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The Cheer phenomenon: why do we become so obsessed with certain films and TV shows?

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Lauren Geall
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Gabi Butler from Netflix's Cheer

Are you one of the millions of people who have found themselves completely obsessed with Netflix’s new docu-series Cheer? This could explain why.     

January 2020 will go down in pop-culture history as the month of Cheer. Since its release on 8 January, the Netflix docuseries – which follows a team of competitive college cheerleaders as they prepare for their national championships – has taken the world by storm. The names Jerry, Gabi and Lexi are no longer random nouns – they’re the hottest talking points in the Stylist office.

But when you sit back and think about the whole thing (between watching videos of Jerry “mat-talking” people as they walk into the office, of course), it doesn’t take long before you realise that it’s all just a little bit bonkers. Worldwide Google searches for “Cheer Netflix” have increased by 3,600% in the last 30 days. The show’s stars have racked up millions of followers on Instagram. It’s been less than a month since the show was released, the Navarro team has appeared everywhere from Entertainment Tonight to The Ellen Show. And all of this thanks to our sudden and relentless obsession. 

Of course, this isn’t the first time a piece of popular culture has attracted this kind of stampede reaction. Cast your mind back to 2018 for a second, and you’ll remember the hysteric obsession with the Netflix original Bird Box, which followed the story of a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world overtaken by supernatural creatures. And then there was the whole Fleabag phenomenon, which caused sales of jumpsuits and M&S Gin & Tonics to skyrocket. 

So why are we so obsessed? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the last couple of weeks (especially as I rewatch Cheer for a second time). Is it just a bloody good show, or does our obsession actually say more about our need to avoid FOMO? Are we really that in love with Jerry and his charismatic charm, or are we just trying to feel included? 

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As it turns out, the answer isn’t so simple. There are actually quite a few different factors driving these stampede-esque responses to popular culture – all of which combine to make the perfect storm we’ve seen with shows like Cheer. Here’s what the experts had to say.    

1. FOMO, FOMO, FOMO

As much as we hate to admit it, it feels pretty rubbish to be the one left out of a situation, event or trend. So, it only makes sense that, when shows such as Cheer begin to attract attention, we all want to get involved.

“Word of mouth can be a powerful thing,” Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells Stylist. “When we see the people close to us hooked on a particular series, it can give us FOMO, making us more inclined to watch something. 

The Navarro team from Netflix's Cheer
Why are so many of us obsessed with Cheer on Netflix? “When we see the people close to us hooked on a particular series, it can give us FOMO, making us more inclined to watch something.”

“You can compare it to seeing queues outside the latest trendy restaurants. When everyone’s interested in something, it immediately becomes more desirable – until we move on to the next big thing.”

She continues: “Feeling like we ‘belong’ is a basic human need. Back in the day, fitting into the tribe was a matter of life or death – we are unlikely to survive alone. Of course, today things are very different – but we can still see the influence of group mentality by the way in which we follow trends.”

2. We fall in love with the people

This one may sound pretty obvious, but there’s actually a pretty interesting phenomenon to blame for our obsession with the stars of our favourite shows.

“Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, read in a book or imagined, as ‘real’ memories,” psychiatrist Gayana DeSilva told NBC News. “So, when watching a TV programme, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.”

What this means is that when the Navarro cheerleaders make their way to Daytona, we feel the nerves they feel about claiming the national championship title – we don’t want them to fall, we feel anxious about the outcome and we want to celebrate with them when they do well.

“‘Parasocial interaction’ is a one-way relationship where the viewer feels a close connection to an actor or character in the TV show,” DeSilva added.

The Navarro team from Netflix's Cheer
“The shows that skyrocket, like Cheer, tend to be both relatable but also offer an insight into a world we might not know much about.”

Touroni agrees: “The shows that skyrocket, like Cheer, tend to be both relatable but also offer an insight into a world we might not know much about. This combination enables us to feel connected to the characters while also offering the excitement of learning something new.”

3. They’re addictive

You’ve probably heard of the power of dopamine when it comes to driving our social media addictions, but have you considered how this hormone could be driving your TV addiction, too?

“When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity,” clinical psychologist Dr Renee Carr told NBC News. 

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“It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘this feels good, you should keep doing this!’ When binge watching your favourite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”

This could explain why talking about the show – and quoting some of the most iconic moments – feels so addictive, too. 

At the end of the day then, it’s not our fault that we’re so obsessed with Cheer – our brains are just programmed to work that way. At least, that’s what we’ll tell ourselves as we scroll through the latest Jerry memes on Instagram, anyway. 

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Images: Netflix

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Lauren Geall

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