Spoilers abound for Season 4, Episode 1 of Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things:’
Front and center of a triangle formation stands Popular Cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham. Here, in this particular souped-up pep rally, Chrissy is a character in the latest season of Stranger Things, but really, she could be plopped into any teen movie. She sports Cool Girl fringe bangs and blue eyeshadow, signifying that she’s on the cutting edge of beauty trends—an influencer amongst degenerates and the followers that flank her. She’s beautiful in a heteronormative sense, but not plastic surgery pretty—a perfect girl next door not too far outside the realm of relatability. A walking contradiction, she’s sexy but modest: Her long hairless legs are veiled only by a mini pleated skirt, while her chest is completely obscured by a polyester sweater, save for a necklace that smacks of virginal commitments to the captain of the basketball team. Despite appearing in the first episode of Stranger Things’ long-awaited fourth season in multiple settings and on multiple days, she’s only ever seen wearing her cheerleading uniform. She’s blonde, because of fucking course she is. Also, she’s dead.
In the widely adored ‘80s supernatural adventure show, Chrissy Cunningham (played by Grace Van Dien) is but a blip in the season’s arc—more of a damsel of disappearance than a damsel in distress. The cheerleader, of course, is the first current-day character to be killed off in the new season. And that has a lot to do with the fact that Chrissy—who appears onscreen for less than 26 cumulative minutes throughout the hour and 20 minute-long premiere—has been slotted into a reductive trope that’s been sending cursed ditzy blonde bitches with poms poms to their graves for decades.
Aside from her trauma, which is exploited by something far more sinister than the original demagorgons, Chrissy is given no meaningful identity before becoming possessed, as she’s slammed up against the ceiling at the end of the episode, bones breaking, limbs contorting, eyeballs sucked into their sockets, and blood dripping from every crevice. The cheerleader in this story, as in many stories, is introduced only to die a gruesome death, devoured from the inside out.
There’s a reason dead character tropes exist. They say a lot about who we think is worth saving, and who can be sacrificed for the sake of plot. The dead cheerleader trope is, of course, far less harmful than the dead gay or dead person of color tropes which seep into our collective consciousness like undetectable black mold. And though Chrissy is far from the only character devoured by the underworld in Stranger Things, her quick appearance and gory death is more than just a pretty dead girl in a television show about bike-riding teens and slaying monsters. Chrissy Cunningham is part of why we collectively mock and hate girly girls, coding them instead as unserious and useless little things. We hate them for allowing themselves to be objectified and then objectify them further by killing them without a second thought.
The dead cheerleader is an offshoot of the trope of the villainous cheerleader, who is often either dumb as rocks or brutally cunning (and mean!). Either way, you’re bound to hate her. You’ve seen her in just about every teen-adjacent movie: Christie Masters as the antagonist cheerleader in Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion, Heather in John Tucker Must Die as the most shallow of John’s warring ex-girlfriends, Lana Thomas as Mia Thermopolis’s bully in The Princess Diaries, Mena Suvari’s homewrecking temptress virgin Angela in American Beauty, and so on ad nauseum (not to mention Debbie Does Dallas, a 1978 porno based on the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders).
In nearly every fictional portrayal, the cheerleader lands somewhere on the spectrum of evil, ranging from vapid high school bully to menacing sociopath with a kitchen knife in hand. Worse, the sheer dominance of the trope may have invented a brand of teen girl that never existed to begin with…only to turn around and project that reviled brand onto very real cheerleading teens who were mostly just excited to dance on the sidelines and compete against their peers. Growing up, I was on the slightly less popular and less glamorous high school dance team and detested our school cheerleaders with their big-ass, infantilizing bows and their too-high ponytails. It wasn’t until I later became a collegiate and then NFL cheerleader that I realized I, too, had been spoon fed poison over the years that all cheerleaders were humans worth loathing.
The dead cheerleader archetype, then, takes the living cheerleader trope to extreme lengths, carrying out the natural ending for a whoring villain by, in some cases, rendering her psychotic, possessed, or murderous and, in others, killing her outright. After being murdered by a cult and offered up to the devil in Jennifer’s Body, high school cheerleader Megan Fox becomes a flesh-ripping, jock-eating demon who is ultimately slaughtered by her best friend, stabbed directly in the tit. There’s a whole slew of cheerleading slashers from the ‘70s to the early 2000s, including Satan’s Cheerleaders, Cheerleader Camp (also known as Bloody Pom Poms), Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Cheerleader Massacre. And of course, there’s Death of a Cheerleader—a film loosely based on the real-life slaying of 15-year-old cheerleader Kirsten Costas. Her murderer was a fellow classmate who tried out for cheerleading because Costas was on the team, only to later stab her to death out of jealousy. While Costas was brunette in real life, she was made to be blonde in the adaptation, played by Tori Spelling. Fictionalized or otherwise, it’s a perfect narrative that metastasizes the anxieties and insecurities of teenage girls—jealousy, longing for acceptance, fear of rejection, whorephobia, and fatphobia—then weaponizes it, inflicting even more pain at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives.
Thanks to critical acclaim for the genre-bending and tongue-in-cheek cult favorite Bring It On—which you cannot talk about without screaming T-T-T-TORRANCE!—the cheerleader archetype seemed destined to fall out of favor in scripts and screenplays. Yet, here is the dead cheerleader trope still alive and well in 2022, in the form of Chrissy Cunningham.
But Chrissy’s different, you say! Sure, she’s shy, kind, somewhat homely and a little waifish, certainly in comparison to Fox’s sexpot demon. She also regularly visits the school counselor, is seemingly plagued by an eating disorder, and is tortured by horrific visions of a slimy underworld creature who forces her to relive some unnamed and graphic familial trauma (the show hints at a troubling relationship with her mother, who seems to be obsessed with making Chrissy a perfect vessel for her dreams). And the characters we’ve grown to love despite their obvious shortcomings are positioned squarely opposite Popular Girl Chrissy and friends: the Hellfire Crew that plays Dungeons and Dragons on weekends, the benchwarmer on the basketball team, the band geeks, and the newspaper editor. None could be bothered wasting time on a sport as silly or as vapid as cheerleading, and to associate with that group would mean a conceit of morality.
The real cheerleading—the cheerleading that I know and love—is nothing like what it’s been depicted as (save for Netflix’s Cheer docuseries and Bring It On’s racially diverse and entrepreneurial Clovers led by Gabrielle Union). The real cheerleading is a sport, not a clique of spoiled brats. And while the field of cheerleading was once dominated by skinny white girls soaked in pretty privilege and wealth with rumored eating disorders (and on some teams in some states, still is), the sport as a whole has evolved to make room for more and more gender identity diversity. I watched it happen with pride as two Black out queer men were added to my NFL team. And I watched it happen again as out gay women and queer men who owned their femininity by sporting crops tops, skirts, and booty shorts were added to the Carolina Panther’s TopCats.
As popular culture has murdered dozens of cheerleaders across fictional realms, it’s no wonder society has grown so morally averse to cheerleaders—dancers and athletes who, prior to the passing of Title IX, were once given a limited set of athletic and extracurricular opportunities to participate in and then punished for choosing something deemed properly effeminate by the (very white) old guard. Our perception of cheerleaders, as much as we might pretend it isn’t so, is a warped reflection of the way we think of women, at their youngest, most deplorable, and most impressionable. Mean girls are aplenty, especially in the social media age, and no one would dream of saving a true villain from a deserved demise. But the thing about pop culture is that we get to mold it. We can shift its shape between our hands, start anew, kick dust at the worst and raise up the best. And still, we kill these women because it’s easiest to get rid of someone we never respected in the first place.