Popular Cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham is at the front and middle of a triangle formation. Chrissy is a character from the latest season of Stranger Things in this souped-up pep rally, but she could easily be cast in any teen film. She’s got Cool Girl fringe bangs and blue eyeshadow, indicating that she’s on the cutting edge of beauty trends, and she’s an influencer among the degenerates and their followers.
She’s attractive in a heteronormative way, but not plastic surgery attractive—a perfect girl next door who isn’t too far out of reach. She’s a walking contradiction: she’s sultry but demure: Her long hairless legs are only hidden by a tiny pleated skirt, and her chest is hidden entirely by a polyester sweater, save for a necklace that screams virginal promises to the basketball team’s captain.
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Despite appearing in numerous locales and on multiple days in the opening episode of Stranger Things’ long-awaited fourth season, she is only ever seen in her cheerleading costume. She’s blonde because, well, she’s blonde. She’s also no longer alive. Chrissy Cunningham (played by Grace Van Dien) is a blip in the season’s narrative of the popular ’80s supernatural adventure show, more of a damsel in distress than a damsel in distress. Of course, the cheerleader is the first current-day character to die in the new season.
That has a lot to do with Chrissy’s placement in a reductive stereotype that has been sending cursed ditzy blonde bitches with poms to their coffins for decades. Apart from her trauma, which is exploited by something far more sinister than the original Demogorgon, Chrissy is given no meaningful identity prior to being possessed, as she is slammed against the ceiling at the end of the episode, bones breaking, limbs contorting, eyeballs sucked into their sockets, and blood dripping from every crevice.
In this narrative, as in many others, the cheerleader is introduced only to die a horrifying death, consumed from the inside out. Dead character stereotypes exist for a reason. They reveal a lot about who we believe deserves to be saved and who can be sacrificed for the sake of a story. Of course, the dead cheerleader cliche is significantly less destructive than the dead gay or dead person of color tropes, which have infiltrated our collective consciousness like black mold.
What killed Chrissy in Stranger things?
Chrissy enters a drawn-out trance 24 hours after the visions begin, and Vecna gruesomely murders her: she levitates, all her bones crack, and her eyes are gouged out.
And, while Chrissy is far from the first character in Stranger Things to be swallowed by the underworld, her brief appearance and violent death are more than just a gorgeous dead girl in a show about bike-riding teenagers and monsters slaying. Chrissy Cunningham is one of the reasons we generally scorn and despise feminine females, labeling them as frivolous and useless. We despise them for allowing themselves to be objectified and then objectifying them even more by murdering them without hesitation.
The evil cheerleader is frequently either dumb as rocks or ruthlessly cunning (and vicious!). The deceased cheerleader is an outgrowth of this stereotype. In either case, you’re going to despise her. Christie Masters as the antagonist cheerleader in Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion, Heather as the most shallow of John Tucker’s warring ex-girlfriends in John Tucker Must Die, Lana Condor as Mia Thermopolis’s bully in The Princess Diaries, Mena Suvari as the homewrecking temptress virgin Angela in American Beauty, and so on ad nauseum (not to mention Debbie Does Dallas, a 1978 porno based on the
Almost every fictional portrayal of a cheerleader falls somewhere along the evil spectrum, from vacuous high school bully to terrifying maniac with a kitchen knife. Worse, the trope’s sheer dominance may have created a brand of teen girls that didn’t exist in the first place…only to project that loathed brand onto real-life cheerleaders who were largely just delighted to dance on the sidelines and compete against their friends. I used to hate our school cheerleaders with their big-ass, infantilizing bows and their too-high ponytails since I was on the slightly less popular and beautiful high school dance team. It wasn’t until I subsequently became a collegiate and then NFL cheerleader that I realized I, too, had been spoon-fed poison and that all cheerleaders were beings deserving of hatred.
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The dead cheerleader archetype, on the other hand, takes the living cheerleader cliché to its logical conclusion, rendering the whoring villain crazy, possessed, or violent in some situations, and murdering her outright in others. Megan Fox, a high school cheerleader, transforms into a flesh-ripping, jock-eating demon after being slain by a cult and handed up to the devil in Jennifer’s Body.
She is eventually slaughtered by her closest friend, who stabs her in the tit. From the 1970s until the early 2000s, there were several cheerleading slashers, including Satan’s Cheerleaders, Cheerleader Camp (also known as Bloody Pom Poms), and Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Cheerleader Massacre. There’s also Death of a Cheerleader, a film largely based on the true story of 15-year-old cheerleader Kirsten Costas’ murder.
Her assailant was a classmate who tried out for cheering because Costas was a member of the squad, only to stab her to death later out of envy. Costas was a brunette in real life, but Tori Spelling depicted her as a blonde in the adaption. Whether fictionalized or not, it’s a wonderful story that weaponizes young girls’ concerns and insecurities—jealousy, craving for approval, fear of rejection, whorephobia, and fatphobia—inflicting even more misery at a vulnerable period in their lives.
The cheerleading stereotype looked bound to fall out of favor in stories and screenplays, thanks to critical acclaim for the genre-bending and tongue-in-cheek cult film Bring It On—which you can’t talk about without yelling T-T-T-TORRANCE! In the person of Chrissy Cunningham, the dead cheerleader cliche is still alive and well in 2022.
But Chrissy, you say, is different! Sure, she’s shy, sweet, homely, and a tad haughty, especially in comparison to Fox’s sexpot demon. She also sees the school counselor on a regular basis, appears to have an eating disorder, and is tormented by terrifying images of a slimy underworld creature forcing her to relive some unidentified and gruesome 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 adore despite their evident flaws are in direct opposition to Popular Girl Chrissy & her friends: the Hellfire Crew, who play Dungeons and Dragons on weekends, the basketball benchwarmer, the band geeks, and the newspaper editor. No one could be concerned with a sport as foolish or shallow as cheerleading, and to be associated with that group would be a moral delusion.
Except for Netflix’s Cheer docuseries and Gabrielle Union’s racially diverse and enterprising Clovers in Bring It On, the real cheerleading—the cheerleading that I know and love—is nothing like what it’s been depicted as. Cheerleading is a sport, not a snobby group of spoiled brats. While cheerleading used to be dominated by slim white girls drenched in gorgeous privilege and affluence with reported eating problems (and still is on some teams in some areas), the sport has evolved to accommodate more and more gender identity diversity.
Two Black out queer guys were added to my NFL team, and I saw it happen with pride. And I saw it happen again when the Carolina Panthers’ TopCats included out gay women and queer men who embraced their femininity by wearing crop tops, skirts, and booty shorts.
It’s no surprise that society has become so morally averse to cheerleaders—dancers and athletes who, prior to the passage of Title IX, were 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. As much as we’d like to deny it, our opinion of cheerleaders is a distorted representation of how we think of women when they’re young, deplorable, and impressionable.
Mean females abound, especially in this day and age of social media, and no one would dream of saving a true monster from an unjust death. However, the beauty of pop culture is that we get to shape it. We can reshape it in our hands, start over, kick the worst to the curb, and raise the greatest. And yet, we continue to murder these women because it is the simplest way to get rid of someone we never valued in the first place.