Friday Night Lights: An Appreciation of The Cheerleader

by Megan Abbott

Success meant the heady exhilaration of cheering on the polished gym floor, the yells seeming to swing the bright hot gym up and out into the night. And so her want was intensified.

— The Cheerleader

When you write a novel about cheerleaders, even a dark crime novel, two things happen: People ask you if you were ever a cheerleader (I was not) and they confide strong feelings about cheerleaders, whether it’s their own experience of failing to make the high school squad, or the ponytailed captain who broke their heart a decade ago or more. And sometimes they give you books.

Such was how I discovered Ruth Doan MacDougall’s 1973 novel, The Cheerleader, which was pressed into my hands by novelists Greg Herren and Laura Lippman earlier this year.

“I cheered in college,” Greg said. “A friend who always mocked me for it gave it to me as a joke. The joke was on her, because I loved it.”

“I found it in Walden Books when I was 16 or 17,” Laura added. “My sister mocked me for reading it over and over again, but I was fascinated by the idea that popularity was a system that could be cracked.”

A massive bestseller when first published, eventually spawning a TV pilot and four sequels, The Cheerleader was a phenomenon, possibly catching that burned-out 1970s wave of nostalgia for the “innocent 1950s.” (e.g., Happy Days, Grease). While on the surface depicting a world of — as the promotional text promises — “ponytails, pajama parties, proms, and ‘parking,’” the novel turns out to be much more, a twisty tale of social ambition, sexual frustration and gamesmanship and a rough and unsentimental female coming of age.

Set in New Hampshire, the story follows Henrietta Snow (Snowy) and her friends Puddles and Bev from sophomore year to graduation. At the beginning, high school and thus life itself seem to Snowy to be a matter of rung-climbing. Popularity was the aim and, as Laura noted, the code to be cracked, and landing varsity cheer promised to be the skeleton key:

She wanted to be one of those fabulous Varsity cheerleaders cheering at a game that mattered, for the boys who mattered, the crowd caring passionately and she herself one of those who led them.

Behind the dreams of popularity, then, is a more complicated aspiration for glory, for a kind of power. Her ambitions beyond high school, though, are far less defined. While her friend Puddles has a career plan, Snowy’s own are hazy, and grand:

… beyond the goal of a glamorous women’s college was the goal of fame. She wanted to be famous because she knew one day she was going to die… Snowy wanted to be famous so she could live forever.

For all the current cultural scolding of the “shallowness” of “celebrity-obsessed” youth today, we can see that this kind of adolescent yearning is forever, and that it’s not so much a sign of shallowness as much as it is a vital part of figuring out one’s identity — a way, even, of reckoning with mortality. Snowy wants something bigger, more meaningful. She just doesn’t know what it is, or how to get it.

In the same way The Cheerleader’s depiction with sexual brinkmanship and confusion are surprisingly timeless. But fears of reputation, the heat of boundary-testing, and shame are, after all, eternal, as we see in her encounters with her on-again, off-again beau Tom:

He was getting a hard-on. So was Snowy, but she didn’t know it. She knew only an awful ache. Yet she had discovered, a few years ago when her pajama bottoms got twisted in bed, a secret she kept even from Bev, and since then when the ache became unbearable she had intentionally twisted them until the night seemed to explode, she didn’t know why, she didn’t know what it was all about, such pleasure and such shame.

Snowy’s desire is always present, pressing and feels vitally real. But like the best coming-of-age novels — maybe this is what defines coming-of-age-novels — Snowy eventually finds disillusionment. After two years of “everything-but,” Snowy finally has sex with Tom. But immediately after, Snowy essentially ends the relationship, telling him, “It would be like going backward.” Instead, she rejoins her girlfriends:

Bev said, ‘Have fun?’

Snowy was shivering. ‘It’s over,’ she said.

And it is. She ends the relationship. Ultimately, she’s achieved her girlhood dream of becoming glamorous cheerleader with dashing boyfriend, only to find the dream — at least in their achievement — hollow and aching. Instead, she finds her gaze shifting off into the horizon, a world beyond her constrained New Hampshire town.

In the final paragraphs, Snowy opens her acceptance letter to Bennington College and its accompanying scholarship offer.

“‘Well,’ she says to herself, ‘I did it.’”

And we feel it. It’s a moment of ambivalence but mostly boldness, hopefulness, self-pride. And, reading it, it reminded me curiously of another midcentury protagonist, Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood. Those famous lines near the end of The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.

I am, I am, I am.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award–winning author of six novels. She received her PhD in literature from New York University and has taught literature, writing, and film at NYU and the New School. Her latest novel, Dare Me, is out in paperback this week. She lives in New York City.