Cheer Up: Love and Pom Poms
Written by: Crystal Frasier
Illustrated by: Val Wise
Letters by: Oscar O. Jupiter
Published by: Oni Press
Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms is a graphic novel about high school romance – simple enough, right? Not when you’re trans, because the world will never let you forget it.
Cheer Up would have been a “sweet romance,” but instead, it foregrounds Bebe’s experience – the experience of a teenage trans girl in our modern age. Yes, cultural awareness of trans women has risen, but that doesn’t mean we get to leave the house without being stared at by groups of strangers.
As the only trans girl at her high school, Bebe is the subject of animosity just for existing. It’s a story that you haven’t read before, but which will be tantamount to the lived experience of many trans women readers – however, in spite of tackling serious subject matter, this graphic novel is filled with plenty of moments of joy.
This review does contain mild spoilers for the graphic novel, which is available now.
First of all, let’s address the genre conventions: Cheer Up is a high-flying romance that sees the two lead characters falling for one another. This is accompanied by some laugh out loud moments, many of which derive from cis partner Annie’s take-no-prisoners personality.
Speaking of Annie, she and Bebe have some stellar character dynamics, with their relationship emerging from the way their complicated personalities integrate with one another. Furthermore, over the course of the comic, they each benefit from the influence the other has to offer, making Cheer Up a well-balanced narrative.
However, while Cheer Up does feature a heartwarming romance, that isn’t what sets this graphic novel apart from the crowd.
When you’re trans, casual transphobia is likely one of the inevitable experiences to which you will be subjected. In many stories, especially romances, this element of the trans experience is sanded off (or used to allow the cis partner an opportunity to defend their trans damsel in distress). There’s nothing wrong with the occasional wish-fulfillment narrative, but all too often, this occurs in order to make a story more palatable for cis readers.
I am pleased to report that this is not the case with Cheer Up, which never hesitates to include “well-intentioned” misgendering by people who are supposed to be your closest allies, or to dramatize the extremely awkward experience of trying to figure out whether or not someone’s attraction to you is contingent on the gender you were assigned at birth.
In fact, the story even goes so far as to explore the motivation behind not sticking up for yourself when these things take place because you don’t want to be branded the “mean trans.” Cheer Up repeatedly veers into extremely relatable territory.
Love and Pompoms
Cheer Up also deserves a shout-out for its excellent supporting cast. In romance stories about high schoolers, there is always the danger that their archetypical “friend group” will veer into either stereotype or become mere narrative components.
Not so here: by giving the supporting cast the opportunity to be flawed, they become much more engaging characters. Furthermore, their need to navigate the way they relate to Bebe affords an interesting character arc where there might have otherwise only been obligatory narrative function.
In particular, I enjoyed the scene between Edie and Bebe, in which Edie comes out as nonbinary and cites Bebe’s transition as part of their inspiration. For many trans readers, this scene will echo personal experience; furthermore, the exchange embodies part of why facing the discrimination we experience as trans women is worthwhile on a larger scale, dramatizing how the challenges we face now help pave the way for other members of our larger queer community.
Cheer Up is a love story, but it isn’t a fairy tale. To live as an out trans woman is to face societal adversity, sometimes embodied through the actions of those who are closest to you. But while challenges are inevitable, the meaningful achievements and connections that can be unlocked by living authentically prove invaluable.
Cheer Up never tries to hide the reality of the trans experience, and for that reason, it belongs at the apex of the queer comics pyramid.