service. During Maundy Thursday, a gospel passage was read recounting Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asks his disciples to stay awake and pray as the time of his betrayal approaches. The disciples fail to do this. The service ended with the words “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). In acknowledging that we too play the role of fleeing disciples, the congregation walked out of the church—whose altar had been stripped during the course of the service—in silence. Perhaps it was a combination of the sermon earlier in the service, the preceding liturgy, the intonation of the reader, or the darkness of the church, but I felt that passage in a way that I hadn't before. I felt the humanness of Jesus. The description of Jesus as “agitated” (Matthew 26:37) stuck out to me, and I began to have a better sense of the restlessness he must have experienced, as well as the desire to know his friends were with him as he entered this deep, deep anguish of the soul. Jesus did not just chide his sleepy disciples as a wise, all-knowing teacher. I imagine he was truly disappointed that he could not even have the consolation of knowing his dearest friends and followers would stay awake with him in this disheartening hour. But then they fled, and Jesus was alone to face his fate.
The disciples lived with Jesus.. They talked with him, traveled with him, listened to him, dined with him, followed him... these are the ones who fled, who fell asleep, who would abandon and deny him. All of this falls short of any paradigm of moral perfection. Do I expect more of myself than the disciples? Christianity, from its inception, has been about Jesus, yes--but also about imperfect people such as this, both following and failing God.
It seems necessary for Christianity to be about something other than perfection. I can understand why people might build their conception of Christianity around doing the right thing. It is easy to interpret the tradition that way. The Bible does give moral guidelines, after all, with the Ten Commandments being classic examples. And Jesus does instruct us to love God and our neighbor. He tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He even says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Sanctification is a part of the Christian life, then, and I do believe the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us to be more like Christ.
However: the dissonance between called-for perfection and the realities of imperfection must be acknowledged. It is in, in fact, acknowledged by Jesus, who accepts death for all of us and who asks forgiveness for those who crucify him . It is acknowledged in the acceptance and love Jesus shows his disciples after he is resurrected, despite anything they've done wrong. Sure, Jesus may question Peter about whether he loves him—but this happens in the context of having just shared a meal with Peter and now commissioning him to “feed [his] lambs” (John 21:15).
The Christian faith is not just another avenue for us to try and achieve perfection. As someone with her own perfectionist streak, I know this all too well. Faith instead is often about receiving and accepting grace and love from God even when we wouldn't find ourselves deserving of it. Faith is not separate from questions of morality and immorality, but it is bigger than those categories. Thus far, my faith has not pulled me into perfect living (though I do hope it is pulling me into better living). It has, however, pulled me into the Trinity. It has pulled me into relationship, into beauty, into holy mystery, into redemption, and into life.
Perhaps television writers will continue inserting Christian cheerleaders into their fictional high schools, or maybe they will move on to some other combination of religious affiliation and after-school activities. Either way, the existence of these characters can remind us of the ways in which Christianity functions as a part of our image. For the characters I've mentioned, being a Christian is often just one part of a projected image of popularity, respectability, and high school success. And it is worth asking ourselves: in what ways does our own Christianity function as a part of an image we are trying to project? We may not all be teen girls keen on high school popularity, but most of us are still driven by image—whether it's wanting to appear holy, intelligent, competent, attractive, free-spirited, or something else entirely.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that, at some point during the TV series, the Christian cheerleader's image usually fractures. Just like in our favorite television shows, our real lives often involve falls and failures—though ours may be less dramatic. We might do well to ask ourselves, then: when the images we've crafted inevitably shatter or crack in our own lives, will our faith survive the damage?